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Fashion Hacks: The 3-Color Rule

As I’ve been a little bored lately and spending more time perusing the interwebs for fashion inspiration, I came across the 3-color rule.

Maybe for some of you, this is nothing new or revolutionary, but it was new to me.

The premise of the 3-color rule is not combine more than three colors in your outfit at any one time.

The exceptions are black and white — they don’t count, as they aren’t technically colors, so they can be intermixed without actually adding a color to your outfit.

Also, a print can have more than three colors, but it would be the focal point of the outfit. The supporting outfit components would total no more than 3 solid colors that are also in the print.

As I’m pretty simple when it comes to dressing, my first thought was: No more than three? I’m lucky if I can get to three colors in an outfit! And if black and white don’t count, Lord help me!

But this “rule” doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t do a monochromatic outfit or one with with just two colors; the idea is that combining more than three colors in an outfit is where it can go wrong and start to become a bit of a mish-mosh.

So, this isn’t a “rule” so much as it is an outfit formula you can use to pull together chic and effortless outfits with items in your closet. It may be more helpful for those who struggle with overdoing it than the Plain Janes in the audience, but it has challenged me to look at some of my simple 2-color looks and add a third color for interest.

Conversely, if you struggle with going overboard and trying to bring too many colors together, perhaps this little fashion hack will help you streamline your outfit creation processes as well.

All that to say, I thought I’d pull up some of my outfits that do and don’t follow the “3-color rule” and see what we think.

Experimenting With The 3-Color Rule

By way of disclaimer, this is supposed to be fun and light-hearted. This is fashion, not brain surgery. I’m not suggesting that this is an actual Fashion Rule that we should never break; I just want to see it if it’s a guideline that might be worth paying attention to, especially when struggling with an outfit.

Let’s start with Friday’s look, since it seemed to be a hit.

I combined black, grey, denim, and white for this look. That adds up to four “colors” but since black and while don’t really count, does that mean this outfit has only has two colors? LOL! I’m already confused. What say you?

sweater // wool reefer // jeans // sneakers // scarf // bag // sunnies (option)

This is another outfit I like a lot. I combined camel, white, and denim, but the white isn’t supposed to count… I will admit, I don’t get that. To me, the white jeans are a big part of the outfit and what makes the color combo pop.

But I guess white, being a non-color, gives the eye a place to rest… so it doesn’t contribute to making the look too busy, which is the point of this 3-color rule?

And then I guess the tote and shoes bring in some shades of brown, so that essentially makes three colors (blue, camel, and brown)?

camel sweater (S) // denim jacket (S) // white jeans (29) // snake print sneakers (7.5) // similar belt // tote (option)

Okay, before anyone says it, yes, I’m overthinking things a bit here. But that’s kind of the point. Let’s keep moving… I think it will make more sense as we go on.

Here’s a look with olive, black, and grey… do we cancel out the white or the black or both? Does the brown handle in the bag throw it off? LOL! I have to say, more of an all-over black shoe might look better with this.

puffer jacket (S) // t-shirt (S) // joggers (S) // sneakers (8) // tote

Okay, let’s find some outfits with more color. Here’s a favorite from this past fall…

Rust scarf, ivory sweater, and grey jeans, and the black jacket and boots don’t count. I guess that’s why I love this look!

sweater // jeans c/o // scarf // boots // similar leather jackets // sunnies (option) // crossbody

I also love this one with the rust cardigan, ivory tank, and blue jeans. The black shoes and bag support the look without competing with it, I think.

cardigan (XS) // tank (S) // jeans (6) // pumps

It’s almost impossible to find an outfit in my archives with more than three colors (as long as we aren’t counting black and white) or even without black or white. Almost every one of my outfits seems to have an element of black or white in there somewhere.

Clearly I didn’t need this rule… it would seem as though I need to strive to incorporate more colors in to my outfits.

AHA! I finally found one with three colors — none of which are black or white or even grey. I do like how the brown contrasts with the green and blue. If I’d stuck with navy shoes (two colors, rather than three), it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

sweater (M) // jeans (28) // loafers // tote (option) // sunnies

And here’s another. The shades of rust, olive, and oatmeal are really nice together for fall… and not an element of black or white in sight!

cardigan (XS) // tee (S) // pants // booties (cloud) // initial necklace // sunnies (option)

Here are a few more looks I really like… This one is pretty much monochromatic, and it incorporates black, of course, so essentially there are only two colors here. But the taupe jacket and boots, grey jeans, and black tank, belt, and bag add up to three shades of neutrals, which I think is why it’s so pleasing to the eye.

moto jacket (M) // black tank (S) // similar jeans // booties (Tuscan taupe) // tote (option) // necklace // sunnies (option)

I also like this one a lot, but I can’t decide if it’s two or three colors. I also can’t think of any other color I would want to add to this. I think it’s nice as-is.

coat (S) // turtleneck (M) // black pants (M) // similar pumps // earrings

I think this one follows the rule, and it’s one I’ve always liked a lot. The grey tee, olive jacket, and oatmeal/beige booties add up to three, and the white jeans don’t count, but they do set off the look nicely. Blue jeans would add a fourth color, and might be too busy.

utility jacket (option) // grey tee (M) // jeans (28) // booties (cloud) // earrings // wrap bracelet // sunnies

And perhaps one of my all-time favorites — pink, denim, and grey is always a winning combo, in my book.

sweater // skinnies // similar boots // earrings // similar bag

Funny that so many of my favorite outfits are so muted, and contain so many neutrals. I feel like to really illustrate this 3-color rule, I need some outfits with more, well, colors!

This one is a little lighter and brighter than some… I assume the two shades of grey (the sweater and shoes are light grey, and the jeans are dark grey) count as two colors? And then the pink coat is the third… and the scarf has all three.

sweater (S) // jeans (6) // booties (8) // scarf // coat (S)

Here’s a look with a graphic tee. The black in the sweater and boots don’t count, so we have grey, red, and denim. That works!

graphic tee (sold out) // similar cardigan // Paige Hoxton crop skinnies // boots

How about a print? Here’s a summer look… the blouse has navy, medium blue, and ivory. The ivory shorts and tan sandals allow the printed blouse to be the focal point.

Sorry… these pieces are sold out, so no links. I struggled to find an outfit with a print!

And this outfit combines a few different shades of blue (denim and navy shoes) as well as grey and a taupe bag. Not sure if this is 3 or 4 colors, but I like it. The necklace also adds a nice point of interest.

sweater (S) // jeans (28) // shoes // similar tote // necklace

Also, FYI, this Everlane cotton sweater has been restocked and it’s also on sale! It’s one of my favorite spring knits, and the shorter style works well with higher rise jeans and cropped styles, as shown here. I take the small, for reference.

Oh, and here’s a good one. The t-shirt is black and white, so it doesn’t count. Then the blue denim jacket, olive green pants, and taupe booties add up to three.

cargo pants (6)// stripe tee (S) // denim jacket (S) // booties (8.5; taupe)

I struggled to find any outfit in my archives with more than three colors… until I came across this one. I always loved this look, but count ’em up!

The white tee doesn’t count, but we have a blue denim jacket, olive pants, and then what do we do with those shoes and that bag? Is this outfit finally more than 3 colors???

Wait. I carried this bag with these shoes in the white jeans/camel sweater/denim jacket outfit up at the top of this post, and I said how much I liked it. I wonder if the colors look different in my mirror…

white tee (M) // denim jacket (S) // cargo pants // snake print sneakers (7.5) // tote (option)

Okay, so maybe here’s one, although I always liked this look. I guess the navy stripes and the jeans are both one color — blue. Plus the green jacket and brown bag, and the shoes are a mix of browns with some black in there as well.

Do the shoes and bag count as one color? Hmmm….

Now this outfit also incorporates a print, and I would say this definitely follows the 3-color rule.

I’m going to say this coat has navy, brown, and red, and those are the three colors in this outfit. (I’m counting the bag, shoes, and sweater as one color — brown. Ya think?)

Oh, well. I suppose we should wrap this up. I could go on and on…

What do you think? Is this 3-color rule something you find helpful? Will you be keeping it in mind for future outfits? Do you usually try to combine too many colors in an outfit, or not enough?

I’m curious to hear your thoughts!

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photos: Alison Cornell

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61 thoughts on “Fashion Hacks: The 3-Color Rule

  1. I have heard the Three Color Rule but I don’t think I necessarily agree with “black and white don’t count”. Maybe if it’s a small amount but I think I agree with your white jeans example.  In that case, I think the white jeans plus 2 colors look best. I have also read that the 3 color rule is a good one to follow for home decor. Choose three colors and repeat them throughout your home for a nice, pulled together look. Or, at a minimum, three colors per floor.

    I like this post😊 i

    Deb

    1. True, I mean, in general, 3 is supposed to be the most pleasing number to work with in matters of fashion and decorating, whether talking about colors or numbers of things, or whatever.

  2. I hadn’t heard this, but I do think it makes sense. Sometimes there’s just so much going on it’s hard to focus. HA! Love all of these looks. I’m pretty simple when it comes to mixing myself. I do like pattern mixing from time to time. I’m surprised denim wasn’t considered a “non-color”. XOXO

    1. Yeah, I know, I kept thinking that as I was adding things up. But I guess there are so many shades of blue denim, it really does have to count to make sense. Like, the dark wash jeans read as navy to me, and the light wash as light blue — two different colors, essentially.

  3. Hmmm, makes me rethink my casual outfit today (hubby has dental surgery so tho I am going to the office, I did not want to wear work clothes). Dark jeans, Oatmeal tunic cardigan, and boots that are a darker camel color. So the shirt to go under the oatmeal sweater was my problem. I stood in my closet looking for something that did not scream fall, was not cool colored, did not blend in to the sweater. I came up with this multi-colored/striped sweater that is pale peach, yellow and pink. It was not idea but now I think I really messed up. Wondering if I should switch to a white or black top…

  4. Love your posts!  Do you have any thoughts for sizing of belts?  I’m 5’ and  I struggle with the “width” aspect.  P.S.  Everything seems to look so good on you!!!

    1. Oh, girl. That is so not true. I picked my favorites of my favorites for this post. 🙂

      Belts… I think if you are short-waisted (as I am) thinner belts are better, but I like a nice, average medium-width best at the moment. I cannot do the thick ones, though.

  5. This is something to think about huh? When I incorporate a “ stand out” color like bright pink , I try and keep everything neutral. I’ve always thought of blue jeans as a neutral but I guess you have to count it . So bright pink sweater 1, blue jeans and navy shoes 2 . Black purse 0 , Brown or taupe purse 3  . I’m afraid most of mine are two too , makes me want to change out my purse more! Oh wait it’s sub zero here so coat color counts ! Nope navy parka 0 hahaha black pea coat 0 . Camel pea coat ! Boom diggity! Hahaha 

  6. This post is definitely helpful and I know I have found myself in the I’ve got too much going on here!! Maybe not so much in the winter as I do wear denim and a lot of black and grey and whites. Definitely in the summer when more colors come into play I’d love to see another post like this. I definitely know if I’ve ended up with too much color going on as I end up not liking what I’m wearing and waiting to get back home and change! For some reason it’s more more noticeable to me at a mall when looking in a mirror! Too late then lol! This all makes sense! 

  7. I love these posts about the “rules”. I’ll pay a bit more attention the next time I get dressed. I ADORE those J Crew blue velvet shoes. I have a pair of Birdies like that, but not that gorgeous blue color. 

  8. i still read all my blogs on desktop so im excited about your changes. its my me time sitting in front of computer….i like things big so hard to see stuff on phone 🙂

  9. Interesting, 
    The sweater and cardigan you styled yesterday from GAP are marked down. I ordered them this morning, saving $53👏👏👏

  10. Hi Jolynne,
    Your outfits are all fab! It kind of seems like the rule would be handiest for a maximalist when she were worried about going overboard. And it seems like it applies more in spring/summer. For example, say you were wearing a brightly printed skirt…if you pulled out one color for the top, another for the blazer, a third for the shoes…you’d want to stop at that. Can you imagine if you had a different color for earrings, necklace and purse? 🤯. I’ve had tons of training and haven’t ever heard this rule. It made for a fun post, anyway 🤗

  11. I guess I find I don’t need this rule. I never add more than 3. I tend to stay neutral unless wearing a blouse with multiple colors. Great looks in your archive photos. Sounds like we might be getting chance of snow for Thursday through Sunday. I’m excited. Probably our last chance here in Oregon if we do. We rarely get it. But, they’ve been known to tease us and it could miss us or just be some in the rain. You are probably tired of it. Sounds like you got more yesterday. 

  12. I’m pretty much a plain Jane. I think I would be hard pressed to find an outfit with three,  if you don’t count black or white. If I do wear a colourful top, then I keep my bottoms neutral ( black or denim). I’ll have to dress per normal and count my colors the next few days. 

    Excited for your new site! 👏

  13. This gave me pause for thought. It seems I do this, be it subconscious or a tendency to streamline. I’m typically solid bottom, solid top and completer piece – jacket or sweater.  Summer I throw in the printed tops but pair with solid white, denim or maybe olive green. This is a great rule to try and follow when dealing with trickier pieces or adding accessories. Once again, Jo-Lynne, you’ve knocked it out of the park. 

  14. Love all of your looks and agree that by wearing neutrals, it’s kinda hard to ever break this rule. But that’s why I like following you since I wear mostly neutrals too.  Here’s a thought though, if black and white don’t count then gray shouldn’t either since it’s those colors combined. 🤔 Just more to think about haha. Great post!

    1. I thought of that… they didn’t mention grey or other shades of neutrals in the articles I read. At the end of the day, it’s just a concept that has no real right or wrong… but it’s interesting to analyze. 🙂

  15. Loved this post.  I’m with you….not a very colorful dresser.  Also, it brought back memories of working at Dayton’s in Mpls.
    They had a 3 item rule, which I still use today.  3 must be a magic #.
    FYI…24 degrees below zero this morning in northern  Wisconsin and I don’t think it’ll get above zero today.  Yikes!

  16. I appreciated you sharing your thoughts through this thought process.  I am someone who likes color in my outfit but just usually in one piece of the outfit.  What actually attracted me to follow you at first is that I needed to buy some neutrals! You are so good at making those outfits look great. I was previously trying to make my outfits pop purely by a wow of color. I have learned a lot of new ways of thinking on putting an outfit together! Thanks 

    1. Aw, thanks! I love hearing that. I have only recently begun wearing so much neutral. I know it’s sort of trendy, but I’m also really drawn to the minimalist simplicity. It works really well for my personal aesthetic.

  17. This is a very interesting read, Jo-Lynne, as I almost always wear two colours, since it seems I have to count jeans as a colour. In the summer I am guilty of wearing three colours so it is food for thought. Thanks!

  18. Not sure I’m grasping the concept but if you’ve been filling it, it’s working because you are great with color combs. I look to you and Pinterest when I don’t know what to wear. One thing I’ve notice is Cyndi will almost always where a taupe or tan shoe color with most outfits and I think, if you’re  wearing black, you should wear back shoes. But that’s just me? 

    1. You can do either, it’s preference. For me, it depends on the rest of the outfit. Cyndi definitely likes her nude shoes. 🙂 Or, um, taupe/beige to match her skin color. You know what I mean…😬 That can be elongating, and I also think it looks a little more modern with certain outfits.

  19. Fun post and definitely ‘food for thought’. I tend to just wear two colors so I played around with this when getting dressed this morning. I had on a coral sweater and dark wash blue denim with black boots. Changed out the boot for taupe. And tah-dah — so much better. Your posts that analyze why a look works or doesn’t are my favorites! 

  20. I can see this “rule” being helpful in knowing what color shoes to wear to add more interest (get a third color in) or to help tie an outfit together. I do think not wearing a lot of different colors is a style choice. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of neutrals. I think they are pretty classic and I feel good in them. They feel calming to me. 

    1. I agree about the style choice. The minimalist, neutral vibe is definitely on trend. I laugh now when I see old pictures on Pinterest of fashion bloggers I follow who wear all neutrals now, and in the pix from 5 years ago, they were wearing SO many colors together – bold colors and prints. So funny how styles have changed.

  21. Hi there,

    I also saw that same rule of three colors, I found it helpful to make my outfits more visually interesting. To keep me from being boaring. I did not hear that black and white didn’t count.
    You could’ve over thinking things a bit. Loved all the pictures of outfits, good inspiration.
    Have a great day!

  22. I also don’t wear many prints so the 3 colors work for me like they do for you. I totally think you should do a do & don’t post about this. Some people make it work, but most dont!

  23. Boy, this post has my head spinning because I’m not sure what I do.  Obviously, i have not paid attention to the three color rule, but I do want to keep it in mind.  I don’t like combining numerous colors in one outfit, and I usually steer towards shoes that don’t stand out.  I had rather draw the attention to my face and torso.  Stay warm!

    1. I’m sure I way overcomplicated matters… lol! I did get out for a run – it got up to 27 degrees, and it was sunny without much wind, so I decided to “just do it.” I was cold, but I logged 3 miles and now I feel very accomplished. 🙂

  24. When I got my first job (in the 70s) I bought a book called “The Color Capsule” which proclaimed the three color capsule concept. It helped me build my working wardrobe. I wish I still had the book for nostalgia sake because the basics never change. I enjoy reading your posts and seeing your outfits and shopping recommendations. 

  25. This was a fun post!  I’ve never really heard about the 3 color rule, but it makes sense.  I would have thought jeans were a neutral, but I guess because of the various shades that would be included as a color.  I’ve been dressing very simply this last year with jeans/denim crops and a top/sweater.  Not many completer pieces needed for staying home and doing curbside pick ups.  So, I guess with my jeans, top and shoes, most of the time I do end up with 3 colors.  Unless I have a multicolored top!  This is giving me food for thought.  I will definitely be thinking about this tomorrow when I get dressed. 😊

  26. I don’t think I need to worry about the 3 color rule, because I am a basic plain Jane, and I have 90% solids in my wardrobe.  I try to get a few prints in there, but it’s hard for me to find one I love, I am not drawn to them, I guess. It was fun to see all your outfits again, everything was cute!

  27. I like the theory behind it but I don’t follow the three color rule very often. I don’t like being matchy-matchy, so I often have a multicolor outfit, and then add bright earrings sometimes. Lol. But I have fun.

  28. I think I fall more in the camp of needing to add a third color. I definitely gravitated more to your outfits that incorporated a third color and I do find myself thinking sometimes that whatever I’m wearing needs something else, but I’ve always erred on the side of caution. Time to change that up! Thanks for giving us something fun to contemplate and put into practice!

  29. Great post and I think I like the 3 color rule!!  You look fabulous in everything you wear and I really like your style!!

  30. Jo-Lynne, I don’t think you’ll be in any danger of breaking this rule any time soon 🙂 Below is a link to a fashion blogger who likes to break fashion rules and loves colourful outfits. I find some of her outfits a bit overpowering and once you start adding up the colours you can see why. I would personally count shades of the same colour as one btw (e.g. in one of your examples a tan/camel bag and animal print shoes).

    https://www.notdressedaslamb.com/2015/08/how-to-wear-more-than-three-colours-lilac-cobalt-white-peach-orange.html

    1. Oh, yes, I know of her! She has such a unique style. Very cool. And if you do count shades as one color (I definitely see your point) then a lot of her outfits loosely follow the 3 color rule.

  31. I have done this myself for years, didn’t know it was an actual thing, lol. I’ve just find anything more than 3 colors and the outfit looks “busy”. Almost like it’s too much to focus on anything in the outfit because there is just too much going on; however, I do count black and white. I love how you break it down 🙂

  32. The coat issue: Do you count the colors with your coat on, or after, when you have removed your outerwear. hahahaha I’m usually safe either way, as my main coats are either black or white.
    What a fun game for a day below zero!! Haven’t we counted outfit items before, counting pieces and adding elements?

    1. LOL, I go with whatever makes it work out right! 😉 But seriously, I think it depends on if you plan to be in your coat or not. Like, when I go to the mall or sightseeing, I count it. If I take it off the second I get to the restaurant, I wouldn’t.

  33. This is interesting. I love color but more than three can look like you are trying too hard. Color blocking with pieces used to be a thing, but now it’s trending in one piece, like a color block sweater. So, if I wear a color block sweater with three colors, does that mean I have to wear black or white jeans to not go over 3 colors? Ha! This can definitely be given way too much thought.

  34. So, here’s another curveball for you. Many fashion bloggers count “neutrals” as anything in the grey, brown, black, white families, and “colours” as reds, pinks, yellows, purples, etc. – i.e. the colours in the rainbow. So is it that we’re not supposed to mix more than 3 “colours” but we can have as many neutrals as we want?! I’m so confused….

    I read an article recently with the stylist for “Call My Agent” (a super chic French series on Netflix) – and she puts her whole success down to using the 3 colour rule. Who knew?!

    1. Yes, those are neutrals. Black and white are different than neutrals, though. Black is the absence of color, and white… is the opposite? LOL.

      So, I just googled, “are black and white colors?” and you get all kinds of answers, depending on if they are talking about art or physics or fashion.

      One puts it like this: “In art, white is the absence of all color and black is the presence of all color. To artists, black is considered a color, white is generally not. In light, the opposite holds true. Black is the absence of color, and white is the presence of all color. To scientists, white is a bunch of colors, and black is not. So the answer to this question really is, it depends on what your perspective is.”

      I guess that’s why the 3-color rule counts neutrals such as ivory, taupe, grey, brown as colors. It actually does not say you can have as many neutrals as you want. It just doesn’t count black and white.

      Interesting about Call my Agent… now I want to look that up. Is it a good show?

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