Outfit Congruency: The Style Mistake You've Probably Overlooked

More and more these days, I have the opportunity to work with pretty stylish men. As a personal stylist, I always spend some time going through a client's closet. But I'll tell you, it’s becoming rare that I have to throw out everything and start fresh. More than ever, men are understanding fit, color, and how to avoid looking like a general shlub. 

When your pants are baggy and long, it’s easy to see how they make you look short and fat. But there's a mistake that I still see men make that is often less obvious. 

I’m talking about outfit congruency

Heard of it? Neither have I. 

I’m fairly certain I invented the term.

Outfit congruency: The way all the pieces you're wearing should work in harmony to create an ideal outfit. These items could work together in terms of fit, color, texture, or just their general “vibe”. Ideally, they'll work together in more ways than one. 

Let me give you a few examples of item pairings that would not be congruent. You’ll start picking up what I’m putting down. We'll start with some extreme examples...

  • Sweatpants with a button-up shirt. 
     
  • Cowboy boots with slim dress pants. 
     
  • Running shoes with a suit.
     
  • Boots with swim shorts.

See what I’m getting at? 

While you won't see these extreme examples walking around town, they illustrate outfit in-congruency very well. One item is communicating something that the other is working against. There is no harmony between these items. 

Let’s do a few more examples. These mistakes are much more common ones that I see out in the field quite a bit. This time we’re going to get detailed and I'll show you some easy fixes for each.

 

 Which one looks better to you?

Which one looks better to you?

The Problem: Athletic shoes with jeans.

Let’s think about their purpose and what each item communicates. Jeans communicate a certain sense of ruggedness and disobedience. Athletic shoes are communicating that you’re about to do something, well, athletic.
Athletic shoes really shouldn't be worn outside of physical activities but this pairing is especially strange. No one is trying to hit the elliptical in jeans. 

Fix it: Swap the athletic shoes for classic trainers if you want something that’s still comfortable and casual. The more timeless the better. Your feet shouldn't look like you’ve just finished training for a marathon.

Particular favorites of mine are the Common Project Achilles, Chuck Taylors and the New Balance 574's. If you're in doubt about what color to go with, choose white or gray. 

 

 If you tried pairing right and left, you'd have some issues. 

If you tried pairing right and left, you'd have some issues. 

The problem: A dress shirt paired with rugged looking pants.

Envision a crisp white button up shirt that has a satiny finish. You would assume this shirt is being worn for professional purposes. It gives off a sense of occasion. You wouldn’t expect the man wearing it to participate in manual labor anytime soon.

If you were to look down and see a pair of very distressed, worn in jeans, you’d be thrown off a bit. It’s an indoor garment clashing with an outdoor one. A white collar vs. blue collar showdown taking place in the center of your body. 

Fix it: Go one way or the other. Either dress down your top half so that the worn pants work better. Or, swap out those distressed jeans for some clean wool or linen trousers. If you wanted to keep the denim, a pair of very dark wash jeans with no distressing will work fine too.

You want to have a congruent image from head to toe. Your image should not teeter-totter around your belt. 

 

 See how they both keep the same level of chroma throughout the entire outfit? Things would look off if you tried to mix the two.

See how they both keep the same level of chroma throughout the entire outfit? Things would look off if you tried to mix the two.

The problem: A bright tie with a muted shirt and jacket.

If your jacket, shirt, and pants don’t have a low level of chroma (the amount of sheen & brightness), don’t throw off the outfit with a tie that has a higher level.

Keep things level with your coloring. One item shouldn't stand out more than the rest because it's too bright for the rest of your outfit.

Fix it: Make sure every item in your outfit has roughly the same level of chroma. Let’s keep it easy. Shiny with shiny. Dull with dull.

This will keep an onlooker's eyes from becoming distracted. It will also help keep their attention where it belongs, which is on your face. 


I realize outfit congruency might be a little more nuanced than some of the other topics we cover here at the house of Pivot. Just start small. When you’re picking out an outfit, think about its harmony. Are your items competing in a bad way? Getting it right can make a big impact on your overall appearance and how people perceive you.

I should also note that there are several cases of outfit incongruence that do work. A great example was the popularity of trainers paired with suits a couple years back. These are the exception though, not the rule. And as you know, you need to learn the rules before you break them. If you’re not sartorially savvy just yet, let's stick to the basics, gents.