THIS LOOKS ridiculous on me,” thinks Brian Madigan when he attempts to wear bright colors. It’s not that he dislikes them; he envies friends who can toss on a maroon shirt or a lemon-hued polo without hesitation or self-consciousness. “I wish that I could have an eye for the types of color they’re wearing,” says Mr. Madigan, 36, a photo editor in San Jose, Calif. But he feels far more comfortable in his familiar gray T-shirts, blue jeans and tan khakis. Better safe than startling.
Many American men occupy Mr. Madigan’s chromatic comfort zone—a style point-of-view just a few shades shy of colorblind. In my conversations with guys about their color palettes, the term “conservative” came up repeatedly as they described wardrobes heavily skewed toward gray, black, tan and white. The agenda, confessed William Bodenlos, 55, a financial adviser in New York, is “just to fit in with our environment and avoid calling attention to ourselves.” He described his style as “pretty conservative” with an “enormous amount” of blue clothes. Despite the widespread fear of color among men, there are outliers: Corporate raiders readily knot up red and yellow paisley ties, and budding junior executives slip on preppy pastel socks with their loafers. On the golf course, colorful polos are de rigueur. But by and large, the male wardrobe is more monochrome than Technicolor.
Safety has its downsides, however. A closet wholly devoid of color can make you look as repressed and stern (and out-of-date) as a character in an Ingmar Bergman film. “When you wear bright colors it can make you feel lighter,” said Sander Lak, the designer behind the hue-happy New York label Sies Marjan. “Subconsciously, color does set a mood.”
To that end, his collections are laced with sartorial mood-enhancers like salmon-pink shirts and tomato-red sweaters. And in 2018, he’s hardly the only designer splashing about in the splashy end of the color spectrum. From Moncler’s cherry-red puffer jackets to Acne Studios’s petrol-blue corduroys to Calvin Klein’s yolk-yellow sweaters, current men’s fashion isn’t color shy.
“As the workplace gets more casual and is less corporatized, there is this embrace of individuality and that leads to an embrace of color,” said Justin Berkowitz, the men’s fashion director of Bloomingdale’s. Social media is also driving renewed interest in color, he added: Men are drawn to what “looks good in a picture. That tends to be color—it stands out a little bit more.” As a result, Mr. Berkowitz has increasingly seen guys gravitating toward pinks, burgundies and olives.
Still, men who are used to wearing only ignorable neutrals should adopt color judiciously. “I’m not going to be the person looking like Big Bird in a giant yellow shirt and mint green pants and some red sneakers. That’s just not me,” said Tyler Hockett, 30, a financial adviser in Indianapolis. Mr. Hockett’s understandable wariness underlies the cardinal rule of color: It’s all about balance.
“Color is something that you have to dose,” cautioned Massimo Alba, a Milanese designer who uses it with Italian panache. Both in his own wardrobe and in the looks he designs, he enjoys sprucing up a solid foundational piece like a blue blazer or a charcoal sweater with a light brownish-yellow shirt or trousers. Even a light spritz of unpredictable color can have a dramatic effect. “It’s boring if you’re just [wearing] blue,” he said. “It’s nice if you have a detail.” That detail, he added, can be as small as a red handkerchief sprouting out of your pocket.
‘ A closet wholly devoid of color can make you look as repressed and stern as a character in an Ingmar Bergman film. ’
When we spoke, Mr. Alba had just returned from a trip through the American Southwest where he saw greens, golds, sky blues and other natural shades in the landscape that will make their way into his next collection. Cautious of color? Let earthy tones be your guide, in the style of subtle-color fans like Steve Carell, who mixes toasty shades of brown, or John Mayer, who’s worn forest-green trousers with a sky blue jacket. “Mr. Robot” star Rami Malek recently paired a chocolate-brown suit with a light salmon polo, marrying familiar and surprising hues in a strategy that Mr. Alba also likes, calling it a “kind of camouflage attitude.”
It’s not only the shade of a shirt that matters but also the fabric itself. “[Each] material takes color differently,” said Mr. Lak, claiming that the same shade of yellow can appear 50 different ways on 50 different fabrics. Matte cotton projects color at its purest—just think of how bright a red T-shirt can be. More-textured fabrics such as cashmere or corduroy can create a more nuanced effect. They’re less flagrant and more wearable.
Mr. Berkowitz of Bloomingdale’s particularly likes garment dyeing, a process commonly used on casual button-ups and jersey sweats, in which a finished garment, rather than the yarn, is soaked and dyed. “It de-saturates the color and makes it feel a little bit more lived-in,” he said. Washed-down hues (Mr. Berkowitz called them “dusty”) make any piece of colored clothing more approachable, be it a pair of pine-green chinos, an azure cable-knit sweater or a chippy yellow button-up. Big Bird? Not a chance.
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com