Color And Neutrals In A Travel Wardrobe

travel wardrobe tips: adding color and patternEach time I post one of my travel wardrobe capsules or actual travel wardrobes, a few people will invariably ask “but where’s the COLOR?” So I thought I’d write today about why I build my travel wardrobes the way I do, and offer some strategies for adding color (and patterns) while keeping your wardrobe light, workable and efficient.

Not everyone is interested in packing light. But even if you want more options, it still makes sense to pack what you’ll wear, and wear what you pack.

Shown Above:

Neutrals top row: sweater (similar) | cardigan (similar) | tee
2nd row: jacket (similar) | top | shirt (similar)
3rd row: pants | jeans | pants
bottom row: boots | sandals | shoes

Colors top row: sunglasses | bag
2nd row: shirt (similar) | scarf (similar) | tee
3rd row: sweater | scarf  (similar)| top (similar)

Why Neutrals?

I’m defining neutrals here as black, navy, grey, brown, taupe, tan/khaki. For those who like wearing a lot of color, building a travel wardrobe around a neutral core can seem rather drab. But there are reasons that so many travelers have adopted and rely on neutral pieces:

  • Cohesion. If you want your pieces to combine easily, and in multiple iterations, a black-white-grey capsule will be much easier to remix than a green-red-blue one. Being able to remix and layer pieces for different temperatures and venues more than anything else will help keep your travel wardrobe manageable.
  • Polish. This may or may not be important depending on the nature of your travel, but neutrals (especially darker neutrals) will dress up more easily, and look more sophisticated and polished.
  • Durability. Quite simply, darker neutrals won’t show dirt as quickly as lighter, brighter pieces. While I do stress choosing fabrics for travel that can be washed, the less often you have to wash, the better.
  • Not standing out (as a tourist). Again, this will depend on the nature of your travel and destination. While “looking like a local” (even if desired) is probably an uphill battle when you’re dressing out of a suitcase, in many places those who are very obviously tourists are more often targeted by pickpockets and scammers.

Adding Color (And Pattern)

But I know, you cannot live or travel by neutrals alone. I get it. And I’ve learned to include some color in my travel wardrobes to help break up the monotony. Here’s what’s worked best for me:

  • Pick one or two complementary colors. Ok, three at most. Once you’ve selected your neutrals, add some tops, sweaters, dresses, scarves or bags in colors that work well with your neutrals and with each other. Again, it’s about cohesion, and being able to create a maximum number of combinations with the pieces you have.
  • Bring in some pattern. Don’t be afraid to mix your patterns either, as long as that’s within your comfort level. Here’s my trick for selecting patterns for travel wardrobes: keep any patterned tops the same pattern type (e.g. stripes/graphics or florals) and any patterned scarves the same pattern type (but different from your tops). So you could do striped tops and floral scarves, floral tops and animal print scarves, polka dot tops and striped scarves, etc. Again, you’d be keeping the patterned pieces within your neutral or complementary color choices.
  • If you wear mostly dresses…your dresses don’t need to coordinate with each other, but should coordinate with scarves, sweaters, accessories and outerwear. Look for pieces that work well with most of your dresses. The more you can mix and match, the more variety you’ll achieve with fewer pieces.
  • Maximum impact. I’ve found that adding color to the top half or outer layer of my outfit provides the most impact. I stick to dark neutrals on the bottom half. It’s the concept of “tabletop dressing” applied to your travel wardrobe.
  • Stick with what works. You want to feel your best, so stick with those colors that you know look good on you (and photograph well).

Next week, I’ll show you some of the many outfits you could create from just these few pieces. And check out my SHOP page for some of my Spring/Summer travel wardrobe picks.

Travel In Color…

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  1. This is very timely. We were in Paris last week and my husband wore a colorful dress shirt to dinner. At one point we looked around the restaurant and he was literally the only person who wasn’t wearing black, gray or navy. He didn’t mind, but it goes to show at least in winter/early spring that’s what everyone is wearing!

  2. It depends on your destination. Nothing burns like going someplace discovering that everybody else has got a colorful patterned _____ and you don’t and the next thing you know you’re buying something that you have a twin of at home at the hotel shop

  3. As always, solid advice. I love color on others but for me, the darker the better. I do make an exception when it comes to my scarves (a b&w floral, a leopard, & a blush), a few pairs of shoes (1 red, 1 leopard), and bags (red, navy, & saddle brown)/ Even my colors are neutrals. 🙂 I think that’s the best part of style, variety of personal preferences. Susan, you always bring us options and look great doing it!

    1. Leopard shoes are so versatile. They add a pop of interest and seem to elevate even the most reserved outfit. Great choice.

  4. Another reason for keeping it simple, and neutral: if you are traveling for a longer period and plan to do laundry, it’s easier to make a load if you clothes can separate into lights and darks, without colors.

  5. Black, gray and camel make up my travel pieces. I might add a colorful sweater (a leopard cardigan is a good choice with these neutrals). I remember my first trip to Ireland. It took me weeks to pack and actually was the first time I began reading blogs. I was looking for tips on what to pack. I had many “outfits” but not everything could be combined. Add shoes to the bag and you can imagine what that suitcase weighed. Since that time and because of great blog advice, I am a master packer ,if I do say so myself. And I have been asked for directions in Canada which tickled me pink. Looking approachable and like a local feels like a compliment to me.

  6. The one thing I’d add here is that you should think about the contrast level that works for you. I don’t do well with black and vivid colors – that combo makes me disappear. If I rely on navy and brown, however, the color can be brighter. If I’m doing black and gray, the colors I bring need to be muted and pale. So just check your contrast levels;).

  7. The rule about dresses works with any interchangeable pieces you would never wear at same time. I’m not much of a dress person, so I often pack colored layering tops. I also always make sure to pack at least one extra pretty scarf I can reach for when/if I suddenly start craving some color.
    BTW, speaking very generally, muted colors are more of a northern/western thing. If you go to south or east (Hawaii, Florida, India, Africa, Russia etc.) it might be a good idea to include more color and patterns if you want to avoid sticking out.

    1. Dany, I agree with you completely. Sticking to my dark palette has resulted in me being the focus of a lot of attention south of the equator AND has ended with me being walked over because they “didn’t see me dressed in black”. 🙂 Good times. 🙂

  8. Thanks Susan for making our last trip an easy packing decision. Before reading your blog I would over pack essentially because I didn’t have a cohesive wardrobe. I chose a bright, deep pink, lightweight short coat and worked back from that with black and grey. Mostly stripes or spots for tops that gave me more options with scarves. Feeling so much more confident and polished as a traveller and everyday.

  9. Your travel wardrobe posts are always a favorite with me because I always learn something from them. I, too, stick to neutrals when I travel. I keep the color for home. But when we are in Theoule on the Cote d’Azur, I use my color in my beach wear. I also bring a colorful shift for dinners out. Lilly Pulitzer knit dresses travel very well. Thanks for another great and informative post!

  10. I like the “theoretical” nature of your travel wardrobe posts. As I age, I find black is less and less flattering for me, and I’m *trying* harder to like navy, which as a ginger, is a better neutral for me. Vivid colors are really best for me, but I can use your strategies and sub in “my” neutrals, including red (!!! I know, but it works for me). I traveled to London and rural Scotland last summer and went to the theater, museums, the Edinburgh Festival/Fringe and lots of rough hiking in the highlands out of a suitcase just larger than a carry-on (had to bring boots and specialized rain gear, so no carry-on this time). Your posts have been invaluable in honing my packing skills.

  11. I travel a lot for work. You’re examples help so much, I’ve been able to reduce to one suitcase with room to spare. Colorful scarves help to bring in color but still keep the basic flexibility. Thanks!

  12. I will never forget how much luggage my parents brought to visit us for 2 1/2 weeks in Geneva back in the 80s. My mom had no clue how to pack and brought one huge suitcase that I believe was 27″ (it was the 80s – no rollers), and then a smaller but still large suitcase and one smaller than that. I can still clearly see my dad, body contorted, almost dragging that large, super heavy suitcase across a street near our apartment. Realizing what a burden that was for him, we carried it from then on out and trust me, it was heavy with clothes and shoes my mom didn’t need or wear. Thank goodness for roller bags and the concept of the capsule travel wardrobe!

  13. My colleague took a group of students to France and Belgium last week, and one of them landed in my office yesterday to tell me that in Paris “everyone was wearing dark colors, but I saw tons of scarves!” I immediately thought of this blog!

  14. I am glad you pointed out the part about blending in to prevent getting pick pocketed. I hate when people say “where whatever you want, who cares” because you are just setting yourself up to be the target of a crime, especially if you are traveling on your own.

    In most major cities in the U.S. and Europe, people tend to wear dark colors. People in NYC, for example, are mostly dressed in black most of the year until summer comes along. It is a fact of life. What I like to do is Google street photography in the city to which I am traveling and look at the Google images. You can usually get a sense of how people are dressing in that city. You also can use Instagram and search the hashtags.

  15. I wear a color palette that contains mostly fall colors because of my eye, hair and skin color. I have found that two delicious accent colors for me are peach and teal. I want to have a capsule travel wardrobe for a trip to California for our daughter’s wedding at Laguna Beach in late June. What do you suggest that would work for me with the provided details?

  16. Another reason to stick with neutrals for the base items is if you are traveling on vacation where you will see the same people (river cruise, etc.) The base layers mix and match without being super noticeable. That way it does not look like you have worn the same things over and over! Interest is created with scarves and jewelry and with the different combos, such as black/gray/navy bottom with white top and then all black/gray/navy sleek sillouette. This looks like different outfits but using the same pieces.
    I tend to notice a colored, striped or patterned top if I see it a second time, but not so much on the neutrals.