The Budget Babe | Affordable Fashion & Style Blog

Mixing Muddy and Clean Colors

Does this outfit work? Readers weigh in.
This post is a slight diversion from my usual routine, but I found a recent comment by reader Kelly (read it here) to be especially thought-provoking, so I wanted to examine the topic a little more in depth, namely: Mixing muddy and clean colors in the same outfit. Can it be done? Successfully?

Looking at the world through an artist's lens, I think muddy and clean colors can blend together in the same ensemble—not to create a sense of harmony, but rather to create an intentional sense of contradiction, unease, even discord. Why would you want to do this? Art imitates life... Is every moment of every day happy? Nope. So why not let your clothing express a wide range of emotions and ideas?

Here's where I'll try to make the case that it's possible for muddy and clean colors to come together; obviously there's no right or wrong answer, I do believe fashion is subjective and deeply personal, and I'm curious to hear what everyone thinks:

Harmony in Red by Henri Matisse (1908)

In art: If I had to generalize, I'd say it wasn't until the late 19th century - early 20th century that painters really began to experiment with discordant colors, a radical departure from the realism of the past. There are too many artists to cite as examples, but I'm thinking of artists such as Gaugin, Van Gogh and Matisse, whose painting of an unsettling red room is ironically named "Harmony in Red." I love it.

Miu Miu Spring 2005 Ready-to-wear collection from

In fashion: Mixing muddy and clean colors is all about contradictions for me, so Miuccia Prada was the first designer that came to my mind as I was pondering this issue. What sets her apart is her disregard for the dictates of fashion, and that applies to her use of color, too. I went back in time to a collection she did not too long ago for Miu Miu for ideas. Unlike the outfit I created, these Miu Miu looks mix the muddy and clean colors throughout the look; in the outfit on the far left, for example, there's a muddy brown top with a bright yellow pear shape on it, which then ties in with the brights in the skirt. So the colors are very strategically placed. Her message is clear and intentional, which is why she's the fashion genius (not me!).

An interior by Jamie Drake (Photo credit:

In design: Home decor is not my forte. At all. But I know what I love when I see it. And I'm most often drawn to unique color palettes that blend brights and neutrals, muted tones with pops of colors. One might even say "muddy" and "clean" colors, although again, I'm not sure this photograph is a great example of that, but I love the clean colors in the pillows against the muddy shades of beige on the couch and elsewhere. It's unexpected, and that to me, is beautiful. It peeks my curiosity and that works for me, in the same way that, say, a perfectly matched feng shui modernist masterpiece might work for someone else.

Do muddy/clean color mixes make you cringe? Do you ever find yourself intentionally adding elements to your outfits that are slightly askew, slightly "off" or do you strive for harmony, a perfectly pulled-together look?

I love your blog and check it everyday. Even though none of the budget brands are available in India, where I stay, I enjoy going through the posts and following the cool budget tips. Thanks!!!
#1 Smaug on 2009-03-14 00:38 (Reply)
I really liked this post. Food for thought!
#2 Wanderlusting (Homepage) on 2009-03-14 20:18 (Reply)
GREAT food for thought BB!
#3 Real Style Real people (Homepage) on 2009-03-15 07:48 (Reply)
Very interesting post! Here's my two cents, for what it's worth.

What I especially notice in your examples is the color reciprocation used. This, in my opinion, makes the discordant color schemes work.

In "Harmony in Red", the blues and yellows of the room are also seen through the window. The outside is painted in cool colors, visually separating it from the warm colored interior. By using the clean whites, yellows, and blues from the outside on the room, the artist marries the two parts of the picture. He goes further by including muddier counterparts to these colors within the room, such as the orange fruit, some of the blue flowers, and the beige of the woman's hands. The way the vines come in from outside of the borders of the painting, it looks as if the outdoors are actually reaching around the boundaries of the house to try to get in.

The clothes are very interesting, because the combinations are much more subtle and complicated. In the outfit on the far left, the brown belt matches the brown shirt. The blue buckle matches the blue in the skirt. The two shades of red in the skirt (the petals and the stitching around them) tie the dark red detail on the pear and the bright red earrings together. As the earrings are a brighter shade of the red on the pear, the teal of the headband is a brighter shade of the leaf and stem, visually bringing those elements together.

In the second outfit, the red detailing on the jacket and belt are more muddy, but the orange detail is clean, bringing the clean red of the headband together with the outfit.

In the third outfit, the brown on the shoes ties with the brown of the belt and the shadow on the pear, effectively tying the shoes, shirt, and skirt together. The blue and green on the belt tie the shirt to the headband. The clean color of the headband and the little bit of orange peeking out of the purse helps tie the necklace into the outfit.

In the fourth outfit, the brown and yellow shoes tie the brown (or brownish) shorts and yellow stripes together. The red stripes tie to the red necklace and the clean color of the headband. The tan stripes in the shirt tie to the tan sash.

In the room, the yellow color on the wall is reciprocated in the bottom painting, as are the blue from the cushion, pillows and lamp, and the beige from the couch. The multicolored pillows bring the blues from the paintings, cushion, pillows and lamp together with the yellow walls, the beige couch, the brown frames, the dark furniture, the green plant leaves, and the white trim.

These are all excellent examples of what I would call "organized chaos". It takes work and forethought to make it look "right", but it's worth the effort when you get results like these.

The key is to find ways to tie the elements together- for example, if the shoes or a belt or a jacket were added to your outfit that brought both colors together, they might work better. If you look at the original outfit, there actually are some dirty yellows and oranges in the squares of the skirt, but the clean colors elsewhere in the skirt tie it to the clean-colored top.

Again, very good article, keep it up! The more we think and experiment with colors and proportions and other visual "rules", the more fun and interesting things get!
#4 Kelly on 2009-03-16 21:15 (Reply)
Leave a comment
E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.
Enclosing asterisks marks text as bold (*word*), underscore are made via _word_.
Standard emoticons like :-) and ;-) are converted to images.
E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.