Developing a Color Palette for Your Closet


Sally had a reader request ages ago about limiting yourself to a well-edited color palette, and I wanted to share my experiences with doing just that.  If you’re like Sally and love all colors, this isn’t the path for you! But if shopping is overwhelming, you find it difficult to mix and match what you have, or you find yourself buying colorful pieces that sit unworn, then it may be ideal for you.

I love to shop, and I’ve always loved color. But in the past, I would buy certain items out of “necessity.” (Meaning because some list told me I needed them!) They’d sit in my closet, never worn. Brown pumps, I’m looking at you!  I’d buy a mint shirt and wouldn’t know how to style it. It looked harsh against black, washed out against grey. So it sat, unworn. I envy ladies and gents who mix and match colors like pros, but that yellow cardigan in my closet needs a new home.

One day, I decided to stop buying colors I wouldn’t wear and to focus on buying the colors I would wear. My color palette (or range) is far more liberal then some. I can’t imagine wearing only one shade of blue. Hell, I can’t even imagine limiting myself to black, white, and red. But I found a system that works for me.

Begin by breaking down YOUR colors:

I broke mine into three categories: neutrals, bases, and accents.

  • My neutrals encompass white, “nude,” navy, grey, and black.  No tans or khakis, no deep chocolate browns. I also consider patterns like stripes, polka dots, leopard print, and pinstripes to be neutrals, so long as they stay in neutral shades.
  • My base colors, which make up the primary shades of my closet range from jewel-tone to earth tone shades. You’ll find: dark pinks, ruby and rustic reds, vibrant to earthen greens, bold blues, and vibrant purples.
  • Accent colors are shades to use in moderation, but that complement the base colors for a little kick of color.  I like to give my accent colors a bit of flexibility each season (last spring it was a dash of coral), though they tend to be mustard and chartreuse.  These colors mix and match beautifully with bold shades, and I buy them in moderation.

eshaktiseychellescarriage(And once in a blue moon, if something REALLY piques my interest, like these burnt orange shoes– I’ll pick them up & try them out!)

How did you pick your colors? (Or: Other ways to develop a palette.)

For me, much of it is driven by intuition:  How do colors make me feel. When I’m getting dressed, when I try them on, when I look at them in other contexts (decor, art, the zoo–everywhere!).  I find, for most people, the colors we “look best in” and the colors we “feel best in” tend to overlap.

You may look at that list and think, “Where in the world have you scaled down?”  But here’s a short list of the colors you won’t find in my closet: Browns and tans, pastels, orange or yellow (except mustard), or even playful, bright, candy colors. This has knocked about 60% of colors and shades from my closet.

Refining your color palette doesn’t have to be about restricting the colors you wear. It could be about limiting the tones and saturation of shades.  Maybe pastels make you feel washed out and like a wisp against the wall.  I’ve known several women who’ve admired my love for bold, jewel-tones, but don’t feel comfortable in them themselves. I can’t stand wearing a white blouse! It saves me time and trouble to narrow these things down and eliminate them from my shopping scope.

If you’re like Sally and can’t part with any color but you’re still having trouble figuring out how to scale back, maybe it’s due to too many shades being in your closet.  Try a temporary closet overhaul — pull out all of the pastels and hide them. What do you have left? How do these items work together? How do they make you feel?  And if that’s not jiving, replace the pastels and take out the earth tones. How does it feel to see the pastels against the jewel tones? Does it feel more or less comfortable? Are you finding unusual pairings by seeing your closet modified this way?

 4 Years Later…

It’s been almost 4 years since I’ve taken on this challenge. While I’m constantly finding myself rebuilding my wardrobe, the undertaking is … easier. I don’t sit in a store plagued by which color shirt to buy: It either fits in my closet or doesn’t.  This system has provided me with more flexibility and creativity and improved my relationship with shopping overall.

Have you refined what colors you buy? I’d love to hear the experiences of ladies who’ve undertaken similar challenges — accidentally or purposefully!

If you’re curious for a bit more about my process, many found my original series useful. You can read more about my quest for a refined closet in these posts!

_ _ _

Call her Ash, Ashe, or Ashley– she doesn’t mind! Already Pretty contributor Ashley began blogging in 2007 about fashion and style to fill a void in her life while living in the wintery tundra of Indiana. Her blog Dramatis Personae focuses on food, life & style.  Ashley’s love of fashion began at 10, when she bought her first issue of Seventeen magazine; this also began a life long battle with learning to love her body (she never looked like the girls who graced those pages). As a plus-sized woman, she loves promoting fashion for all women and shops that want to make all ladies feel beautiful.  She currently calls New Orleans home and share her little house with a wonderful fiance and two brilliant and playful Maine Coons kitties.

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34 Responses to “Developing a Color Palette for Your Closet”

  1. Jen

    I recently redid my entire wardrobe and choosing a palette was one of the steps I did. My main colours are black, white, navy, grey and khaki beige. I have a few pieces in other colours but they all go with the rest of my stuff. I have no colour limits on jewellery or shoes. I’m enjoying getting dressed for the first time in my life and there are no orphans in my closet.

    • Ashe

      I’m enjoying getting dressed for the first time in my life and there are no orphans in my closet.

      I feel you on that, Jen! It’s definitely helped me find enjoyment again (and I love how chic and clean your palette is, especially with vibrant, colorful accessories)!

  2. Angela

    I had my colours ‘done’ last year, sounds old fashioned but I loved it. And it helped me immensely to root out orphans and hone my colours. This then helped when I was shopping; I looked only at my colours and then decided if the style suited me. This has stopped me from the magpie shopping I was doing, just buying whatever caught my eye, and then later having trouble putting it all together.

    Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t throw out all my ‘off’ colours but I wear a sweater or scarf in my colours to make them better.

    And the best part? Everything sort of goes together without even trying.

    Best money I ever spent.

    • Ashe

      I love this comment, Angela! I’ve never had my “colors done,” mostly because I always found it tricky. As I’ve gotten older, I think it’s because I was more neutral than I realized when I was younger.

      I’m glad it helped you with the magpie tendencies and helped streamline your closet! It’s always kind of amazing how one little (big!) step can help us that way.

  3. Jessi

    I recently decided to stop buying clothes based on the feeling that I “should” have more colors in my wardrobe, and, instead, just wear the colors I like (grey, tan, shades of blue, white, army green, and cream). I feel so much better about what I’m wearing, and clearing all of the other stuff out of my closet makes it a lot easier to get dressed in the morning.

  4. shebolt

    I’m very resistant to this idea, mostly because I have a few friends who chosen to severely limit their color palette to the point where it almost hinders them.

    One only wears black, red, pink, and sometimes burgundy. I remember a party where she showed up in an olive green dress, at the encouragement of another friend, and felt so uncomfortable in the color that she left early.

    But the more I think about it, the more I realize that I have also chosen to limit my color palette, although it’s not deliberate. I simply avoid certain colors (almost all pinks, pastels, and white).

    • Ashe

      But the more I think about it, the more I realize that I have also chosen to limit my color palette, although it’s not deliberate. I simply avoid certain colors (almost all pinks, pastels, and white).

      I think that’s what makes the process easy for some of us– we do it subconsciously! Then we realize how we may do it and can be more conscious of what we’re shopping for. I love not having to debate with myself on a cute pair of black or brown flats anymore– it’s just done.

      I’d never be able to wear just shades of red and black– but more power to your friend for finding what works for her! And it sounds like you’ve done it to some degree too… and it works for you. I think it’s all about the degree you want to do it and finding the balance that fits your style.

  5. Stacy

    I have found myself gravitating towards select colors, as well. For me they are cobalt blue, turquoise, and red. I do have plenty of other colors in more one-off variety, but I have more of those colors than any other.

    • Ashe

      Cobalt, turquoise, and red create some of my favorite color combinations! It always looks so vibrant and fresh.

  6. Dee

    My color palette is basically the same as Ashe’s but I am a brunette, not a blond. I say that because I am a believer that certain colors look best with certain skin tones and hair color. Honestly, I learned the best colors for me years ago when everyone had their “colors done”. It all made sense to me. I had been wearing colors that my mother wears – like brown – she looks great in brown, whereas I look better in black, Tans and pastels look terrible on me. I like some taupes if there is a grey tone to it. I pretty much cut out navy in my work/office clothes. Not that I look bad in navy but it didn’t make sense to have a whole wardrobe around navy basics and black basics. I love color and fashion – but find its easiest to use color in my tops,jackets, and scarves and buy only what looks good on me.

    • Ashe

      Dee– oddly, I spent many years as a brunette (and redhead)! When it comes to the colors, I’ve been really lucky– my skin is pretty neutral (as opposed to warm or cool), so these shades have stuck by me pretty well despite what shade my hair may be at the time. (I suspect having dark blue eyes, as opposed to light-bright ones helps)

  7. Eliza

    I’ve noticed that I naturally gravitate towards dark brown, black and olive green neutrals in the winter, and white, olive, and nude/pink shades in summer, so I’ve reinforced that by only buying clothing that will work with those colors.
    I don’t limit myself to particular shades, but I definitely think about how new colors will interact with my existing closet. I love red accents, but red and olive green can get christmas-y quickly, so I am carefull to go for dark or brick/orange reds, rather than a true fire-engine red. I also think about how colors will make me feel. Plum looks great on me, and works well with the rest of my closet, but I want to tear it off after an hour, so I only buy plum accessories, never clothing.

  8. Hearthrose

    Yes! 1) I ascribe to the old seasonal colors philosophy, but beyond that, I try to get 2) most of my basics in a few neutral colors so that my clothes go together.

    Imagine, if you will, living with less than 10 each skirts and tops. They’d best all go together!

    • Ashe

      Imagine, if you will, living with less than 10 each skirts and tops. They’d best all go together!

      Definitely! I’ve been thinking alot about college, and how limited my wardrobe was. But I was far more creative and in love with everything during that time!

  9. Edith

    You know, I rearranged my drawers by color and found that I had sort of instinctively stuck to a few colors. It is a bit odd because if you had asked me I would probably not have told you those were “my colors”. I have mostly blues and pinks/reds, far fewer neutrals (black, brown, cream, grey) and a couple yellow sweaters. For me, having my clothes arranged by color is really helpful for figuring out how to mix things up.

  10. Monica

    Thanks for this article. I especially appreciate the note about what’s NOT in your color scheme. I often feel that it’s hard for me to implement fashion advice unless I understand the “don’ts” as well as the “do’s.” I try to implement the advice, but inadvertently cross into “don’t” category without realizing it.

    I recently had my colors “done,” and this really helped me in two ways. One of the most important pieces of advice for me was that I look really good in “high contrast” color combinations – black and white, or light pink and navy. This has really helped me ‘liven up’ my outfits because I have always known that I look good in both black and white, but I’ve noticed the combination is particularly flattering. I also now understand better why I look good in both black and dark gray, but they don’t look very good together as they are too similar. The other major thing that I have noticed is that all “khaki” is not created equal. I look great in the lightest “stone” khaki, but the medium and dark versions look positively drab on me. That explains why I don’t like some of the pants in my closet! This may seem obvious to some of you, but it’s been a big step forward for me, and I’m holding out for the right colors, as well as making more attractive combinations with the clothes I alredy have!

    • Ashe

      ” I especially appreciate the note about what’s NOT in your color scheme. I often feel that it’s hard for me to implement fashion advice unless I understand the “don’ts” as well as the “do’s.” I try to implement the advice, but inadvertently cross into “don’t” category without realizing it.”

      I’m happy that portion helped you– I realized that based on pictures and words, it may not sound like I limit anything out at all… and that by showing what I DON’T have, that may make it more easy to understand. So it makes me happy to to hear that helps!

      What you say about looking good in “high contrast” outfits is really interesting to me, because I’ve never thought about how I look in those vs. monochrome…. but I’m curious, to say the least!

  11. Marsha

    This speaks to me because I’ve never had a love for the neutrals: black, navy, grey, brown, beige, etc. Although I have a few garments in these colors, my “neutrals” are green, blue, purple, and pink. My closet is color-coded and I dress myself out of whatever section I’m feeling that day (today is a green day).

    I can do this without spending much money since I have a thrift store addiction and know how to sew. I buy what I like and alter or refashion it. If I’ve bought a top that doesn’t go with any of my current bottoms, I just hang it in its section and wait for the right garment to come along. It usually does within a few months, or I make the missing garment myself.

    Life’s too short not to enjoy all of God’s colors!

  12. Molly

    Yes! I’m going to sound like an echo to what many others have said here:

    I started revamping my closet a year or two ago when I realized how many items made me feel uncomfortable for one reason or another, so I avoided them and they just got in the way. Now I’m mostly down to lots of black and grey (no brown or navy, save a few holdouts), deep purples, indigo, olive green, and occasionally fuchsia. Shopping is a breeze, I feel much more like “me”, and putting together outfits is far easier.

  13. Kristin

    Count me as another that seems to create color palettes subconsciously. I tend to avoid pastels and tons of black, while I gravitate towards reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, and browns. Blues, greens, purples, and grays show up but not as frequently. Pretty sure I’m some form of “autumn” 🙂

  14. Leiah

    I am always drawn toward peaches and corals, but since I’m so fair-skinned, they end up washing me out. So I don’t buy them anymore. And I used to think I bought too much gray and black, but I *feel* best in those colors, so I just go crazy! 🙂

  15. Katja

    I did it by accident. I did a massive closet purge about a year ago, and discovered that 90% of what was left was black, grey, or some variation on lilac/mauve/plum or pale/medium/dark olive green.

    In my purchases since then, I’ve kept this set of colors in mind, and have avoided buying other colors. It’s made life so much simpler.

  16. Gracey at Fashion for Giants

    Great post. I will usually wear pretty much any color and can be happy in it, but I tend to wear more blues, pinks, yellows and oranges. I like green and purple well enough, but just don’t gravitate towards them. I avoid brown like the plague but wear a lot of gray. And I probably couldn’t tell you why. I tend to use intuition as well.

  17. D

    I’ve refined what colors I will buy over the last few years. I prefer warm toned, saturated colors- usually reds, pinks, purples, oranges, goldenrod, fuschia and greens; and mostly grays, brown and black for my neutrals. I generally accent my closet with teal and cobalt. I don’t buy pastels (though I have a few older ones still hanging around in my closet…), and I don’t do any sort of light blue. I generally don’t wear white. It works for me, and if I absolutely love something that is not in the perfect color, I won’t stop myself from buying it.

  18. Kirsten

    Just purged about 50% of my clothes, and devised a “uniform” of print shirt with solid pants/skirt and solid jacket/cardigan. Realizing that I’ll likely never be a champion pattern-mixer and sticking to the above rule has been a real relief!

    Also, I got rid of all bottoms that were not navy or tan, and all shirts that weren’t bright, candy colors. My closet looks so cheerful and roomy now, and I spend no time deciding what to wear.

    • Ashe

      “Realizing that I’ll likely never be a champion pattern-mixer and sticking to the above rule has been a real relief!”

      You & me both, Kirsten!

  19. Kristen

    I like how you addressed this. I see some other comments about people getting their colors “done,” and I think that the resources there are good for helping narrow down a palette as well. Even if you don’t get them formally done, or even care what your colors are (as far as what physically “matches” you best), the idea of having a group of similar colors works well for someone who wants a cohesive wardrobe without limiting him/herself to say, five colors.

    For me, if I pick a scene or a mood that I like, I find it easier to redirect myself towards those types of colors. I’ve also found examples of color palettes like these that help me keep in mind colors that go together. If you stick with one group of colors, you’ll be able to mix and match easily. There are certain neutrals that go with certain colors, and if you aren’t doing brown AND black AND olive AND putty, even mixing your colors with your neutrals gets easier.

    • Ashe

      Those palettes are AMAZING Kristen! I never know what season I am, but based on those, I can see what seasons I *want* to be and already shop within…

  20. Kitty

    I’ve worked hard on my closet for about three years now and replaced probably 90% of what I had with thrift store and ebay buys. I happen to be a person who shouldn’t wear much black. I didn’t know. I was drowning in it until my big closet overhaul because I assumed it would be the easiest neutral to build on. I like Carol Tuttle’s Dressing Your Truth and it was a turning point for me in wearing and collecting only what fits my energy type.

    After three years of many mistakes and learning, I found that my closet did blend nicely into color “stories’. The things that I was wearing and loving fit into one of three color stories….a navy/denim blue color which also contains some plums, grays and my stark white blouses (half my wardrobe naturally fits into this color story)……a chocolate brown story which surprisingly contained coral/rust/deep orangey colors that I didn’t know I liked (this section is about a fourth of my closet) …….and the third color story which is the smallest and contains alot of winter white, some deep pinks, a couple pieces of golden yellow and one springy green I can wear.

    What was amazing to me was that once I reached the point of being able to organize my closet into these three groups – things became SO much easier. No more orphans, quick and easy to coordinate pieces and get dressed, and much easier to know what to buy. If I can’t visualize it within one of these three closet stories, it’s going to be troublesome for me and most likely an orphan.

  21. Sonja

    Great article!
    When I first started to put more thought into my personal style, I got very interested in colour palettes and capsule wardrobes, but I always felt that I still had too many clothes and colours.
    After reading this I noticed two things – first that I already did some honing and reducing by concentrating not on specific colours, but on a specific type and intensity of colours. I can’t stand pastels or muddy earth-tones, for me colours have to be clear and strong. Nearly everything I own has a saturated, vibrant and tendencially cool shade without any undertones of brown or white. Thanks for making me see this.
    The second thing I noticed when I followed the links to the original blog posts: actually I do not use that many colours if I put them into groups. Thus my colours would be: neutrals: black, brown, grey, base colours: green/teal/turquoise, magenta/purple, sunny yellow and different shades of red. Additionally to that I also wear blue (mostly blue jeans), white and beige, but mostly because those are difficult to avoid. 😉
    After reading this article I feel much less guilty about all those colours in my wardrobe (although I obviously know that it was stupid to feel guilty in the first place).
    I would also like to mention that I dye may garments to bring them closer to “my colours”.

    • Ashe

      Aww, definitely don’t feel guilty, Sonja! I’m a big believe in “Whatever works for you.” Whether it’s big, small, somewhere in the middle… or something that takes a little bit of work in some places to make it easier in others.

      And I loved your tip about dying to bring them closer to your shades!

  22. Sara

    When I first read this article, my first thought was “Oh my! I have all the colors of the rainbow in my wardrobe!”. But then I started thinking…and realized that instead of specific colors, I limit tones. You won’t find anything “dusky”, “muted”, “muddy” or “earthy” from my wardrobe. My colors are always clear. I also shy away from loudest colors, except bright red. I can’t imagine myself wearing kelly green, goldenrod yellow, cobalt, fuchsia or even a small amount of neon colors.
    Instead, I wear lots of pastels and jewel tones, and nearly all neutrals (excluding tan, camel, cognac and grayish blues/khakis). For my neutrals, I like white, black, charcoal, chocolate brown, khaki green, navy blue and sand. My typical outfit combines neutrals with color, and there is almost always some tone contrast- eg. white with darker colors, dark brown/navy/black with light pastels.

  23. American Debt Project

    I know that having the right colors makes a huge difference for your wardrobe. I’m like Sara in the comment above, I do pick certain colors and know there are certain colors I avoid (red being the main one). But I think there is a lot of room to experiment and wear more fun stuff, like neon or safety yellow which I am loving lately (mainly because it’s so silly, it’s fun).