How to Wear Colors that Make You Look Ill

wear colors that wash you out

Because I have experienced first-hand the spirit-lifting power of color, I feel it is my duty to encourage everyone to wear more of it. Strangers on the street! Tiny children! Farm animals! You should all be wearing more color, dammit. No, I don’t have to look at you to know it. I can just tell.

Yet, I’m well aware that neutrals feel safe and eternally chic. And, perhaps more importantly, that certain colors make certain people look peaked. Poorly. Washed-out. Just plain awful. And while I believe that sometimes one should wear a bright, happy, invigorating shade despite its potential complexion-ruining properties, I also understand that most of us prefer to look healthy and glowing most days.

So, here are my tips for wearing colors that wear you. Nothing earth-shattering here, but it’s nice to have all the tricks in one place!

Wear it on your bottom half

So, the dusty rose color of my marvelous tulle skirt up there? There’s a specific reason it’s being worn on the lower half of my bod. Boy, does it ever make me look like a flu victim when it’s up next to my face. Drains the color from my skin, dulls my eyes and hair, sucks all the sparkle out of my complexion. But my legs suffer less, as you can see. They’re just as pale and pinky as always.

Now, if it’s bright red or neon yellow that messes with your complexion, you may feel like wearing such blaring brights on your bottom half will draw attention to your hips and butt and legs. True, true. And if you’re self-conscious about those body parts, that may feel risky. You can certainly mitigate the effect by doing a long cardigan or blazer when wearing bright bottoms, but if that doesn’t appeal, fear not. There are plenty of other ways to get your neon on.

Wear it in a pattern

This might be the least satisfying of your options, but it’s still a viable option. If you love yellow and long to wear big swaths of it, try a different trick than this one. But if a little dab will do ya, pattern is a fabulous way to work tricky colors into daily wear. You can even pick patterns in which the offending shade is dominant. The presence of other tones and the movement provided by graphic patterns will help soften the impact.

Try tights

As is the case with bottoms, some unflattering colors make for real attention-grabbers when worn on your lower half. You may balk at the idea of wearing hot pink, bright white, or vibrant teal tights. But if it’s navy, gray, or black that fights your natural coloring, picking those colors up in hosiery can feel more easy and natural.

Place something between your face and the offending color

Most of us don’t worry quite as much about how colors play on our breastbones or wrists. The main concern is the face itself, and getting a more flattering color or distracting texture between your visage and the color that messes with it can help. The most obvious choice is a scarf, of course, but a cardigan, shawl, or blazer can do the job almost as well. Even a fairly heavy necklace can work wonders. Ideally, it should be a contrasting colored necklace, but even a metal that works with your skin tone will soften the effects of the unflatteringly colored top.

Wear it in accessories or shoes

Belts and sashes in bright or tricky colors can add punch to your outfits, as can incorporating colorful footwear. Handbags are an absolute natural, too, since you seldom press your purse against your face. (Or if you do feel the need for a purse-nuzzle, you don’t do it ALL DAY LONG.) Bangles and rings can work, too, although earrings, scarves, and necklaces in colors that fight your complexion can be far trickier.

Related posts:

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to bring colors into your life. If wearing green makes you look green, you could buy a green car. If white makes you look like you’ve just seen a ghost, paint your walls white. If red makes you look ruddy, you can always invest in a red rug or bedspread. But if your desire is to don a color that makes mayhem with your natural facial tones, some of these suggestions may help make that possible.

Originally posted 2011-11-07 06:16:13.

Next Post
Previous Post

42 Responses to “How to Wear Colors that Make You Look Ill”

  1. Hillary

    Also wearing makeup. I find you can get away with more offending colors. If I wear light pinks or tan I need to brighten my face up more. Counteract the “ill” effect

  2. MM

    My worst is champagne colored things. They do to me what mauve does to you. I wish I could wear it, especially when I see it styled in a chic way for dressy events. But, I automatically stay clear. Thanks for this post. I may get up the nerve to purchase something!

    • LinB

      Craftosaurus got there first: I second the Ha! “Purse-nuzzle.” Love it!, and raise you two Ha ha!s.

  3. Eleanor Snare

    Excellent tips Sally, as always. I love wearing colour and originally thought there were several colours that didn’t suit me, including pink and purple. My tips would be:

    Explore the colour – sometimes a particular shade (eg royal purple) will suit you, but maybe another (like lilac) won’t.

    Wear the offending colour with coloured items that make it less offensive – ‘calm down’ the colour with other colours you know flatter you

    Makeup! – if you wear makeup, team an offending colour with some beautiful flattering lipstick or cheek shades to counteract the colour’s effect.

    Form follows colour – I could never wear a frilly pink shirt as it would be ‘too much’ both for my complexion and style, but a loose pink marl tee works! If you think a particular colour might wash you out, wear it in a ‘sharp’ way to add some visual interest.

    I also think that neutrals can be a big problem for people with very light skin or yellow toned skin. I can’t wear beige, grey or any sophisticated neutral palettes close to my face as my skin is too light and I look ill! But they’re ideal for skirts, trousers, or even off the shoulder dresses. So sometimes what we think are ‘safe’, neutral colours can actually be the most unflattering and difficult to wear.

  4. Becky

    I have to be very careful with color; my skin has both blue and yellow undertones that, if accidentally brought out by my clothing, add 10 years and an impending divorce to my appearance. The worst offender is anything with yellow or yellow-green in it, but there are many more colors that look bad on me than look good on me – I’ve tried them all. Even normally flattering colors (like blue) look bad in certain hues and saturations.

    I look terrible if there is anything white, cream, ivory, etc. within 2 feet of my face. That’s OK, because I can’t manage to keep white clothing clean anyway.

    Since my wardrobe is very small (and likely to remain so), and so many colors are unflattering on me, I wear a limited palette. This does get boring. I have been trying to add interest with texture instead of color, which has been fun. But maybe I’ll take this advice as a way to branch out a bit.

    Colors I would love to wear if they flattered me? Oranges, tans, golds, and celadon green. Aqua. Actually it’s hard to imagine whether I would like to wear some colors because I feel so gut-level rejecting of them, knowing that they make me look terrible. I think of them as chromatic Mean Girls, poisoning their environment. First step would be to get over that.

  5. LNR

    A few years ago I purchased bright yellow skinny pants. It was pretty daring. My hips and thighs are absolutely my problem area! BUT seriously, whenever I wore them I felt like I was rockin’ them regardless, because–come on, YELLOW PANTS. I was living in London at the time, and it was the fall, so everyone there was wearing black. I think they were probably so busy being shocked at the color of my pants that no one stopped to notice that the color was highlighting my curves in a possibly unflattering way.

    I’m not sure if this is a legitimate approach to the problem of not wearing colors, but I feel like my philosophy seems to be something along the lines of “by all means, go ahead!” when it comes to wearing colors.

  6. GenkiOriana

    I’m a thirty-one year old who’s just figuring out this “girly business” you speak of. So color: scares the crap out of me. I have to admit- I’m trying more (today I’m wearing neutral green pants, holy. shit. batman.) but it’s scary. Thanks for the tips. 🙂 Maybe someday I’ll own something bright yellow that I wear out of the house… Someday? 😉

  7. Tara

    I love wearing color and don’t have any that are off-limits. I have very pale skin, and while annoying during swimsuit season, my coloring allows me to wear pretty much any hair color, make-up color or clothing color. But look out if I’m near a swimming pool, my legs could blind a person (even when wearing multiple self-tanners/bronzers)!

  8. Kat

    Pastels make me look like I’m standing in some sort of unflattering light that turns my face funny colors. (Especially mint green.) Fortunately I like the saturated jewel tones best, and don’t pine *too* much for baby pink. I do use some of your tricks already–tights, skirts, patterns. Sometimes layer pieces work too–pastel tanks underneath a see-through black blouse, or longer sleeves poking out from under a sleeveless shirt.

  9. The Bun

    Off-topic, but I was tickled to see that someone else refers to their favorite color palette as ‘eye-searing’. Most of my favorite things are bright brights. My best story about an eye-searing item: I have an electric blue trenchcoat (not a fashion one, an actual lined, water-resistant outerwear piece, maybe London Fog brand? from the 70s-80s – thank you garage sales!). I wore it to work one rainy night, and my co-worker pointed at it and said, “That is the bluest….*thing* I’ve ever seen!” Awesome.
    I don’t have any on-topic hints, because I don’t like any of the colors that look bad on me. No soft, muted fall shades for me!

    • Barbra

      I have always thought that for many people, it is intuitive. We like what we look good in and don’t care for the colors that don’t suit us.

  10. LinB

    When I wear blue-based jewel tones, I get compliments. When I wear anything with a yellow undertone, I look like Death on a half shell. A “rule” about wearing whites that I regularly flout is “Don’t wear any white that is brighter than your teeth.” Really, what a stupid rule. What if you don’t have any teeth? An art teacher once preached in color theory class that, even if three of the colors you’ve picked are wretched together, a fourth color will make everything harmonious. Would that work for apparel as well as for painting, one wonders?

  11. Jeneric

    I second what Eleanor said- sometimes there are certain shades of a color that will work. I adore yellow but I have to be very cautious about the shade, whereas I can wear just about any shade of purple and have it work. And sometimes, I decide I just don’t care, like with my yellow raincoat!

  12. Miss T

    I find that pairing the offending color with its opposite on the color wheel helps alot: red/green, blue/orange, yellow/purple. This can be done in a print, as you suggest, or through accessories, or by mixing garment pieces. Often, if a color family looks bad, its opposite will look pretty good, so you can tweak the balance in favor of the color that flatters. For example, yellow doesn’t really look great on me, but when I pair it with a saturated lavender, or a dark purple, its looks very avant garde to me, and I like the effect. This isn’t foolproof, or appropriate for every outfit, but its a starting place for getting some different colors “in”.

  13. Lynne

    A contrarian viewpoint: Why not love your body enough to dress it only in the colors that *it* loves and that love it back? If we should avoid styles that clash with our personalities, cuts and fits that are unflattering to our figures, food that don’t agree with our particular bodies, people who aren’t healthy to our particular selves, etc., why try to force fit a personally unflattering color when we could use that body real estate for a color that makes us look radiant?

    Of course there are lots of situations when we have less choice in the matter: uniforms, bridesmaid’s dresses, a limited and unflattering wardrobe that we’re trying to replace but in the meantime are stuck with, a beloved special color that makes our hearts soar but our skin sour and we feel we just must place on our body anyway. And for major fashionistas, there may be a deep urge to wear the color of the moment regardless of flattery-maybe you crave the variety, the experimentation, the fitting into the groove of the fashion moment. Lots of reasons we end up with colors that sicken us, but most of the time we have lots more choice than that.

    But when we do have choice, why not choose gorgeous color instead of making-do color? I feel it’s an important way to honor, celebrate, and show off all that’s already pretty in our selves? Leaving out altogether the colors that make us look sick doesn’t keep us from dressing or living colorfully. There should be so many colors, tones, and shades that flatter every person that the problem is choosing among them and not over-stuffing the closet and draining the wardrobe trying to own every one that makes us look lovely.

    That is my own problem. My coloring changed over the years, and what used to look great drains me. When I found colors that look terrific on my current body, I started falling in love with so many new colors and wanted to own all of them in everything. So, definitely there is no room in my life for unflattering color, not on the bottom half, not in a shoe. I find it all reflects on my skin some way and makes me feel somewhat less than wonderful that day. It makes the whole day feel like I’m wearing a shoe that almost fits. Not worth it.

    • Sal

      Hm. An interesting perspective, but here’s the thing: We can love colors that don’t work with us, and colors are very strongly connected to emotion. If looking down at your feet or lap and seeing a splash of yellow makes you feel a surge of happiness, why should you deny yourself that? It’s not about dishonoring your body, it’s about connecting looking good and feeling good by any available means.

      Also, I think that playing with styles that clash with our personalities and cuts that “don’t flatter” can help evolve personal style. If you stick with what’s obvious, easy, and safe, how can you find out what else might make you feel radiant and alive? In my opinion, dressing isn’t all about looking as traditionally pretty as possible. Not all the time.

    • Barbra

      ” why try to force fit a personally unflattering color when we could use that body real estate for a color that makes us look radiant?”

      Oh my gosh, this is perfect.

  14. Laurel

    I actually have more trouble with neutrals! I can’t think of a lot of colors that don’t suit me, but taupe, most shades of olive and gray (unless it’s dark like charcoal) just make me look blah.

    I second the tip of wearing a flattering makeup shade (especially on the lips and/or cheeks) if you are having trouble with a color. Another thing to consider is what kind of textile the color is presented in. A soft, light-absorbing fabric like angora looks different from crisp cotton, which looks different from a heavy denim, which looks different from something silky, etc etc. Sometimes if you love a color but can’t find just the perfect way to wear it, consider what materials you find it in!

  15. Carolyn

    Tru dat. I just don’t feel like myself if I’m not wearing some color. Bright turquoise cami under a gray cardigan? Check!

  16. Katha Strophe

    Great advice!
    I absolutely agree with wearing it on your bottom half, I think that’s the best way to pull of every colour.

    I really love seeing mustard yellow items on others, but on me, it just never looked right. Maybe I should look into a pair of shoes or something along these lines.. guess I’ll need to go shopping 😀

  17. The Waves

    Great tips, Sal! My no-go colours are usually in the family of yellows, oranges and beiges, although I am still trying to figure things out! Sometimes I surprise myself – like when I discovered the sandy driftwood-y beige actually suits me – but for the most part I just try to go with what I like, and if I look ill, I just add make-up. Bright lipstick is a total life saver!

  18. Mia

    Reading this, I realize that I…really have no idea what colors DON’T look good on me. I’m aware of colors that really sort of flatter my coloration (jewel tones, etc.), but so far I haven’t bought anything of one color that, when I put it on, made me go “yuck, I look sick.” Maybe I just haven’t been dressing up for long enough? Anyway, I tend to wear whatever colors I like with gleeful abandon, and probably will continue to do so forever and ever.

    • Kenzie

      It’s the same with me! I just wear what I like 🙂 I don’t really notice it on other people, either.

  19. joann, sidewalk chic

    Ahh, this is brilliant. I have a hard time wearing certain colors, particularly yellow, because they make me look like I’m sick all the time. Great idea to wear those colors as bottoms.

  20. Devon

    Great tips! I look really washed out in pinks myself (because my skin is just sort of pink-colored) but pink is one of my all-time favorite colors. I recently bought a pair of bright pink pants and a bright pink button down, but have only really wearing the pants and I couldn’t figure out why the top just didn’t look right. It all makes sense!


  21. JI

    I wear neutrals, mostly. Red haired, very fair with freckles, beige is my god. I do wear red shoes, though!

  22. Thursday

    I actually have no interest in wearing most of the colours that look terrible on me because colours such as pink, yellow, orange and purple have always had a poor fit with my personality. Two colours I do have some interest in – brown and white – make my skin look horribly ruddy. I made the plunge back into brown after more than a decade of avoidance with the purchase of a pair of brown boots this winter just gone (as far from my face as I can get!). I’ve had my eye out for accessories and brown inclusive prints since. White can be so lovely, light and summery but I struggle to wear it on my pear-shaped bottom half, so I’ll just stick to ivory and cream instead.

  23. STL Mom

    I like your suggestion that we put unflattering colors in our houses instead of on our bodies, And then I noticed that I have several rooms decorated with olive-y and yellow-y greens that I like but can’t wear without looking jaundiced. I hadn’t realized that I was already doing that!

  24. Becky

    I don’t pay attention to color in how it complements me. My closet generally reflects how much I like the colors on their own (lots of blues, very few purples and reds). I like your tips on color combinations. I love color and want to be able to rock multiple colors in one outfit like a pro.

  25. Valerie

    Huh. I read through the comments hoping to find a like- minded sufferer in solidarity, but no one’s mentioned my particular affliction yet- can’t wear black syndrome. Because of this, I am among the perpetually un-hip and it pains me so. It must be in the depths of summer and I must have achieved an unusually dark shade of bronze to place it anywhere near my face. I suppose I must be naturally quite sallow- I look almost olive-toned in the summer, but I fade out to an unfortunate jaundiced shade the rest of the year. Combined with very dark eyes and brown hair, black makes me look like I’ve got one foot in the grave.

  26. perdita

    I agree with all of these. Another method I am a big fan of is statement necklaces and bracelets. Yellow doesn’t suit me at all, but a big cuff and pendant against a LBD and I get the bright pop of yellow – whilst still being ‘safe’ with the colour next to my skin.

  27. mercy

    hi. i have this problem. normaly i have a fair bright skin. when i close bright colored outfits like pink, green, white my skin looks bright and glowing. but if i wear dark colored clothes like black, gray or even lighter pink or green my skin becomes darkened and pale and not only my face. my whole body skin loses its glowing nature. what should i do and is it normal?

    • Sally

      Yep. Sounds like you’ll want to avoid black, gray, and pale colors since they wash you out. Stick to the colors that give your skin that natural glow.