Reader Request: Color Simplified

color style fashion dressing
Gorgeous reader Abi had this request:

I’d love it if you could explain colour for me – how do I know what colours suit me, what goes, what clashes, etc.? I know other people have written articles about this, but they’re complicated and confusing. No one just seems to break it down in a way that works.

Like this from Gala Darling. It gives me 6 possible categories and I can’t be all of them. Or this from Academic Chic. It’s way too complicated and theoretical.

It’d be great if you could write something simple and practical so everyone can understand and use it, even those of us with no knowledge of art or fashion 🙂 Pretty please?

Oh, Abi, I feel ya. I do. I am a color addict, truly fascinated by the theories, and curious about which colors look good on a certain complexion, and which colors look good paired together and …. and … yet part of me kinda hates all that stuff. The same part that will read the first three pages of an instruction manual and then wing it.

The two resources you’ve cited are, in fact, thorough and invaluable. And the advice I’m about to give is slapdash and half-assed. But I think it works, and it’s simple, and it’s not terribly intimidating. What it lacks in accuracy, it makes up for in ease.

Let’s break it down into the two major components of colors and color flattery: The colors that suit you, and the colors that suit each other.

Your colors

I’ll level with you: I have no idea what my complexion is. OK, OK, I know I’m some sort of “winter,” but there are all sorts of warm tones that look good on me, too, so it’s hard to say for certain. And the bottom line is – just like the charts that show you what body type/shape you have – all that stuff is just meant to get you in the ballpark. If you can get as far as “MOST colors that work for wintry complexions work for me,” you’re golden.

So, do try to get that sorted. Utilize Gala’s post for starters, or track down any reputable guide to determining your complexion type. Otherwise you’ll be starting from scratch, and THAT will be overwhelming as all get-out.

Once you’ve got your ballpark complexion, you’ll know which color families to try first. But you’ll inevitably see a pretty dress in a color outside your ballpark, and want to try it on. It is well worth putting that dress to the color-flattery test! Don’t go thinking that you have zilch for wiggle room. Evaluate on a garment-by-garment basis.

You are mainly interested in how colors affect your face, so hold a solid block of color right up next to your gorgeous visage. If you can, wrap it all the way around your head with a thatch of your hair peeking out. Look in a mirror in a well-lit room – ideally a mix of natural and artificial light so that you’ll know how it’ll appear both indoors and out. Then ask yourself these questions:

1. How does it affect your eye color? Does it brighten or dull it? In other words, do your eyes sparkle and twinkle, or look matte and lifeless?

2. How does it play off your hair color? Does it bring out your natural highlights or lowlights? Does it clash? Does it make your hair appear drab and subdued?

3. How does it influence your skin tone? Do you look healthy and robust, or wan and sickly? Does it bring out the dark circles under your eyes? Does it bring out a bit of a blush in your cheeks?

That last one is the biggie, of course, and is worth expanding upon. So then. Does this color overemphasize the dominant color in your skin tone? Meaning if you’ve got yellowish skin, does it make you look like a dandelion? If you’ve got ivory skin, does it make you look like Snow White? If you’ve got dark brown skin, does it make you look matte and flat, or even grayish? You want a color that creates balance with your skin, NOT one that brings out its color extremities. A color that flatters you will make you look, more or less, like someone who has put on a light amount of makeup. You’ll have a hint of rose on your cheeks, your lips will look warm and natural, and you’ll appear rested and nourished.

Now, all of these questions are HIGHLY subjective, so don’t go thinking that you’re gonna guess wrong. Most people base clothing choices on the colors that appeal to their eyes, and don’t even bother to see how those colors interact with their eye, hair, and skin tones … so you’re already one jump ahead. And the bottom line? If you put a color to this test and that color is wrong for you, YOU WILL KNOW. Because you’ll wrap that blouse around your noggin, look in the mirror, and see a LIFELESS ZOMBIE. Put me in coral, butter yellow, or beige and I become LIFELESS ZOMBIE SAL. It’s that extreme.

Colors playing together

Short answer: Screw theory, just put colors together and see what you think. Again, you’ll know when colors don’t work as a pair because you’ll get an insta-migraine. It’s that extreme.

Longer answer: If the prospect of matching colors willy-nilly makes you want to run screaming, start with like-to-like combinations. Pair warms with warms (cream, brown, tan, orange, orange-y reds, rust, mustard, warm grays, periwinkle, purples, deep blues, olive green) and cools with cools (white, black, grass green, bright blue-red, teal, neon colors, hot pinks, electric blue). Basically, if a color is extremely bright, it can go with other brights, black, and white. If it’s muted, it can go with other muted tones and browns.

Once you’re comfortable with likes, start messing around with the colors I consider to be “bridging” colors. Reds, yellows, and grays are some of the most versatile. Turquoise can also cross over – looks great with white, but also with brown. Use those colors as a platform, and start playing. Once again, if a color combination doesn’t work – neon yellow and ivory, mustard and grass green – your eye will know. Trust yourself.

Once you’re comfortable pairing colors, start introducing a THIRD color. Then challenge yourself to ditch the black, gray, white, and brown altogether and utilize non-neutrals only. Play, play, play.

If you forget about rules and just start experimenting with color combos, you’ll be absolutely astonished to find that most colors look fantastic together. Really.

Again, this is your Cliff Notes to color flattery. Nothing scientific about it, and it might be even more confusing to some of youse than the more technical guides. But if you’re interested in a quick-and-dirty way to check if a color flatters your complexion, or want some minimal guidance on matching color to color, give these a whirl!

Image courtesy Lucy Nieto.

Originally posted 2009-08-17 05:51:00.

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22 Responses to “Reader Request: Color Simplified”

  1. Denise

    I know it's sort of old-fashioned, or even unfashionable, but I went to a color consultant years ago and it was one of the best gifts I gave myself. Sal's right in that there are no hard and fast "rules," but it's really helpful to have an objective, unfamiliar (with you) eye look with you at colors and see which ones flatter you best.

  2. Sal

    Denise: Not unfashionable at all! If I could afford to get my colors done, I'd totally do it. I imagine that working with an actual human being/expert on these matters is FAR more effective than anything attempting to apply some article or guide.

  3. Cupcakes and Cashmere

    i often stick to simple color palettes, but you're right…new combinations are so fun and often work really well!

  4. WendyB

    It sort of terrifies me that I don't put so much thought into these issues!

  5. Anonymous

    I think having your colours "done" is very overrated unless you get lucky and find someone who really understands colour theory, and perhaps is an artist. I've had it done three times and have been all seasons except Winter.

    I think playing with colours is the best idea, maybe with a helpful friend.

  6. Kirsten

    Just wanted to draw attention to a tip from another great post of Sal's on Rules Made to Be Broken.

    In it she says "Putting a contrasting-colored scarf between your head and the offending color works wonders." I LOVE THAT! So if you do suddenly realise that you have tops that really don't flatter your complexion, you can still make use of them. You can cut down their effect by adding a flattering colour between them and your face. Voila! Problem solved.

  7. Annie

    I found a simple rule of thumb as well: try something on, look in the mirror and if what pops out most is the article of clothing, something is probably not right; if you look in the mirror and the first thing that you notice is *you* then you're on to something!

  8. K.Line

    I love the "screw colour theory" system! I have no idea what will work or why (except dimly, of course, and by intuition) but I just throw it all together, and take it apart again if it sucks.

  9. Jingle Bella

    Great post Sal! I agree that the most important thing to do is to see how a colour looks against your face – 20 seconds holding a T shirt up against you and looking in a full length mirror really does show whether it makes you look alive or dead.

    And of course if you find a colour which you LOVE but doesn't work with you at all … see if you can buy a skirt in that colour (to keep it far away from your face) and rock it anyway!

  10. rb

    Oh, this is one of my favorite topics. I rolled along thinking I looked best in variations of blue and black until I had an appointment with a personal shopper at Nordtrom who looked at my eye color, my hair and my complexion and pronounced me an Autumn. An Autumn? A pale skinned blue-eyed brunette like me? How can that be? But I think she's right. My hair tends toward red, and my irises have a lot of gold in them.

    But the real test was in the colors I started wearing after my visit with her. I wore my leaf green cashmere wrap to an industry event and so many people told me I looked great, that I seemed healthy, even that it looked as if I'd lost weight, I started to believe this stuff.

    I have come to realize that as I age, I don't look best in black head to toe. It can be very harsh against the skin, and a dark brown is much easier to wear. I'll never stop wearing black, but I'm really enjoying wearing more color now, particularly the greens and the right blues (basically, the colors of the sea.)

    The best MODERN book I have read on the topic is Life in Color by Jesse Garza and Joe Lupo. I took their quiz, which is quite detailed, and found that I'm a Classic/Chic Earth. (Earth = Autumn.) The book even includes little stickers with Pantone color chips to take shopping, which I do. I obsessively do.

    I don't know if that link will work, but check it out.

  11. Spandexpony

    Love it! Sure there are academic approaches to color which are interesting… I highly recommend "The Art of Color". Very simple and easy to understand book and a joy to read through. But academics aside, you should be able to tell if a color makes you look dull or glow. If you're not sure, it probably doesn't look good… stick to colors you instantly love on yourself!

  12. Imogen Lamport

    Great explanation Sal – I always tell my client that as their SKIN is the biggest organ in their body, that is the most important one to make sure their colors flatter. We change our hair colours and our eyes are a small percentage of our face, so go with the skin every time.

    When I do colour analysis with a client it's based on what I see with my eyes, not any sort of analysis of skin tone etc. For example, I have a slightly yellowish toned skin, yet my skin looks best in cool colours. Another consultant friend of mine has a pinkish toned skin, yet looks best in warmed toned colours – yet this is the opposite of what the manuals will tell you!

    You need to see how the colours react against your skin.

    Colours that everyone can wear include: Teal, turquoise, taupe, red-violet.


    I like odd color combo…MARNI has the best I think! Lovely week Sal*


  14. Diana

    I think this usually tends to be the way I determine if I color works for me or not – I tend to instinctually know if it's not for me, even if I can't define it. On the other hand, I'm drawn towards colors that really work for me. When these items are in my closet, I wear them over and over again.

  15. Rosy

    One more! If the color pairing is in nature, screw what the books say. Nature never gets it wrong!

  16. minou

    the most helpful thing for me when it comes to colors is my friends, but i might just be lucky in that i have honest friends who tell me when a color is "my" color 🙂 i make sure to return the favor when i see them wearing something striking. i never knew that i looked good in bright green until people started telling me!

  17. enna.

    The best part is, if you want to wear a color that is not particularly flattering, you can wear it as a skirt, or shoes, or bag–somewhere away from your face. That's the only way I can wear orange!

  18. Hannah

    Love this color stuff I tend to want to know my colors perfectly and this is a great reminder to try new colors. Thanks!

  19. F. Laurel Scott

    I just found this from Google. I guess people do not realize that the “seasons” color patterning was developed for by and for Caucasians only and has nothing to do with the rest of the world.

    And even then, it is not that accurate.

    Just a heads up.