Reader Request: Summer Style Minus a Tan

summer style for pale skin

Reader Karen sent this request via e-mail:

I would love to see a blog post about dressing in the summer without a tan. I think you do a great job for yourself! It would be nice to see some ‘rules’ for looking great with pale skin when everyone else is wearing styles and colors that complement tanned skin so well. Top of the list in my experience is to avoid khaki bottoms or any color that blends with pale skin rather than contrasts. I’m sure you have more ideas!

Many of you have naturally dark skin tones or do the self-tanner thing, so much of this post may seem irrelevant to you. But my first suggestion that pertains to dressing pale skin during the summer? Applies to everyone. And I mean everyone:

  • Don’t worry about it: Anyone who is policing your body for any reason at all should consider getting a new hobby. Your skin is your business, no matter how tan, not-tan, pale, dark, spotty, or covered in Twilight-reminiscent glittery bits it may be. The end.
  • Study pale celeb choices: Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Nicole Kidman, and Dita Von Teese all rock fair skin. You may have a hard time tracking down photos of Cate and Tilda frolicking about in shorts and flip-flops, but any outfit shots will show you how they select colors, accessorize, and style their hair to look stylish and chic year-round.
  • Embrace contrast: As a pale gal myself, I find that I can pull off blushes and nudes in late winter and early spring. But now – when there’s little chance of layering some more flattering tones in the mix – I avoid them. I’m more likely to go for vibrant shades that play off my natural undertones and offer sophisticated contrast to my light-colored skin. I’d never say to avoid light colors or nude-ish tones altogether, especially if you can work them into a mix of colors. But in a time when many people are showing off browned skin, colors like peach, stone, khaki, tan, and some ivories will likely look stranger against naturally light skin than they will during the cold months.
  • Do nude-to-you shoes: Exception to the no-nudes guideline? Shoes. No matter what you’re wearing up top, a shoe that matches your unique skin tone is always a good bet. Neutral and classic, flattering and elongating; By all means, do nude shoes. (This advice goes for everyone, too! Pale or dark, tan or ivory, there are shoes out there that will blend with your shade and give you legs for miles.)
  • Consider your makeup: I’m no makeup expert, but I do know that summer is generally considered a casual season and that casualness extends into the realm of cosmetics. I don’t generally do much makeup myself anyway, but I’m even more sparing with it during summer. Natural, light, glowy tones look fab on fair-skinned gals during the summer months. A flattering blush, light lip color, and a little mascara is probably all you’ll need.
  • Play with pattern: Where big swaths of color can wash you out or alter how your skin tone is perceived, patterns are more forgiving. Obviously some patterns will work better than others with your hair, facial features, and figure, so choose carefully. But be aware that doing patterns against pale skin may appear less harsh than solids.

Originally posted 2011-06-28 06:03:03.

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47 Responses to “Reader Request: Summer Style Minus a Tan”

  1. Tracey

    I love the sun, but your right about your body and how you tan or not tan. I love your tips and think you’re right on target! If I had creamy white skin… I’d be rockin’ that too!

  2. Alice

    Thanks so much for this, I have so many problems in summer trying to decide what to wear that isn’t going to make me look painfully pale. I don’t tan naturally and while I would love to slather on the fake stuff I know it wouldn’t do anything for me and would look horribly unnatural (damn Scottish skin). I particularly like your advice about checking out celebrities, and I cannot wait to put on some contrasting colours xo

  3. Cynthia

    I try to avoid the sun as much as possible, because I don’t tan, I get all unevenly red. I don’t mean sunburn, I just mean that the color I get is more pink than brown. I guess I deal with it by just continuing to wear the same colors that I do during the rest of the year, but in lighter fabrics. And, if I want to wear light colors I wear them. There are shades of cream, and pure white, and pink that go fine next to my pale skin any time, I just have to be careful to pick the right ones.

  4. Anna Bowling

    Pale and pink as a just-fed vampire right here, and loving it. I consider my pale, pinky skin an asset, and it helps that I have a gothy streak on occasion; maxi dresses or long broomstick skirts with black, white (love the contrast of cool white on days when I’m looking even pinker than usual) or jewel tone tanks or tees. Have also developed a new love for very pale pink.

    Silver and clear lucite or crystal accessories are wonderful for the pale gal this time of year. Wide-brimmed hats are a must when outside, so I go for the drama with bright colors or patterns. I love being pale in the summer and wouldn’t change it for anything.

  5. Lili @ Relatable Style

    First: FREE YOURSELF from all that tanning BS. If you have a hard time getting a tan and you’d be content with light skin if it wasn’t for everyone else, please stop that madness for yourself. Play it up like a feature, don’t hide it like a failure! (Disclaimer: If you’re tan or like tans, that is cool, too!)

    Second: I always thought I was super pale. I wore nothing but dark cool colors and was white as a ghost. Then I researched (for other reasons than feeling too pale!) a lot about matching clothing colors to my own coloring, and well, dark cool colors are my worst. So I switched to lighter, warmer colors and turns out I have a nice light golden skin tone that was completely swallowed by the dark surroundings. So I definitely recommend looking into your own colors and finding out what plays them up πŸ™‚

    Relatable Style

    • Sal

      EXCELLENT point, Lili! The high contrast idea won’t work for everyone, and experimenting with colors is a great idea for the summer months.

  6. Jaclyn

    I am a pale gal, I slather on sunscreen like there’s no tomorrow. But because of my Italian descent my fair skin has an olive undertone to it and I can get away with wearing most colors. I actually find that blush and nude colors bring out a glow on me and make me look a bit tanner than what I am. But I could absolutely see how those with a red undertone would be washed out by pale colors.
    I think it all comes down to your coloring and not so much the fairness of skin.

    • Piper Alexander

      I agree Jaclyn, I think it’s about dressing for your coloring.

      Another pale celebrity to study is Christina Hendricks. She wears light colors and looks great (IMO). I think it’s just a matter of choosing the right shade. Khaki may be a bit too yellow (and better on a pale warm), but peach is very flattering on pale cool skin.

  7. Casey

    As someone who stays relatively pale year-round (I just go from ghostly pale during the winter to a more “glowing” pale during the summer), I find that summer dressing is in some ways more fun! Perhaps it’s because bright, clear colors are usually easy to find on the racks, and I find those most flattering to my skin. Certain bright colors bring out the natural blush in my cheeks, which gives the impression of color without tanning.

    I agree with the makeup tip as well. Although I have to say that I discovered a super-light bronzer last summer, which really helps if I end up picking up a bit of tan on my arms (the only part of my body that does tan–it’s really annoying and makes me look kind of patchworkish! ;), since I can add a tiny bit of “glow” to my face to make things more harmonious.

    Also: another thing I’ve come to realize is owning my pale legs! For years I hid them under longer skirts since I was embarrassed how pale they were. But if I’m careful to keep my arms covered in a good sunscreen all summer, I find I can rock the head-to-toe pale look with confidence; even in shorts. πŸ˜‰

  8. Break fast habits

    I think Sal summed it up in a nutshell by saying ‘don’t worry about it’. If you’re like me and have decided that sunning yourself is just too dangerous and spraying yourself is asking for an allergy, perhaps the freedom you get from NOT doing those things may give you the confidence to celebrate your paleness? I mean, if you have good, pale skin, why not try those khaki bottoms and go purposely pale?
    My friends crack jokes about me being blue in the winter and turning white in the summer, but they’re jokes made in good faith and point out something that’s unique? unusual? about me which I quite like. I feel it’s a shame that you’re avoiding summer trends because of it…

  9. Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy

    I’d like to let Karen know that though I have a beautiful tan, it is not by choice–I’d much rather be a pale-faced (and legged) girl! But I am outdoors a lot, hyper-sensitive to sunscreen and develop color even through long-sleeved tees!

    I just want her to know that there are many tanned women who are not making a fashion statement with their skin tone–they’re just living with the way their bodies were made.

    These are great tips! I’d love to have an excuse to style myself like Cate Blanchett!

    • Laurel

      Same here! I’d love to have skin like Sally’s, but I tan really easily, even through lots of sunscreen. I think in some ways people who don’t pick up color are lucky, because at least their coloring is uniform. I’ve got some wicked farmers tan going on right now from being outside in t-shirts.

  10. Tara

    I adore pale skin and also have a goth streak. However, with biking and general frolicking in the summer sun, my arms and chest do get a bit of color. My legs? Nada. To even things out (and to cover up the weird blotchy skin on my legs), I opt for self-tanners only on my legs in the summer. I’m just finishing my current bottle. Does anybody have a favorite self tanner that works well for paler skin, doesn’t streak, turn orange, etc?

  11. Peter

    I would also suggest exploring vintage style and/or old-time movie star style. None of the classic beauties of the past were ever tan — not even Esther Williams!

  12. Jenn

    As a woman who has always been pale, I quit trying to worry about tans long ago. Rather, I pride myself on staying pale! It has only been in the last 50 years that women with a tan were consider lady-like – until then, true ladies were pale – because women who had to work outdoors were tan.

    I wear most colors without any difficulty – even with red hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. But I find that yellow is NOT my color – so that I don’t wear often. Nor cream/ecru/beige.

  13. Holly

    “Don’t worry about it” sums it perfectly for me. πŸ™‚ Although the suggestions you give for flattering pale skin in the summer are excellent.

    I laughed out loud at the part about “Twilight-reminiscent glittery bits”. Do you think that’s a concern for those vampires? Maybe they worry about their glittery skin clashing with their outfits.

  14. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    I’m with Holly on team “Don’t worry about it.” I don’t wear bright colors next to my face, because they overpower my whitey-white skin. I like a rosy lip, though, and colorful bags and shoes in the summer. All skin tones are lovely, just as they are.

  15. Stephani

    My skin doesn’t tan–it burns. The burn then sinks into a brown tone–but only patches. So I avoid too much sun and don’t attempt tanning at all. And I’ve given up on self-tanner, because it’s a pain and who has the time? I know there are products out there that are good, but eventually they wash away and you just have to reapply! There are other ways I’d prefer to spend my time.
    I don’t really pay much attention to season shifts in color palettes and how they flatter my skin tone. Aside from just not choosing clothing in shades that I know are unflattering to me. I do tend toward more autumnal shades in fall, cooler shades in winter, and brighter, sunnier colors in spring and summer–but since I’m pale year-round it’s not like I have to really consider seasonal changes in skin tone. I wear colors I like and colors that look flattering on me year round. And I always love contrast! I actually don’t find pale clothing colors, other than white or cream, very flattering. I don’t like the nude look on myself–I just look like a big pink blob. Contrast is my friend!
    For a while I bemoaned my skin’s lack of tannability, but now in my 30s I celebrate the fact that by the time I’m 40, I won’t resemble lizard-woman since my skin isn’t subjected to tanning beds or beach rays.
    But nude shoes: LOVE! In any season, but they’re especially relevant in spring and summer.

  16. Jasmine

    This really hits home for me, because I tan without meaning to. I didn’t tan, ever, in the past, but a few bad sunburns over the years mean that I’ve started getting dark in the summer. It’s obnoxious. And of course, people always complement me on how “nice and tan” I am. I miss my pale skin!

  17. Monika

    I have pale skin and dark brown hair, and like to wear bold, vibrant colours year round. In the winter they’re often combined with black, grey, or a darker shade in the same family, and in the summer I’m more likely to wear two bright colours together.

  18. Trystan (the CorpGoth)

    Coincidentally, today’s guest post on Miss Vinyl Ahoy by Dwelling & Telling has a summery outfit on a pale-ish lady. She proclaims that the white jeans & bright turquoise top makes her ‘lily white self look deceivingly tan.’ Check the post out here:

    Personally, I like to wear white in the summer bec. it feels & looks cool. I’m not especially pale *or* tan (my skin is naturally yellow/olive). White seems to make my skin look a little darker, but I don’t know if that’s bec. I’m not super ghostly pale:

  19. rb

    These are great tips. I am a lifelong pale-face and though I do add a little self-tanner to my lower legs in warm months, I don’t get anywhere near golden.

    I was laughing about the nude shoe tip. I recently went on a quest for a nude shoe. I tried on shoe after shoe in the nude tone at every store in the mall and none of them blended in with my leg color. Finally, the salesclerk at the last store brought out a shoe and said, “Try this one.” A perfect match! I was so excited. Then she said, “That’s because it’s pink, not nude.” Sure enough, the color on the side of the box said Pink Blush. Ha!

    I have another pale friend who used to wear the shade “dove gray” as her nude pantyhose. She swore that if she got a run in them, no one could tell. πŸ™‚

  20. The Waves

    Yup, I am a proud member of the “don’t worry about it” club! Having said that, I do also want to look my best in the season of pale. I agree with Lili about the importance of wearing the right colours; for me it is just a never-ending process of trying to find shades that seem to work. I am very pale and my skin has a yellowish tone, so most browns, beiges and yellows just make me look completely washed out. It seems that for me, navy, most blues and bright jewel tones seem to work.

  21. Mel

    Hi Sal! I’ve been lurking on your site for quite a while now, and I just have to chime in on this topic!

    In the mid-80s, I was in my early 20’s, and here in Southern CA, tanning was pretty much de rigueur (it still is, unfortunately). I spent hours in the tanning salons, and even though I’m naturally very fair-skinned and of German/Scottish/English descent, I got brown as a walnut. I was wearing a lot of neon at the time, and thought I was rockin’! (I still cringe when I see the photos from back in the day…)

    Anyway, fast-forward to my 30’s, and I had to have over 100 precancerous spots on my skin hot-lasered off, which was excruciatingly painful – I was shaking afterwards, even with the Percocet churning through my system! Ever since then, I’ve made it a point to stay out of the sun, and certainly, no more tanning salons for me. I wear sunscreen all the time.

    Do I feel uncomfortable showing pale, bare skin in summer? You betcha. In fact, last Sunday was the first time I went bare-legged in a dress (the fact that I’m not only pale but also bruise like a peach makes it even harder to feel comfortable, and self-tanners just make me look orange). You’re SO right about nude shoes – they really flatter, and they look great with any skin tone! I just bought a pair (for a song) on eBay. They’re nude slingbacks with a cork platform heel, and they’re really comfortable, too.

    The point of my comment? Ladies, be *careful* out in the sun. Your skin will thank you when you get older, and by all means, use sunscreen!

  22. sarah

    I’m pretty pale most of the year because I avoid the sun – though I quickly tan to a pretty copper (and am going to do so this year, because we are bound for some desert hiking and biking in September) I actually stay pale most years in order to keep the wrinkles away =)

    but that said, even in the years that I stay pale, I *love* putting delicate pastels, ivories, and whites against my fair skin – it’s always struck me as a kind of Gatsby elegance, like a summer club in the 20s, all seersucker and white shoes – and it’s a look that (I think) cannot be achieved with a tan. I would love to see more fair-skinned folk owning this look in the summer!

  23. SA

    I can only wish I was pale skinned.I tan at the slightest ray of sun being half indian…

  24. Megan Mae

    I’m a total pale girl. I usually stick to brights or stark white during summer.. but I’ve recently gotten obsessed with creams/khakis/tans. I think it’s possible to wear these shades by employing two tactics: Make sure the shade is different enough to not look like your skin tone. Wear some colored lip product. Keeps me from looking dead. I also don’t bother giving up my black. I stick to the motto “Wear What You Want” thanks to Wendy B.

  25. Audi

    I’m a devoted follower of the “don’t worry about it” philosophy! I also figure that if I never tan, then the same colors will look good on me year round. And since with our mild climate I can wear much of my wardrobe all year anyway, it really helps not to have my own coloring change.

  26. Diane

    Looking healthy is my thing, whether I’m darker in the summer or white as milk in the winter. Some colors make my skin look dead, and others wake me up. I think as long as my under eye circles are covered and I have a little lip color, It doesn’t matter too much what my tan/white level is, just going for an even complexion and looking rested.

  27. WendyB

    I don’t tan and I just wear the colors that look good on me all year long. There’s no change for summer.

  28. retro reva

    I used to be a faithful tanner (in the 70’s/80’s) and now I am hooked on the Jergen’s faux tanning lotion (though I buy the store version) and they look very natural, add a glow plus moisturize in the process πŸ˜‰
    I no longer tan, bad for skin!!!, but this stuff takes the white away and adds a subtle glow so i can still look “summery”.
    I don’t use it on my face, just a pop of pink , sheer blush on apples and very important , the nose, to add a summer face glow as well !

    No one has ever claimed it looks “fakery” either. I agree !


  29. Marie

    I agree with your #1 rule! Several years ago I finally fully embraced my pasty white skin, and now I couldn’t care less what people think. I’ve actually received many compliments! That said, I do try to stay away from black skirts with bare legs, and I’ve found that turquoise is extremely flattering.

  30. Erin

    Like Marie, I stray away from black on the bottom for summer. All my dress capris for work are medium/light grays minimizing the stark contrast on my fair legs & it looks great!

  31. Rachel W

    I’m super pale in the winter, but keeping my skin tone even in the summer is nearly impossible. I’m a backpacking guide so… ya got the farmers tan, shorts tan, gaiter tan, sock tan, chaco tan… even a watch tan! I basically have stripes, despite layering on the spf. So if you can stay ivory-skinned year round, work it girl! Don’t let people convince you that your natural color looks “unhealthy” or some other ridiculous thing.

  32. Georgina

    Ah, I just wrote about this! I think it is SO important to address the fact that we don’t have to give in and get a tan – real or fake – just because society says so!

    I definitely agree with using cothes and make up to play up the contrast. I’m pale, and during the summer I I like to wear bright, block colours and patterns – mainly stripes and polka dots. My hair is dyed black and I like to wear red lipstick which makes my eyes and my skin pop like nothing else!

    I am definitely an advocate of being “pale and interesting!” Porcelain skin is beautiful and when you set it off with the right clothes and cosmetics, it looks simply amazing.

  33. MelD

    I think it makes a difference if you’re a pale blonde or a brunette.
    Fair hair and light eyes seem to be able to carry off tone-in-tone looks of nudes, creams, beiges with much more flair, almost ethereal, and often look totally cool in the summer heat. I think light yellow often looks nice on these girls and watery aquas, blue or green tinted, palest rose etc.
    Darker-haired girls already have more contrast with hair, eyebrows, eyes and lips, so I think playing them up works better (Dita von Teese as opposed to Nicole Kidman!), so happy colours that aren’t tooo deep are going to look summery and light – another icon I can think of who carries this look is Andy McDowell. Or Catherine Zeta-Jones, who looks sensational in one of her movies where they are in the Far East and she’s wearing creams and rich browns…

  34. Suze

    I don’t tan, at all. By choice, and by skin tone. I enjoy being pale. That being said, wear whatever you want. To me, there are no colors I can’t/won’t/don’t wear. It doesn’t matter if I’m tanned or not. I just got back from a vacation in Jamaica where I was the palest one there, and everyone was amazed by the color of my skin. Be proud of your skin tone, no matter what color- it makes you, you!

  35. Erika A

    I’m a blue-eyed brunette with somewhat pale skin with pinkish-brown tones. I tan but also burn (depending on the part of my body) so my primary concern is to minimize precancerous sun exposure. I wear a lots of big hats, sunglasses and sunscreen, and I favor 3/4-sleeved cotton shirts over tank tops. However, like the backpacking guide above, I love the outdoors and spend time outside hiking and biking in non-fashion gear. Where I am getting sun on my skin, I get uneven tan lines and strange looking stripes. I’ve made peace with it and enjoy that I’m getting exercise. πŸ™‚

    My single biggest summer style discovery is that I can wear most shades of dark pink and sunshine yellows. When paired with white jeans, light denim skirts, or brown linen shorts, those colors manage to play up the pale *and* the tan and somehow magically even out my skin tone.

    However, nude shoes? Hate ’em. So not for me.

  36. K-Line

    I’m seriously pale. I think the light shoe idea is a good one. I also think pale is attractive. So I’m ok with it.

  37. Kay

    I love this dress every single time you wear them!

    The funny thing is I’m dark (East Indian) and this color suits me perfect as well.

    Pale / dark – it doesn’t matter. As long as you are comfortable with it and take good care of it, you look attractive! Maybe this is what they mean when they say ‘feeling comfortable in your own skin” I guess.

  38. RuthieK

    I’m a pale brit, but I do get a little colour on arms, face, neck. The skin on my legs is almost translucent and my veins show through. I would use self tan on my legs only to even out the overall affect, except its too yellow, can’t they bring out one that’s very light with more pink in it? I tend to wear tea dress length skirts or pants, though I love the idea of the nude shoes – maybe I need to look at pink ones also!


    The moment I embraced my paleness, my whole summer got easier. The only thing I do different is apply sunscreen to my entire body instead of just my face. I still wear long-sleeved t-shirts and training pants when I go for a walk/run, even what it’s 97 degrees out. Better SPF and I work up a good sweat!

  40. Jenny

    Im pretty pale and tomorrow im wearing a skirt for the first time this year! But once I wore a dress and a boy in my class said Jenny your so pale and you could see my vains! I was so embaressed! Also we were on the desks playing truth or dare and we were in school so we had to do aproprite dares!! ps im only 12 so sorry if I spelled spme words wrong! I have trouble spelling big words (long words)