04 March 2010

Fashion Rules, Part 1: Color

Fabulous Reader Dranaan sent me this request:

Please discuss fashion rules, especially regarding colors and color combinations. I would love to hear your take on them.

I've been wanting to talk about color for a while now. This is the perfect excuse!

daily outfit, cardigan, tee, t-shirt, belt, skirt, tights, boots, necklace, jewelry, color, color combination, pink, purple, aqua, burgundy, Larimar, Betsey Johnson, Tahari, Design History, John Fluevog, Spanx, suede
photo: Fabulous Husband
Beaded cardigan: Design History, TJMaxx
Purple layering tee: Tahari, TJMaxx
Hot pink stretch belt: Betsey Johnson, TJMaxx
Buff suede skirt: Daisy Fuentes, thrifted
Burgundy tights: Spanx, TJMaxx
Boots: John Fluevog "Mallory"
Larimar wire-wrapped necklace, bought from the artist in St. Thomas
"Huggie" chunky mini-hoops, gift from mom

Wow, I think I need a daylight bulb in my front hall. The colors are a bit off. Let's get a detail shot in natural light:
daily outfit, closeup, cardigan, tee, t-shirt, belt, tights, necklace, jewelry, color, color combination, pink, purple, aqua, burgundy, Larimar, Betsey Johnson, Tahari, Design History, John Fluevog, Spanx
 Photo: me
Burgundy, hot pink, purple, blue-purple, and aqua, oh my! However did I come up with that color combination?

You've seen me link to this tool before. I may be a little obsessive about it, but it's really changed the way I look at color - and my closet. I have a lot of art history education, but I somehow missed color theory until this late point.

Essentially, the conclusion I've come to is that it's very hard to put solid colors together and have them not look good. I've tried. I've paired classic clash-y combinations, and had them look great. A few caveats there, though:
  • True, bright shades of primary colors (red, yellow, blue) and secondary colors (green, purple, orange) can be a little eye-watering in combination. If you want to go bright, choose tertiary colors (blue-green, red-orange, burgundy, etc.). The primary and secondary colors in combination don't look bad, exactly, but can have cultural overtones (red and green for Christmas; red, yellow and blue for early childhood toys) that you might not want in your dress.
  • Two very close analagous colors (such as true orange and a slightly yellow orange) can look like a near-miss at matching. If you want to wear shades of the same color, wear several at a go: add another, even yellower, yellow-orange and maybe a red-orange into that mix and it looks intentional rather than inadvertent.
  • Color triads can be difficult to wear: they can overwhelm the eye a little. Try two-thirds of a triad instead. 
  • Color is not only determined by hue (position on the ROYGBIV color spectrum), but also on shade (amount of black/white, or saturation) and value (brightness/dimness). Shade and value can be expressed as two axes in a graph (click on the "adjust scheme" tab below the color wheel in the color scheme designer). High brightness and saturation give you neon colors: high brightness and low saturation give you pastels: low brightness and high saturation, jewel tones; and low brightness and saturation, heathered colors (Note that "high saturation" in this instance is the exact opposite of what's meant by a "highly saturated" color: confusing, huh?). In general, I've had the most success in mixing colors that vary in only two of these three variables. The outfit above is a perfect example: the hue of the colors spans almost half the wheel in a chain of analagous relationships and there's a bit of variation in shade, but all of the elements have about the same value.
Notice any colors that aren't on the wheel? Brown, black, and white never show up on a color wheel. That's because they're neutrals. In terms of color theory, neutrals are either shade and value without hue (black, white, and shades of grey) or colors created by mixing multiple shades from across the color wheel, either complementary (directly opposite) or triads (any triangle that spans the wheel).

Think back to preschool art class. If you mixed red and blue (two-thirds of a triad), you got purple. If you added the third color from the primary triad, yellow, you got a muddy brown.

Neutrals, by definition, go with everything, themselves included. Any gothy Fabulous Readers will, I'm sure, have discovered the felicitous combination of grey and black. Any other neutral combination will work too.

Brown and black is a combination that's gotten a lot of bad press - for no good reason that I can discern. Going back to the outfit above, you'll see that I'm wearing tan (really, a very bright, unsaturated brown) and black together. The only time brown and black look "wrong" together, in my estimation, is when the combination looks inadvertent. A black suit with brown shoes, for example, looks like an accident. Add another brown element to the ensemble, such as a brown blouse or scarf, and it looks like you planned it that way.

What about the other neutrals, navy and khaki/olive? Truth is, they're not neutrals at all: they're colors that can be found on the color wheel. They can, however, serve as background colors, ones that can make up the majority of an outfit and serve as a foil for any other color (Go on, try to find something that clashes with navy. I dare you!). Most of the time, we choose dark colors of medium saturation as our background colors, and you'll see that those three colors - navy,  olive, and burgundy - are not only popular background colors but also form a triad. Isn't color theory fun?

Using the "colors can vary by two of the three possible variables" principle above, that means that they'll go with just about any other color out there, because no matter what hue or shade you choose, they'll always be at least somewhat close in value.

There is, however, no reason not to use any color as a background color.

As to some of the other "fashion rules" about color, as we've already discussed, I take a pretty dim view of most fashion dicta. Quickie roundup:
  • Seasonality of colors: associations both cultural (true red and navy in winter) and natural (browns, oranges and reds in autumn to go with turning leaves) tend to make us favor certain colors at certain times of the year. I'm sometimes swayed by this: I find it difficult, for example, to wear bright-yellow nailpolish any time but summer. However, for the most part, I take this as a guideline, rather than a rule, and base my seasonality decisions on the cut and fabric of my items of clothing, rather than on their color. While I was working at Ann Taylor Loft, the company made a couple of decisions about seasonal color palettes that stand out in my mind. The first was a late-winter collection in black, white, grey, and ice blue - a color scheme that closely resembled the dreary landscape of asphalt-crusted snowbanks, bare branches, and windswept skies that confronted us every day. Seasonally appropriate? Yes. Appealing? No. On the other hand, a little later in spring, a collection came out composed mostly of dark brown - a traditionally autumnal color - paired with crisp white. I thought it was attractive and unexpected, if slightly staid.
  • Seasonality of colors, part two: In the late 1970s and 1980s, a theory that colors could be grouped into four seasonal groups, which could be assigned based on skin tone/complexion color, became very popular. I've always looked on this theory with a great deal of skepticism, ever since a poke through one of the defining books on this theory, Color Me Beautiful, seemed to indicate that I Should Not wear black. What! Horrors! Unthinkable! I wear black all the time and look great in it! As a matter of fact, I wear all sorts of colors that seasonal-color proponents claim will make me look jaundiced, seasick, or just plain three days dead. So I tend to take this theory with a healthy grain of salt. Needless to say, if you put on a color that makes you look jaundiced, seasick, or three days dead, don't wear it. Or at least don't wear it next to your face. I've found that as long as it's not right up against your face, it doesn't matter if a color goes with your complexion or not.
  • This season's fashionable colors: The contemporary fashion industry is just that - an industry. It's trying to sell you stuff. Wear them if you like them. If, however, this season's hot, trendy shade grates on your nerves, ignore it utterly. Hit a thrift store if you're having trouble finding colors that aren't quite so "in:" they're gold mines for previously-fashionable items. 
  • Mixed metals (gold-tone and silvertone): As you can see above, I really don't worry about this. In fact, I have some jewelry that I love that gracefully combines gold, silver, and coppery components. I'm also not about to take off my wedding band (platinum) because it "clashes" with the studs on my belt.
  • White after Labor Day/before Memorial Day: As previously mentioned, I don't wear white much. I'm just not too fond of it. Anyway, this only applies to white shoes (and nurses, you get a pass to wear white shoes with your traditional uniform year-round. I don't know if this applies if you're in scrubs). For whatever reason, despite my abhorrence for traditional fashion rules, this is one I can't break. "Winter white" for clothing is stunning, though. I'm actually on a hunt for the perfect white wool pencil skirt: I think it would look good instead of the suede skirt I wore with this post's outfit!
  • Black at weddings: In the Northeastern U.S., where I live, this is just fine. As a matter of fact, at the last several weddings I've attended, not only I but the majority of the female guests have worn black. Customs may vary by region, though. When in doubt, call up a member of the wedding party and ask. 
  • White at weddings: This one's not so OK in my book. It's seen as upstaging the bride.
  • Black at funerals: Never a bad choice, although any somber color such as grey, navy or a muted lavender is good too. In many Asian cultures, white is the mourning color of choice.
All right, Fabulous Readers. Sorry for the essay: it's that academic background. I'll delve further into fashion rules, including patterns, cut and fit, and fabrics, in the future.

What are your thoughts? Do you find a color wheel to be a helpful tool when you're getting dressed? Are there any color-related rules that I missed, and what are your thoughts on the ones I covered?

1 comment:

  1. While I totally agree with your point about not wearing colors that make you look seasick or jaundiced, I also like looking at this from the other direction. If I want to look amazing, I wear a color that makes my skin sing! As a result, I stick to earth/fall tones. I look really healthy and yummy in them.

    Yeah, I still wear gray, black and royal blue even though they do nothing for me. But when I want to own it, I wear olive, teal, or plum.


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