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Color Strategies For The Nervous Among Us

Above, my closet. You may notice, I don’t particularly like to wear color.

Why won’t the world just won’t give up trying to make me do it anyway? Here’s what Poppy Buxom* says,

Think about it. Black washes everyone out. It makes them look sad. That’s why it’s the traditional color for mourning. It makes you look so terrible that even if you aren’t all that upset at the death of your mother-in-law, you can put on a good show. Who wears black clothes and no makeup? Nuns. The rest of us have to wear a full face of spackle to overcome the effect of the black.

I feel comfortable in black. I feel confident in navy. I feel happy in white. I feel beautiful in pale blue, edgy in brown, almost too daring in pink. And that’s my limit. I can’t even go near purple, or yellow, or orange, or green. To say nothing of that fact that I treat color in clothes rather like a 4 year old treats different food stuffs. I don’t like different color groups to touch each other. So brown can touch white, but not white AND blue. Pink can touch black, but not black AND brown. Despite these safeguards, wearing any color at all, I’m almost too saturated to walk out the door.

You might think t-shirts were an easy way to add color. Um, no.

One might argue that this indicates a lack of imagination on my part. I would submit that in fact it indicates too much, too vivid, too wild of an inner visual life. Those of us who are color-avoidant have been known to stand, intoxicated, in front of certain greens. Unable to move. Peacocks astonish us.

I’m barely exaggerating.

So why push ourselves? Why bother? Why brave the nether reaches of the color palette? Well. For one thing, here’s what Imogen at Inside Out Style says.

If you think about it, businesses spend a lot of time and money deciding on what colour packaging to put their products into. Look around the supermarket, you’ll see lots of packaging with red on it, as red stimulates us, raises our blood pressure and makes us hungry. Did you know that women have been shown to react to Tiffany blue? It makes us more excited.

Apparently, color affects our moods. Clearly purple induces panic. Yellow causes full fledged terror. At least in my house. Vix suffers too. But maybe, just maybe we color-avoidant would be willing to improve our moods. After all, we can be rather cranky. If only we knew what also looked good. If we could sidle up to it, make friends, breathing deeply.

How To Put Your Toe In The Color Pool. Slowly.

There was a lot of folderol back in the ’70s around color analysis. Summer, blah, winter, blah, spring blah blah blah blah. You can tell I had little respect for the process. My mom sent me somewhere to have my colors done. She’s helpful like that. But the prefab set of swatches sat in my bathroom drawer. I don’t care how good yellow might look on me, it makes me irritable and I refuse.

Custom analysis, the likes of which Imogen (In Melbourne, Australia) and Karen (in LA) offer, would be more useful. Were I 40 again, going back to full-time work, and investing in a closet that would see the light of day with frequency, I’d probably get professional help. Besides, how fun to touch the swatches of cloth, to live on the edge where purple touches orange.

But if you want to try to put your toe into the color pool, carefully, in full recognition of the dangers, I have a sneaky method.

First, let’s agree on why even bother with color, beyond its possible effect on your mood. Yes, I do need to be convinced. Color emphasizes various aspects of your face. That’s it. It can make your eyes stand out, cast your skin tone in a certain light, show off your hair, even show off your lips. (If you want your mouth to stand out, never mind clothes. Just go all Paloma Picasso and get a good tube of red lipstick.) But let’s all assume most of us want our eyes to stand out, and our hair color to look pretty, our skin tone healthy. You good with that?

Second, figure out which non-colors work on you. They are not all created equal. Which ones cause your eyes to show up and your skin to look good? Black? Maybe yes, maybe no. Brown? What sort? Chocolate or burnt umber? Gray? And what kind of white? Yellowish? Bluish? This can be done at home. Be sure to go outside and check in a handheld mirror. This way, even if you never bring a shred of aubergine or celadon into your house, you have ammunition against the color mongers if required.


  • Think of three colors you like. You can, I promise. For me that would be blue, dark green, and pink. I can’t stomach yellows, purples, or oranges. So I’m not going to bother my little head about them. And don’t try to make me.
  • Put a mirror in your purse. Bring a friend.
  • Go to a) Target or b) Bed Bath and Beyond
  • Find the tee shirt or the towel stacks. No, I am not kidding. These are the items in the retail world most apt to come in 50 shades and be displayed close together.
  • Methodically hold the various colored items up to your face. Look in the mirror. Ask your friend.
  • Hide behind a pillar because frankly this is really silly and embarrassing.
  • Realize that you need natural light, so if something looks good, walk over to a window and check again. Hold your head high. Impunity. Tell said friend he or she cannot desert you now.
  • Make your own list of colors that look good on you. Name them names you will remember. I think of the light blue I like as Golf Sweater Blue. Consider, is there an underlying theme? Or do you simply discover that some colors do good work for you and some you are going to have to fire? At the very least put them on notice with HR. You don’t work for them, remember.

Now go shopping. A few final tips. I recommend focusing color in your jackets and dresses. They are One and Done. Everything else can remain those familiar, reassuring shades. Minimize the dreaded Standing In Front Of Your Closet Panic. Colored tees, on the other hand, are a pain in the neck. Explodes the items you have to own exponentially. I mean, if you’re wearing an orange shirt what do you do about the jacket and the pants? Don’t even mention scarves. Yes. That’s how it is for us color-avoidant, and we are done making apologies.

Oh, and when it’s a year for your kinds of colors, buy a lot. Next year it’s going to be nothing but peach, lavender, and pistachio. The horror.

*Poppy has a new blog for us midlifers refusing to give up our girl cards just yet. She writes for BeautyHacks too, so she’s got the credential to make her blog well worth following.

44 Responses

  1. You are cut from the same cloth (no pun intended) as my friend who does not like color and refuses to wear any. I, on the other hand, love color, love wearing it, love decorating with it. I purposely wear red or purple when we lunch. I think she keeps me around so she can have some color in her life without committing to it. That, and our shared love of grease, salt and alcohol. For that she seems to put up with a little color across the table from her. :) xoxo

  2. I loved this post! I, too, don't wear much color and I don't apologize about it either. I like to think it is because, at 34, I have already figured out what suits me and what doesn't. Red does, purple does, some shades of green do too, coconut brown does, dark brown doesn't, some shades of navy blue do, black definitely does if it's very dark, cherry red does too. Light orange, salmon and yellow pretty much hate me, as do all the colors in between. And you are so right about having to buy a lot when they are in fashion because it doesn't last! I wish I had read you when I was in my early twenties!

  3. I thought the color analysis thing was in the 1980's? At least in my neck of the woods it was. "Color Me Beautiful" was the main book on it.

    I found it to be pretty accurate, but it got better when they further divided up the seasons. I'm a Winter, but too pale to wear black near my face, so I wear it in pants, shoes, and purses only.

    My best neutral is black-brown, which isn't always easy to find.

    As for color, I can't live without it. Yes, I do wear color to go with my mood.

    Favorites: Turquoise, Aqua, Deep Rose Pink, Emerald Green, Dark Royal Purple, Indigo

  4. Maybe you're right. Maybe it was the 80's. It's all a blur to me now…My apologies. I should correct.

  5. I think your coloring is part of the reason you don't gravitate toward color. With your delicate blonde coloring, pale blue is a winner and colors that are too bright might very well overwhelm you.

    Whereas I have dark hair and eyes and really need the color!

  6. Ha ha — thanks for OUTING me as a recovering blacktextileaholic whose 6 months of intense "closet color therapy" hasn't made as much of a dent in the sea of shadows as I'd hoped.

    But I'm getting there. The purty palletes I showed in my spring/summer closet planning post were the truth, Ruth–my analysis DID reveal lots of semi-newly-purchased peeeeek and purples along with the usual blues, and I am going to be rocking the tonal tulips shades this summer. I felt great wearing so much color-color this past fall winter.

    My advice is counter to some of yours, though.

    Colored scarves, jewelry, and Ts are a great gateway drug/baby step. When I started exploring other ends of the color spectrum I had no problem integrating them with my top-to-toe black, brown and grey. They just don't have as much of an impact as the colorphobic like to think!

    Nice overview for DIY color analysis. I have a decent eye for color so I didn't have any problem buying the wrong shades for myself when I took the plunge, but having worked to get my friend Ms Fizz out of her black/brown closet rut and into a color-relatively-heavy capsule wardrobe, I do agree that amateur color analysis may best be done with a friend or loved one.

    [Professional analysis being a lovely gift to oneself, of course!]

    ps Do you know as soon as I wrote that post it started pouring rain (again) and I wanted to run run run straight toward color-color…and finally grabbed some berry to add to Project Grey? So maybe I am farther along in my recovery, snort.]

  7. I am so with you on this- I used to wear a lot of black and thought- who cares, if it looks good! I wear black and dark colors mostly in the wintertime and as Spring approaches I wear a lot of white, coral and turquoise- I think it is a nice balance. Great post!

  8. Great post! It's also important to re-check your colors against skin tone every few years. I learned from Imogen that our pigmentation fades, which is why those spring brights that used to look so great on me in my 30's now overwhelm. I've been slowly integrating color into my sea of black. One thing I've found that helps is to start migrating those neutrals to navys, greys and browns. Those are less jarring than black when paired with color. (I'll never totally give up my black though…it's the James Dean of my closet.)

  9. I adore color…it makes me happy. I had a woman comment the other day that I was not wearing my standard peacock garb. I had gone to the Opera with a friend who is the director of my local art museum. I felt like I should downplay my normal plumage! He is very conservative.

    I wore a simple black dress…although it did have a cowl neck and lots of draping. I would have normally put lots of gold bangles, strappy sandals, etc. with it…but, instead pearls and black pumps. And then when I walked out to the car when he came to pick me up…he looked disappointed.

    I learned an important lesson…just be true to yourself…

  10. there's also the fact that you live in the Bay Area–the quality of light is different there and can affect color choices..

  11. OK I looked it up. Color Me A Season was published in 1978. Color Me Beautiful in 1980. So very late 70's, early 80's. I love hearing about all of your favorite colors. And Jean, are you an artist? I never would have thought about the light quality here but of course.

  12. Thanks for your insight. I love that I gain something I can tuck away and use later from your posts.
    I am a member of the black wardrobe fan club. But I love to add a splash of color sometimes just with a pen or scarf. Today I am embracing the spring season by donning a spring green lightweight sweater with a crisp white shirt. I was very hung up on what were "my colors" in the 80's and 90's. I guess now that I am older I try to trust my gut on what I like, don't like, is good or is not so good for this changing body.

  13. People (at least women) seem to be drawn to either color or mostly neutrals. I'll admit to being a "color" type. I once worked with a female colleague who wore nothing but black suits with white shirts. (She is from NYC, of course.) I ended up buying a few black pieces and she tried a few colorful outfits, but we both rapidly drifted back to our old habits. I'm not sure it is worth trying to "change the tiger's stripes", although a little experimentation can be interesting. I do love navy and always have several navy suits.

  14. Your clothes look more colourful than mine!
    I do see that you are not a scarf wearing WASP so that might explain a bit more colour.
    I popped into the Boomer blog…am now following…great BTW thank you!
    I still like black, grey, white and the beige family of neutrals…I wonder if there were any nuns in my family?

  15. I learned so much from the Color Me Beautiful consultant. She was very dramatic and told me to "live in" dark green and that I "owned" navy blue.

    I love color… mostly blues, pinks and lavenders. I don't buy colored jackets as I find I get tired of them. A nice jacket is a big ticket item and needs to be more neutral for more wear. I stick to colored tops, including tees and scarfs.

  16. I enjoyed reading your post. I too have a very limited color palette, and I always check the greys first. Not all greys please me. Black is ok, but I don´t like tight collar lines.Actually I fit quite well into a crowd.

  17. Now here is a topic I can more than relate to. If you took a picture in my closet, nothing would show up. There is no contrast.

    It would be black. My navy blues, which I love, are DARK navy and my grays are charcoal. As My-Reason-For-Living-In-France likes to say, "even with the lights on you can't see what's in there." Exactly. It's so comforting to me.

    I hate red and green together unless it's red berries on a Christmas wreath. I wouldn't dream of going near yellow although as color I think it's just find. Basically don't like green at all once it's left nature unless it's British racing green on something sporty with wheels.

    Now, I agree completely that black near the face can be depressing, but let's get real — what are important jewels for? Why do French women own so many scarves? It's so they can wear neutrals and everyone will leave them in peace.

    Et voila. That about wraps it up for me.


  18. Hello LPC! I treated myself once with a Color/Style-coaching. The coach went through my wardrobe and before that we spent 2,5 hours testing colors on me.

    I got a color-pocketbook, this booklet contains all the colors that suit me. But not only the colors but tips such as to avoid belts in contrasting colors (because of my high waist). Or where sleeves should not end (3/4 length makes me look chubby). It is a great tool and saved me $$$ since all the clothes with the not-working-colors stay in the store. No matter how nice the shape/cut is.
    In 2007/2008 I had a hard time, with all this Roberto Cavalli romance/flower/layer-styles around, none of these suits me. Today I am happy: navy is back, also color blocking, gone are most of the patterns. :-)

    PS: I might have reloaded your page a dozen times today, waiting for your update! :-)

  19. PS: you wrote the Yellow is NOT your color: maybe you are a different type of yellow than the one the "coach" picked on you?
    My coach had I hard time – I am a mixed type, she called it "extreme summer". Before that, people told me I am "winter". What I am definitely NOT. :-) Maybe, maybe it is worth a second try?

  20. When I was a little girl my mom dressed me in bright red, bright blue, bright green. I had red glasses. My favorite coat of all time was a bright yellow duffle coat from a company called Carol Reed that I had when I was nine or ten. It made me so happy in the white/gray/black winter days. Small wonder I still love color…all colors. My closet looks like an explosion at a Crayola factory. I own one black suit, one pair of black velvet pants and one black leather jacket…after that it's all about color! Certain days just call out for certain colors. Today it was lavender for work under a tan suit! First 70 degree day, spring is here….bring on the lavender and the celadon and the yellow and the turquoise….

  21. LPC, thanks for the links and shout-out. I hope I manage to live up to the advanced billing!

    I really love the soft water-color shades that are out now–the nudes, peaches, pale lemons and celery greens. Lovely with gray now and with white later on. Those would probably be great on you.

    Jean S. is right about geography, too. There are certain colors that make more sense in certain places, like Palm Beach and Lilly Pulitzer colors, the southwest and turquoise, and New York and black.

    I live in Chicago, which is so dreary half the year that at the first sign of spring, I start to go a little mental.

    Also, I'd really like to know what happened to navy blue. It has become an endangered species. I think it's been 15 years since I had a pair of navy shoes or a navy blue coat. You hardly ever see it any more, and it's so useful–crisp and slimming without being dreary.

  22. Paula you just made my day. Not that I want to make you suffer the annoyance of reloading web pages but that you actually look forward to what I write. Thank you! I feel like it's a privilege that you read, so there you go. Anon, I feel like all of you who wear colors ought to send me photos for inspiration. Tish, well, yes, left in peace. Et voila. Poppy, you're welcome. I saw the most beautiful navy blouse at NaraCamacie in San Francisco.

  23. I get confused about colour, preferring cream and greys and pale pinks and navy and black (I look good in black, like really good, better than in any other colour). Then you have occasions like rehearsal dinners where next to your fiance in his seersucker suit you have to wear yellow, or navy or a blue and white polka dotted dress from graduation with maybe a yellow cardigan? Who knows? What to do about colour?

  24. You know, I love color, but a few years ago I realized my closet was filling up with neutral greens and browns and tans. I've since been very conscious about going with more color. I love purple and peach. My younger daughter is completely daring and wears yellow and fluorescent green and red. She looks good in it all. I was told as a kid not to wear oranges or pinks with the red hair and that is just crap.
    I love how you're encouraging us to be daring and step outside our boxes. Too funny!

  25. In many respects there really isn't anything as awful as the "standing in front of closet panic" you cite, because it is indicative of so many other ailments.

    Oddly for a prep I adore my black, but also wear an awful lot of brights. The black comes out for the more formal/businesslike events and functions, especially in the winter. I love the point Tish makes regarding jewelry, and your reminder to those who have never done it to head for the nearest linen store to look at colors in that hideous light.

    Another good one Miss LPC, and the comments are *excellent*.

  26. You can always sneak your Haggard Colors in via accessories if you can't resist them. I have a really great lemon yellow leather purse that I love. Not a great face-color for me, but a great purse color.

  27. Hi! I've been reading you for a while…nice to finally post!Something to try…Last yr I had my hubby take a pic of me in each of my outfits, dressy to business casual styles. Then i printed them out 9 to a page…and it is amazing when you are trying to decide what to wear & what mood you are in to look at the pics.

    It really helps me, I am a visual learner…One top that is adorable, black & white sheer, maternity style, well…it totally made me look fat & pregnant! Not for this 50 something…

    I even took pics of my husband in different suits & ties & outfits…We have so many clothes & fall back to the same things?(I am also a brunette who has my hair blond, my monthly spurge!)I love it & it makes it easier to wear pink & bright colors. I never had men stare at me, but now I occasionally get that! Not bad for a grandma…known as Gigi! Jennifer aka Gigi

  28. I have long been an all black, all the time girl. However I notice that I get many more compliments when I brave colour. I added beige/fawn to my colour line up this winter but I don't think fall counts as a bold step toward colour. I love your multistep plan towards finding our perfect colours. You, as always, are genius!

  29. Really interesting post. I am so impressed with the time and detail you put into your posts! And the comments you received today! Wow! You spoke to many of us. I love color. I also love the basics of khaki, navy, black. We should all take a picture of our closet and post it. It might be more revealing about us than we ever imagined!! Have a great evening. xoxo

  30. Gosh I adore color. On my walls and in my wardrobe. Color me happy with plenty of colorful cardis and yes, colorful shirts! I love black and I love white. But most of all I need to wear them with a splash of color somewhere… shoes, scarf, handbag… somewhere.

  31. If you look good in pale blue, then you are probably a "Summer" and many of their colors are muted. Even their navy is a muted navy.

    All of their colors are "cool" colors. The only green they can wear is blue-green.

    That could also explain your avoidance of bright colors. You need the softer colors.

  32. Ah, turns out the "Color Me Beautiful" site is still alive and well. Look what they say about Summers:

    "Your overall coloring is the most delicate and understated of all the seasons. Summer is the serenity palette, so you should always avoid harsh contrasts by keeping the entire look calm and in complete harmony.

    You receive compliments in pastel shades of rose, periwinkle, sage."

  33. More from Color Me Beautiful:


    "When choosing a suit, look for toned-down colors like subdued navy blue, a grey green or blue-grays, charcoals, and rose browns. Your image will be complimented by these dusty colors. You should never dress in vivid or saturated colors, for they will disrupt the serenity that the summer needs in her look. Your shirt colors should be soft somewhat soft like powder blue, dusty pink or soft white. Think serene when selecting a wardrobe for SUMMER or shop with a Color Me Beautiful SUMMER Swatch Book, to insure that your entire wardrobe is perfectly coordinated."

  34. Can I just say that I love that Poppy Buxom? I only recently discovered her but she's everything I like- funny and whip smart. Plus I like the way she decorates.

    L, I wish you lived in Australia so I could drive right over and sort you out. I think you should EMBRACE colour, not adopt what I call Holocaust or post-Apocalypse colours…

    I don't really connect with the WASP aesthetic because I never let convention dictate my outfit or colour choices.

    What do WASPS do for Easter? Do they go to Mass? Do they have a big feast on Easter Sunday? Do they eat fish on Good Friday? Do they do Stations of the Cross? Do the husbands give the wives a stonkingly big piece of Easter jewellery? Or is this the Australian Way????

    May the High WASP be with you.

  35. After reading your post, I thought, "I'm not like that…I buy lots of color." Then I checked my closet and saw that it's various shades of black, brown, gray, tan and navy. Okay, maybe a spot of red or pale blue here and there. I recently bought a poppy-colored Milly knee-length coat – totally out of character, but a friend egged me on and it was on sale. It's very conservative and tailored, except for the color. I've found that it goes with all of my neutrals and every time I wear it, someone comments on the color.

  36. Thanks so much for the links.

    I would call you a colour neutral – you prefer less colour, more neutral, and the colours you do like are subdued and smokey.

    This fits well with what I can see of your colouring. If you were to look at your colouring, blonde hair, pale skin (not sure of your eye colour – brown?), there is not a lot of colour there – so you are in fact harmonsing with your more neutral appearance, and will look best in more monochromatic colour schemes.

    If you had red hair and green eyes, you'd probably love colour.

    When choosing colours, those that you do, make sure they have a smoky (like a haze of smoke has passed in front of the colour) appearance, they will be way more flattering on you than bright ones anyway (as mentioned by Deja Pseu).

  37. I found the thought of you dressing in all those shades of grey, pink and blue very appealing. I'd look (and feel) AWFUL in those colours, but on you… they sound right.

    The colours I put on seem to feed me in a strange way. Just as you feel intimidated by brightness, I have strange cravings for particular colour combinations. Paint on walls or walking in sunlit gardens gives temporary relief, but to really satiate the need I have to wear the colour. Peach and deep olive and moss. Slate blue and dove grey. Ripe tomato and deep navy. Aubergine and soft gold with amber. The right colour(s), on the right day, just seem to ease something inside. Very satisfying. It is probably fair to say that my outfit feeds me almost as much as my breakfast.

    Do you find the same sense of relief and satisfaction from your blues and greys? If so, then it sounds like you have your colours spot on.

  38. Gourmetmom, I think we do feel right in what we buy, it feels like enough color. Imogen – my daughter emailed me after this post to tell me her closet is a rainbow. She's a redhead. And Jo, yes, I feel a sense of relief and satisfaction. That's exactly how to put it. Blue feels so right to me it feels like a neutral. It's almost like listening to music, wearing the right colors.

  39. I have one of those wallets-30 years old- and damn if what I really like isn't in there: Black, bitter chocolate, indigo. Just ignore the rest.

    re Poppy Buxom's point: Catherine Deneuve, Anouk Aimeé, Juliette Greco, Audrey Hepburn, Sharon Stone, Julia Roberts, Greta Garbo: pretty damn good in black. Yes, makeup- or wear a necklace. As Chanel said, nothing brings out the eyes like black.

    Tiffany's blue box: introduced in 1837, long before marketing research on how colour "makes people act".

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