Clothing Communication 2: Color Theory

Color communicates emotion.  If you don’t believe me, kindly pick up a marketing manual.  All businesses use color to convey a message when they advertise themselves… why shouldn’t you?

Really – why shouldn’t you use the same tools that businesses, costumers, and public figures use?  You surely don’t think that wealthy people are unaware of their clothing subtexts.  A fascinating study can be made of the Queen of England’s wardrobe choices – they’re very nicely thought out, especially her wardrobe for state trips.  There’s no rule that says this information is only for the few.  You can learn it, you can use it.  Make a decision about what you’re saying without words!

Color is one of the loudest, most instinctive speakers in  your arsenal.  It’s not just “green is for Ireland” – I don’t tend to think of Ireland when I see dark olive – you have to take shade and hue into account as well.  And you always, always start with the colors that look best on you.  What is muted and quiet on my very vivid coloring might be ridiculous on someone else.  A sophisticated palette of neutrals might draw you in when L wears it, and make me look like I need a nap.

But you can *start* with these observations, then tailor them to fit you.  Let’s take that neutral outfit.  L (my tall, redheaded friend) looks divine in the colors of dust and bone – it doesn’t detract from her mane of curly red hair.  If I wanted to dress her to get a table in a chic Beverly Hills restaurant, I’d send her in a dust colored pantsuit in linen with a washed silk blouse one shade lighter.  Perfection.  (All-neutral outfits, when in impeccable quality materials, look rich – note this down as a rule of thumb).

Would I wear the same suit?  -shudder-  No.  I would, however, wear an ivory silk suit – a suit with a skirt and a shaped jacket over a washed silk blouse in cream… but only if I was rocking a statement necklace in turquoise.  I need color.  (Another rule of thumb – if you have to wear a pound of makeup to make your look work, it doesn’t).  Why turquoise?  Well, turquoise is a mellow color – blue/green is very chill – but the vivid shade I wear brings energy and focus.  Why are we both wearing light colored neutral suits?  Well, this is a chic restaurant in Los Angeles, which is a warm place with lots of light – light colors always feel appropriate in LA.  And, as noted, all-neutral outfits are rich.  (Whatever your version of white, note that because white is difficult to keep spotlessly clean, spotlessly clean “white” is an indicator of wealth).

Dark/muted colors tend to be reassuring, bright colors are aggressive, soft colors are relaxing, light colors are energizing.  Within that, of course you have endless color psychology… red’s been proven to raise  your blood pressure!  Color psychology is cultural – white means innocence in the West and mourning in the East.  Colors affect you too – I wear a lot of turquoise not only because blue-green is mellow, not only because it suits my coloring (and eyes) perfectly, but because it’s my favorite color and it makes me happy.  I wouldn’t wear a canary-yellow dress to a wake – I would wear it to a friend’s birthday party.

Color also exists in combination – blue and white is a classic combination, and the default “what to wear” when you don’t have a clue.   Lemon yellow and cornflower blue say one thing, lemon yellow with ice-grey says something entirely different.  Colors play with one another, and while every color has a long list of emotions attached to it, adding a secondary color helps narrow that list down.  Red and black vs. red and pink – totally different messages.

Since we’re trying to not only communicate, but do so with flattering colors, you might change this around a bit.  L doesn’t wear fire-engine red when she wants to take over a room – that color doesn’t look good on her, it wouldn’t scream “fabulous”, but “trying too hard”.  You have to tailor, you always have to tailor.  I wouldn’t send her out in oxblood and charcoal grey (her red and black) to communicate the same sex + power message that scarlet and black would on a Winter.  Nope.  I’d send her out in only charcoal + statement jewelry.  Or instead of a dress, I’d put her in draped sweater over leather pants… This always has to be personal.  Start with what looks best on you, then look at what effect you want to have.  We don’t have the same bodies, we don’t have the same coloring, we don’t have the same attitudes, so how could we possibly have the same formulae?

I urge you to look at yourself, look at your favorite colors, and look at your audience – are you using color as effectively as you might be?  What could you change?  Think about the times you’ve seen someone else really bomb the color communication – what went wrong?  Think about the people you’ve interacted with who have amped their message with their clothes – the counselor whose softly draped, mauve sweater set you instantly at ease, the professor whose chocolate colored tweeds reassured you of his expertise, the saleswoman’s fuschia blouse that helped you identify her from across the store – what has worked for them, and what context were they in?


Color is a tool for communication… use it!


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