Thursday, January 12, 2012

{Colour Theory Week} Guest Post: The Best Colours For You

My lovely sister Joanna of A Life In Lists recently "got her colours done" and graciously agreed to share some of what she learnt in a guest post for this week's colour theory theme.

Along with choosing the perfect colour scheme, be it complementary, triadic, monochrome or some other scheme of your own devising, assessing whether a colour actually suits you is as important a part of the process as matching your shoes with the print on your dress (or, indeed, clashing your shoes with the print on your dress. Whatever floats your boat).

Colour theory in relation to skin tone has a long history, but really came to the fore in the 20th century, with designers and shoppers becoming increasingly aware that there are tones that flatter, and tones that very definitely don't. Charlotte wrote earlier in the week about cool and warm colours. At the most basic level, cool colours (blues, indigoes, greens and blue-based reds) suit those of us with cool skin tone, and warm colours (warm red, orange, yellow and brown) suit those of us with warm skin tone. This idea can be developed further to include saturation levels (some skin tones handle high saturation colours better than others) and contrast (i.e. whether you look best in clothes that are all at a similar value or whether you look better with a mix of high and low value colours).

There are several ways of working out which colours suit you. I'll deal with the simplest one first, and quickly run through how to take the process further if you wish to.

You can't go wrong with white - can you?

The first and most important step is to decide whether your skin is warm or cool toned. There are a couple of tricks to help you work this out:
  1. Look at the inside of your forearm. See your veins? Do they look mostly blue, or mostly green? If they look blue, chances are you've got a cool skin tone. If there is a distinct greenish tinge, then you've probably got warm skin tone.
  2. Find an item of clothing, fabric, or piece of paper, that is bright white, and another that is just off white – a creamy oyster colour is ideal. Hold them under your chin. If the bright white makes your skin look porcelain clear and your eyes sparkle (and the cream makes you look distinctly sallow and unhealthy), you're probably cool toned. If the off-white gives you an instant peaches 'n' cream complexion and erases the bags under your eyes (and the white makes you look like a corpse), then you're probably warm toned. You can also try this test with a cool icy blue fabric/garment (cool toned skin suits this) and and rust or orange toned fabric/garment (warm tones suit this best).
  3. Find some gold and silver jewellery (or fabric, or paper). Which one brings your skin to life? Which one reflects an unhealthy sheen onto your skin, making you look a little unwell? If the gold suits you, you're probably warm toned. If it's the silver, cool all the way.

Or perhaps off-white is a better choice?

Some people find this test a little easier than others. If the answer is immediately clear, hooray! If not, there's still hope. Plus, the harder it is to figure out your skin tone, the less likely you are to be totally and utterly warm toned or totally and utterly cool toned (some people, including me, are a bit of a mix, so it's harder to work out whether warm or cool is more dominant in your skin tone). The way I see it is that if you're somewhere in the middle, most colours will look pretty much OK on you!

Now you've figured out your skin tone, try basing your wardrobe around neutrals and wardrobe basics that flatter your skin. For cool tones, this means black, white, cool grey, and most blues. For warmer skin tones this means brown, ivory, tan, and slightly 'warmer' blues, such as those with a teal/petrol hint to them. There is no law that says you can't wear cool colours if you're warm toned, or vice versa, but knowing what really looks best on your skin, and particularly keeping those colours close to your face so they reflect the most flattering light onto your face, will help build a wardrobe of clothes around basics that flatter you and make you look your best.

If you love a colour that you know doesn't suit you, try keeping it for accents and accessories – piping, trims, handbags, shoes and gloves are all perfect ways of bringing in colours that aren't ideal next to your face but that you love.

Want to take it even further? As well as being warm or cool, your skin tone can be deep, soft/muted or bright/clear. As you narrow down your precise skin tone further, it is possible to narrow down your wardrobe to a palette that looks absolutely perfect on you, with no unflattering tones. The only realistic way to do so, however, is by being 'draped' (having a huge range of different fabrics draped around you to see which ones work well with your skin tone and which don't) by an expert.

There are several systems of colour analysis, most of which work around the seasons – classing you as a spring (warm), summer (cool), autumn (warm) or winter (cool). Within each season there are three (or sometimes four, depending on the system) sub-seasons, giving at least 12 possible options for your ideal palette. Analysts are usually trained by a central company or organisation, but quality (and the precise system used) can vary from analyst to analyst. The best option is to go with a personal recommendation, but if you don't know anyone who's been to a colour analyst, I've pulled together a few links to start you off:
  • House of Colour - UK based colour analysis company, with some analysts working in the States and Australia. You can search for analysts by area. I have been draped by a House of Colour consultant and rate them very highly.
  • Colour Me Beautiful – also UK based, it has a few worldwide analysts
  • Sci/Art system – The Sci/Art system is used more widely in the States. Sadly the original Sci/Art business was closed following the sudden death of its founder a couple of years ago, but there are still a few consultants operating, including Reveal Style Consultancy and 12 Blueprints run by Christine Scaman. There is also an active facebook page for 12 Blueprints (mostly used by Americans), with lots more advice on analysing your skin tone and where to find a reputable colour analyst in the States.


  1. Thank you for this post! I am cool skin toned with a pink tint and it's taken me many fashion disasters to work out the colours I just don't suit (like yellow). Again, a brilliant series!

  2. Your post reminded me of something by Ovid I had read a while back in which he dispenses beauty advice to women. Unfortunately I cannot find the exact passage right now, but I did come across a summary in "The world of Roman Costume" by Judith Lynn Sebesta: "Ovid advised Roman women to develop sophisticated taste in selecting those colors most complimentary to their complexions rather than vulgarly emphasizing their wealth by wearing without discrimination only dresses dyed with expensive [dyes]." The hues mentioned are a light blue, various yellows, dark green, violet, gray, and two browns. Sebesta goes on to write that "by no means has Ovid exhausted the color possibilities open to women; he notes that there are as many hues available to his readers as there are colors of spring flowers—and more." You can read these excerpts and more here.

    My apologies if this is too early to be of interest to you, but I thought you might enjoy a glimpse into how this topic was approached in antiquity.

  3. I am afraid I am rather suspicious of some companies that 'do your colours'- like you say, I have heard some stories of better and some worse. I've only ever had a free 'taster'. Unfortunately she completely missed that my (pillar box red) hair is dyed and that my skin and eyebrows aren't classic cool-ginger but rather a boring neutral-mid-tone-sallow-bleh. Actually my old hairdresser hated my hair colour for my skin tone! But it does mean I can wear quite a wide range of colours, maybe not baby pink next to the face...

  4. Im not sure what skin tone I am.... in the winter my skin goes pale and my cheeks are pink... in the summer my colouring changes completely and My skin tans very dark olive... which looks odd with my grey green eyes and mousy-ash-something hair. So far I get around it by convincing hubbie i need a completely separate summer/ winter wardrobe. lol


I'd love to hear your thoughts!


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