This is Part III of my new series “How to Think About Style”, a weekly serial written with the purpose of helping you develop an authentic personal style. My goal: supply you with the framework necessary to express your personality through fashion.
This week, we’ll be leaving the realm of the theoretical and diving into the fun stuff. There will be more pictures, more examples, and generally a little less gravity. If you haven’t read Parts I and II of this series yet, you could read this article and still walk away with a better understanding of style as it pertains to your fashion choices. But, you should probably read Parts I and II – I’ll reference some of the ideas developed there in today’s article. And besides, the author is a stud. Moving on.
Today’s topic: colors, palettes, and why matches belong on Tinder.
First, let’s begin by defining what we mean when we talk about “color” within the context of style.
Color is more than ROYGBIV. It’s more than the 16x16 honeycomb Microsoft Paint offers you when you dare break away from “red”, “blue”, or “red mixed with blue.” Pantone (the world’s authority on color matching) codifies some of the dizzying color spectrum by outlining multiple color models on its website, but even this long list isn’t exhaustive. At the present, Pantone catalogs a little over 4,000 unique colors. For reference, your smartphone can display 16,777,216.
So why the difference? Simply put, because it can exist. To the detail-obsessed fashion world, color can best be thought of as a series of “primary color” pipes dotted with dozens of flow-control valves that are independently adjusted to produce a final hue. The same valves have always existed, but with the advent of digital imaging technology, valves that were once turned in full rotations can now be tweaked by millimeters. However, tuning aside, throughout history the inputs remain those same primary colors.
Before we dive into using those final hues to construct color palettes, it’s important to understand just a few of those “valves” – the fundamentals of color - and their effects. I've outlined three of the most important below:
1. Saturation: the intensity or purity of a color. More saturated colors appear vibrant, intense, and often unnatural. To desaturate a color, simply add grey – it’s the neutral tone exactly between no color (black) and every color (white). In effect, it diffuses the final color, muddling its purity. When someone refers to “earth tones”, they’re often describing desaturated reds, greens, yellows, and blues.
2. Value: the relative amount of black/white interference mixed into a combination of primary colors. As opposed to twisting both black and white valves to create a desaturating grey, both black and white are moved independently. Adding white to a combination of primary colors lighten the finished product, creating “tints.” Contrary to popular belief, a true window “tint” would actually lighten the glass. On the other hand, adding black to a combination of primary colors darkens the finished product, creating “shades.” Contrary to popular belief, the human brain recognizes more than Fifty Shades.
3. Temperature: the relative warmth or coolness of a color. This is where it gets a little muddy. “Warmer” colors typically include reds, oranges, and yellows – if you wanted to warm a saturated dark blue, for example, you could add red/yellow values to increase its perceived temperature. The opposite is true of cooling down an intense orange tint – twisting the temperature valve down on a Fanta can would mean adding blue, green, or indigo to the hue.
There may 16 million quantifiably different outputs, but those discriminating differences between ROYGBIV neighbors are dizzyingly precise while being but just different enough to be noticeable. It’s why Valentino Red and Prada Rossa and Target Red are as different from one another as they are from Burberry Beige. One look at an outfit built around desaturated “earth tones” would tell you that a saturated, shaded, solar-hot Valentino Red just doesn’t work. Like a freshman trying to sneak into college bars with their lanyard on, it theoretically belongs but just looks out of place.
Thankfully, there’s hope. The same processes that dictate that “this works” reflex also leave us – every human being who can render color - particularly adept at judging a selection of colors at a glance even removed from the clothes they’d eventually inhabit. This selection of compliments, presented as samples of hues removed from all context except each other, is called a color palette.
Just looking at the above, you intrinsically know which palettes look good together and which don’t. This is the fundamental notion of color theory: there is a logical organization of colors based on the continuous spectrum of visible light, and harmonious relationships between those logically-organized colors are recognized by humans as reflexively as tastebuds firing.
This is both good and bad. While building a cohesive selection of colors isn’t truthfully that important to defining your personal style, it is (sadly) the first thing others will notice about your fashion choices because it is something we all intrinsically understand. You don’t need to know about color theory to have functioning optical cones and opinions about what they see, opinions you reinforce daily every time you see a sunset or an open blossom and think “that looks nice.”
We are immersed daily in a world of color palettes defined by the fundamentals of color outlined above, and so, immediately recognize when something breaches the laws of color that define that world. These are the same subconscious processes that define intraoutfit context. Building a color palette that expresses your personal style is the same as crossing the T’s related to fabric choice and clothing details – do the details, align the minutiae, and results will follow. Just with, you know, vibrant and easily-modified outwards displays rather than the fussy esoterica of garment construction.
Ironically enough, many of our first experiences with building color palettes come by way of purging the very same palettes we’re biologically wired to enjoy. Rather than torching the Louvre, we destroy the nuance that creates aesthetic harmony by trying to match colors. Matching colors hamstrings the color palette by limiting its possibilities, amputating the opportunity for personal expression in favor of vulgar simplicity. Sure, you’ll develop a color palette – but one that merely registers present rather than realizes its potential.
Just think about how asinine it would be to look at a closet full of shirts and jeans, then throw 80% of it out by simply choosing a pair of shoes. Pretty limiting, right? Not only does it arbitrarily restrict what could be a diverse range of choices (see: “I love it, but it just doesn’t go with anything I own”), but it actually hurts the overall aesthetic effect you’re trying to present. The visual harmony we’re programmed to enjoy exists in coordinated spectrums, not in grotesque Siamese pairs, and hackneyed color matching is the equivalent of reducing a vibrant tropical sunset to overcast in New Jersey. Simply put, it takes no thought, no nuance, and no effort, and looks every inch of it. Matching colors are the training wheels of style: brutal, rudimentary, and shameful past adolescence.
But, there is an exception: outfits built around monochrome black and white pass muster. Why do these colors get a pass? Simply because they are not colors in the true sense of the word. If you recall from above, black is the absence of color, while white is every color at once. If anything, dressing in monochromatic black and white heightens the importance of your outfit’s fit and context, intensifying the emphasis on your fundamentals of style by removing color, the easily-digested surface layer.
Paring back puts the spotlight entirely on your knowledge of fit and context, regardless of outfit. If you desire simplicity and disregard scrutiny, matching black and white is for you. Otherwise, keep all matching to Tinder where it belongs.
A final note: as you develop your personal style, you’ll start to realize which color palettes compliment both your environment and your body type. For example, I’m a very Nordic looking white guy who goes to school in the Midwest. My skin is as pale as a ghost on the moon, so I dress in neutrals, emphasizing cool, desaturated colors that compliment my genetic expression.
As a result, my school wardrobe leans towards grey, white, black, beige, and a dozen shades of blue. However, if I had ripped these color suggestions from a magazine or a fashion blog (lmao) and built my fashion choices around this unfounded color sample, I’d be fish out of water the second I left my Midwestern university. I’m certainly not wearing Nordic sweaters to a beach wedding. Even if they do provide a great base for color palette construction.
Like all things in life, learning why these combinations work is more important than memorizing which colors coordinate. There’s no effective way to learn about color palettes other than by seeing them in practice and applying the lessons from above to what you’re seeing. Here’s where everyone who knows my real voice starts cheering: in other words, I’m shutting up and letting the pictures do the talking. No more of my smug nasal shrill echoing in your head.
Well, almost (you’re reading this in my voice).
Below each combination of color palette and outfit that follows, I’ll write some brief thoughts on which valves were twisted and why, expanding on why certain palettes work and why the outift photos you see are so strong. But otherwise, enjoy! I hope the pictures below, coupled with the thoughts above, leave you with a better understanding of how to apply color to your personal style.
Thanks for reading! Did you enjoy the piece? The concept of the series? Anything you think I could clarify or otherwise improve? If you have feedback, please leave a comment below or on my Facebook page here.
Next time, we'll discuss how to build elements of your personality into the framework we just developed. Of course, if you'd like a refresher on the series so far, read on to check out Part I: How Clothing Fits and Part II: Context, Inside and Out.