Know Your Colours
by: Rachel Nachmias
Unlock the secret to incredible style, and become the Best Dressed version of you.
Whilst my book (download an excerpt for free here) is designed to help you master your style and image to take your business to the next level.
Colour affects us emotionally perhaps more than any other design element in clothing. We have visceral, inexplicable reactions to it. And generally a very clear idea of which colours we believe to be for us or not. Unfortunately, colour is, technically speaking rather inflexible. It behaves in accordance to predictable, scientific laws of colour harmony. And consequentially colours only either work for us or against us. In order to become the master of your appearance. You must learn to see colour as a tool to accessing your complete visual potential rather than a preference.
The more levels of complexity you peel back when it comes to colour theory. The deeper the onion seems to go. However, there are some basic tenets that are tremendously useful in determining which colours will work best for your natural colouring. First, colours with similar scientific dimensions look harmonious together. And those with opposing dimensions are dissonant. Colour has three scientific dimensions, which are called Hue, Value, and Chroma. Everyone of the 3-10 million colours we can see has a “setting” on each of these three dimensions. That determines which colours it will harmonise with, including human skin tones.
The warmth or coolness of a colour is described by its Hue. You may already know that orange is warmer than blue. This is true. However in human colouring, it’s more important to understand that different variations of a“colour” can be warmer or cooler. For example orange-reds are warmer than blue-reds.
Value describes how light or dark a colour is. If you imagine a greyscale with 10 steps leading gradually from white at the top to black at the bottom. Those close to the top have high value and those at the bottom have low Value.
Chroma is how bright or soft a colour is. This is probably the most difficult dimension to understand, and sometimes it can be confused with Value, or even Hue. If you can imagine the pure hues of acrylic paints squeezed fresh out of the tube. What you are picturing is probably a fairly bright colour -extremely pure and primary. Conversely, if you picture a work of art done in chalk pastels, those colours are probably fairly soft – dusty and grayish intone.
This is important because the way that humans have evolved to see colour is relative, not objective.What that means is that we see a myriad of visual illusions all the time to allow us to see what is useful and not necessarily what is true. One of the most powerful of these effects is called Simultaneous Contrast. Basically, whenever we see two colours next to each other(as for example, when your skin is next to a lipstick, blouse or hair colour), they change each other’s appearance, creating a distortion. You can see just how powerful the effect is in the diagram below.
The same colour:
What this example also teaches us is that we can’t unsee these visual illusions just by
knowing they are there. Even though you know the two clouds are the same shade, you still
see a lighter one and a darker one. So even if your viewers were thinking “she looks sick
today, but really it’s just that chartreuse top”, which seems unlikely, they would regardless
still see the effect.
Just as the right combinations of light and shadow can convince you that you are looking at two completely different shades of grey. When they are in fact the same, simultaneous contrast can vastly change the subconscious perception of human faces. How old a woman seems to be, how well rested she seems to be, how healthy she seems to be, and even what mood she seems to be in can all be dramatically impacted by what colour she has on, without us even knowing the illusion is there.
The solution to this problem is relatively simple, fortunately. Colours that have the same
scientific dimensions as each other do not cause unflattering simultaneous contrast effects.
The answer, as with all facets of your appearance, is to repeat your natural design. However, because these visual effects are in play, as well as a bevy of unhelpful stereotypes, you may not immediately be able to tell what your dimensions are, as my client Veronica learned.
I always know I’m in for a treat when a new client calls me 3 times and emails me twice before I can even get out of bed. Veronica was just the sort of client who, once she had decided she needed my help, needed it yesterday. She had a big presentation for a major corporation on the horizon but I think she would have hunted me down until I saw her anyway. When she arrived, I could see that she had incredible taste and a high level of attention to detail. Every item she had on, from head to toe and from handbag to the very last pearl in her earrings had been chosen in accordance with a particular colour palette, one which was cool-neutral, medium-dark, and very soft.
Unfortunately, as readily apparent to me as her already impeccable fashion sense was the
thing she was missing, and doubtless, the reason she was in such a rush to see me. While
Veronica had chosen colours that were beautiful together and very elegant they were a
nightmare for her own colouring. Her skin looks splotchy and waxy, somehow both sallow and grey at the same time. Her eyes appeared dull and bleary, and an age spot on her cheek was so over emphasised I wouldn’t have been surprised if it introduced itself. The flat, single process blonde she was dying her hair to blend her smattering of grey looked lifeless and unrealistic.
Veronica thought she knew which colours suited her best, and yet something wasn’t
working that she couldn’t put her finger on. And yet, I could see from the moment she
walked in that this wasn’t the real Veronica.
As I walked her through the calculated fabric colours I use to make comparisons, she began to see things going in the opposite direction from what she expected. Having been blonde as a child with blue eyes, Veronica had assumed as many people do that her colouring must have been cool, soft and relatively light (or Summer, for those of you familiar with the seasonal colouring groups). She was able to discern for herself that an extremely light look overall didn’t suit her, and so concluded that she must belong to the group in the Summer range that is slightly darker. This also happens to be the subgroup with the softest colours in that range.
What our analysis began to reveal from the very first drapes was that for her colouring,
there was almost no such thing as too much brightness. Anything remotely bright lit up her laser blue eyes from within and gave her skin a clarity and glow as if she had just returned from a week at a spa, while soft colours drained the colour from her face and made her look sick and tired. As shocked as she was, she saw it playing out right before her very eyes. She did indeed need colours that were cool-neutral and medium dark, but most importantly they had to be very bright, the opposite end of the Chroma dimension from what she had thought.
At the end of her appointment, when she pulled out the items she had thought were all
wrong for her but couldn’t give up and revealed a shiny satin blouse in the clearest blue-
fuchsia and an elegant designer silk scarf in a delicate icy lemon yellow, all the pieces started to come together. She left wearing a lipstick in the same fuchsia as her blouse (that she wouldn’t have dreamt of wearing a couple of hours before but could now see was a perfect extension of her natural colouring) and her own scarf with skin she could have paid a dermatologist thousands for – but she didn’t need to, because she had it all along.
What Veronica learned was that despite her excellent eye she was no more objective about
herself than anyone and that in addition she was under the grip of both some pretty powerful colour illusions and a lifetime of ingrained misconceptions. She believed that she could “see”her own colour dimensions. But no one can without a controlled comparison. She had fixed in her mind since childhood an image of herself as a towhead, when in fact in adulthood she had always been a light brunette. She thought that she could look up her colouring on a chart, but the truth is a person can have any combination of skin, hair and eye colour and have any inherent colour dimensions. Don’t be fooled by colour myths, they are usually generated by the garment and beauty industries to help some extra money leave your bank account.
Choose colours that make you look healthy and alive, not because they’re in this season or because they “work on everyone” (the only statement about colour you can be 100% sure is false every time!).
If you find it hard to navigate the complexity of colour on your own, I highly recommend a
Personal Colour Analysis from a certified 12 Blueprints analyst. What could take you years to navigate on your own can be determined in a couple of hours by a qualified professional. I provide this service myself for all of my clients and wouldn’t dream of dressing someone to appear on camera without it.
About Rachel Nachmias
Rachel Nachmias is the international bestselling author of The Face of the Business and founder of Best Dressed Image & Color Consulting. As a graduate of the fashion design program at Parsons the New School for Design. Rachel began her career working behind the scenes of some of New York’s top designer labels.
While working as a freelance fashion and costume designer. Rachel discovered life-changing tools that transformed her own personal style and she decided she had to share them with the world. Since then, Rachel has worked her magic on the images and lives of hundreds of clients, turning frustrated ducklings into the beautiful, stylish swans they were always meant to be. She has now shifted her discerning eye to female entrepreneurs, helping them to become camera-ready women of style who know just what to wear when Oprah calls.
Rachel lives in Philadelphia with her husband, her three fluffy toy dogs, and her collection of sparkly chandelier earrings. She enjoys traveling the world, sampling perfume, and curating cheese boards.