MANual of Style

Lesson 7: Color & Pattern by Shreyas
12 January, 2010, 11:51 pm
Filed under: Basic Concepts | Tags: , ,

We talked about color briefly in regards to using it for emphasis, but we haven’t talked about it in depth yet, so here goes.

Colors that Work for You

What’s it mean when we say “That color looks good on you,” anyway? What that means is that the color, adjacent to your skin, makes you look healthy and natural. Without getting too much into the technicalities of color perception, the basic principle to understand is that the human visual system creates contrast, so wearing a really saturated green will make your skin, alongside it, look more rosy. Similarly, wearing black makes you appear paler, and so on. The other useful thing the visual system does is create relationships, so if your shirt is the same color as your eyes, it highlights your eye color. That’s a little harder to illustrate so it isn’t shown below, but here are some swatches of different skin tones with a variety of colors alongside them, so you can see a little bit of the contrast effect in action.

Once that’s sunk in a bit, try an experiment: find three differently-colored shirts and look at yourself in the same mirror, wearing each one. Pay attention to how it interacts with your skin tone and your features. Take notes in your style journal if you notice anything interesting.

Think about how you can use this effect to your advantage—you can intensify the impact of your hair color by wearing a color that contrasts with it, or downplay the redness of your eyes after a night of hard partying by wearing a light blue, etc. The trick here is that there isn’t a color (speaking broadly) that doesn’t work for you, but you might need to shop around to find the right tone of that color. (Like, for me, cool reds work, but warm reds make me look sort of jaundiced. The blue undertone counteracts the red’s effect to a degree that makes it wearable.)

Fashion Neutrals

In color theory, a neutral is a color that has no hue, but that isn’t actually a very useful definition for clothing. Instead, I think of neutrals as having a minimum impact on the perception of your coloring. In practice, that means everyone has different neutrals: one family that’s roughly the same as your skin tone (these will simply disappear; the various skin tones used in womens’ hosiery are the main example), and one that’s roughly complementary to it (these will slightly intensify your skin tone without shifting its balance of colors). In both cases, less saturated colors are more neutral-acting.

The complementary family is interesting because it includes denim. Most people have a couple of shades of denim they look good in and several they don’t look that good in, and this is why—the colors closest to the complement of your skin tone will exactly bring out your natural color, which is often the most flattering.

I don’t generally think of white and black as neutrals, because they’re extremely high-impact colors. Black acts like a super-saturated color, taking away the color from your face and making it look more contrasty, which will highlight any blemishes or irregularities you have, so if you do wear it, it’s a good idea to interrupt it near the face unless your complexion is really clear and luminous. To add insult to injury, black doesn’t reflect any light onto you, which exaggerates shadows (under most conditions you’re lit from mostly overhead). White is more forgiving to the complexion, but less to the figure—it has a lot of visual volume. If you’re built for it, a slim-cut white shirt is a great thing that illuminates you and catches the eye from across the room, but don’t wear it on a part of the body you want to minimize.


Patterns behave in complex ways, visually. The large-scale impact of a pattern is basically similar to the solid color it looks like from a distance. However, the colors that compose it have their own effects, and as you recall from Silhouette, the very fact that it’s a pattern rather than a flat color makes it more visually weighty.

The other important thing to be aware of, with patterns, is the effect of patterns with dominant lines. Just as with lines in the silhouette, lines in a pattern lead the eye in the direction of their motion and interrupt the eye in the other direction. That’s why horizontal lines make you look wider and vertical lines make you look taller. This effect isn’t quite as strong with patterns of lower contrast or small scale, so if you’re looking askance at a buttondown because it’s got horizontal pinstripes, don’t worry about it too much. (That’s a pretty daring pattern because it’s not traditional at all, but it’s not particularly dangerous, visually.) As you might suspect, grids tend to cancel themselves out.

Color and Color Together

There are a couple of well-known ways to combine colors, based on their relationships on the color wheel. Again, I don’t think we need to get into the nuts and bolts of color theory, but it’s useful to think about the ways colors interrelate. Generally, when you’re putting together an outfit, you want to start with a dominant color (the color with the most visible area) that is flattering for you, and build color relationships around that color.

A couple of ways to put colors together:

  • Monochromatic: All colors are tints and shades of the dominant color. They vary in saturation and brightness but not hue. The monochromatic scheme can be really high-impact if executed in e.g. orange or yellow, but in greens, blues, and greys it’s pretty subtle.
  • Complementary: The dominant color and its complement—the color opposite to it on the color wheel. Complementary schemes are almost always pretty high-impact, because they have a very strong built-in contrast.
  • Split Complementary: One color and the two colors adjacent to its complement. Any of the colors may be dominant. Still contrasty, but a more subtle statement than the direct complementary scheme. Omitting one of the three colors can sometimes create a pretty interesting color relationship, but it’s risky.
  • Analogous: Two or three colors adjacent to one another on the color wheel. This is a pretty colorful way to go about your life, but it’s also relatively safe, as in hard to screw up.

Color and Pattern Together

Combining color and pattern is a pretty advanced technique that’s hard to master. One safe way to start is to wear a color that actually appears in the pattern; you can be sure that that color will work with every other color in the design. It’s a little more challenging to match by eye, but also relatively safe, to pair a pattern with the complement of one of the dominant colors in the pattern. Doing so will draw more attention to the pattern than color-matching does. Of course, it’s always safe to pair a pattern with white.

Once you’re comfortable pairing colors and patterns this way, your eye for color is probably developed enough that you can confidently make more subtle pairings. Refer to the color schemes above.

Pairing Patterns

This is a complex topic that deserves its own post, and we’ll tackle it farther down the line. For now, this concludes today’s lesson, and we’ll see you Thursday for the last lesson in Unit 1, the intro to accessories. See you then!


3 Comments so far
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[…] identical. Contrast can work just as well; just remember what we learned earlier about color, pattern, and texture. However, in this case you’re trying to showcase a particular item, so you don’t want to […]

Pingback by Lesson 15: Putting Together an Outfit « MANual of Style

An interesting link to share, interviewing five people with monochromatic wardrobes:

Comment by buriedwithoutceremony

I wish any of my college classes had made me actually want to take notes the way this stuff does.

Comment by Brendan

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