Archive | January, 2011

HUE CLUE — The Psychology of Color – Part II

24 Jan

“There is no model, there is only color.”
— Paul Cezanne

Our response to color is as unique as it is universal, as relevant to our cultural heritage as it is to our own very personal experiences.  Because it creates a mood, color can have a chameleonic effect to the viewer.  A man in a blue sweater tends to come across as easygoing and personable.  Change that color to red and that same individual will be viewed as more challenging, less friendly, even arrogant.  Yet we associate that same red with passion and sensuality.  A woman at a party in a black cocktail dress is seen as chic, urbane and slightly mysterious.  That same woman in a red dress is, to the same observer, perceived as more powerful, sensual and sexually desirable.

The most complex response we have to color, however, comes from our own personal experiences.  Since external stimuli have tremendous impact on our senses, this has nothing to do with what is sent down the runway.  Because color is so evocative to our psyche, we tend to relate specific tones or combinations of tones to an event or period in our past.  This, above all else, seems to irrevocably affect how we relate to certain colors, positively or negatively, for the rest of our lives.

I truly loathe the combination of black and light pink – and I know the reason why.

Before I began working in the fashion industry I was a theater and dance major and attended college to study both.  As a freshman I was required to study the fundamentals of ballet.  The classes were occupied by a number of young women – quite serious in their studies – who were always dressed the same way: black leotard with pale pink tights, or pale pink leotard with black tights, plus matching leg warmers and pink satin toe shoes.

These classes were also ridiculously overcrowded and lacked the proper supervision – consequently by the end of my first semester I had injured myself to the point that I had to withdraw from school entirely in order to recuperate.  To this day, any time I come upon black and light pink, I actually feel physical pain – a purely psychosomatic response, but one that will forever affect my perception of those colors.

I would love to know what colors you, the reader, are fond of or, conversely, which hues you find hideous – and more importantly, why??  (The fascinating thing is that, almost always, the combination of the two tones – the one you love and the one you hate, work off of each other beautifully.  Interesting, no?)

“I’m not that interested in fashion… When someone says that lime-green is the new black for this season, you just want to tell them to get a life.”
Bruce Oldfield

I’m actually very fond of these bright, pure tones for Spring/Summer 2011.  They have a clarity that transmits a certain vitality and energy, a hopefulness, that is much needed right now.  At the same time there is an audacity to these colors that, while appealing on the page, is likely to be difficult for many women to be comfortable interpreting.

In a volatile economy where consumers are especially cautious about purchases and consider every new garment an ‘investment piece’, it’s difficult to imagine a nearly-neon pink trouser or lemon yellow ankle-length halter jumpsuit a viable purchase.

These are pieces that can be frustratingly limited in their lifespan – recognizable garments that, because of their tonality, are particularly memorable the first time worn and are consequently difficult to integrate with one’s existing wardrobe or reinterpret to seem fresh and new.  This poses a problem to any individuals with a limited budget who, frankly, are the overwhelming majority of consumers.

This isn’t to say that you should keep it dark and somber all summer – it’s simply a question of what to invest in.  It’s important to remember that runway and reality are two very different things.  With this in mind, there are three basic factors to remember when investing in color for Spring/Summer: Quality, Shade, and Placement.

Quality is of utmost importance when working with bold hues – inexpensive synthetics and inferior workmanship are far more obvious in a bright color, where every stitch and seam is easier to see than in a dark or neutral.  Additionally, quality fabrics dye more richly than their substandard counterparts.  Wools and silks, particularly in gabardine or crepe, not only take color deeply but move beautifully on the body.

Shade is equally important.  Color can have a number of different values – in other words, it can be lighter or darker by adding either white or black.  For example, adding white to a pure yellow creates a pastel tint while adding black to that same yellow conjures a mustard shade.

In addition, most colors have subtle undertones to them that are either red, blue or yellow.  Hues with blue undertones will almost always be easier to wear than those with red or yellow in them.  This two-tone ensemble from Lanvin is a perfect example of two different shades of the same color.  The darker beet red of the skirt actually has more ‘blue’ in it than the brighter persimmon of the one-shoulder top, which has more ‘yellow’ in it.

It seems odd that red can also be blue or yellow, but in the study of color theory it’s actually very rare for a color seen in any visual medium – fashion, art, interior design – to be completely pure.

If you want to get an even better idea of this concept, pick up any paint company’s options for the color white – there are dozens of different ‘whites’ – some have blue undertones, some pink, some green.  These undertones are so very subtle when applied to a surface that they’re almost impossible to distinguish.  Yet, pure unadulterated white on a wall is surprisingly cold and uninviting – hence these options that soften this chilly color to something that is, almost subconsciously, far more appealing.

Placement, where on the body or in your ensemble you choose to employ bright color, is crucial.  Vibrant tones usually work best on the upper body — blouses, blazers, pullovers and knits instead of bright skirts and trousers.  Because when we stride the majority of our movement is from the waist down, a bright color in a bottom seems more blatant, less balanced, than that same color in the upper part of an ensemble.

This look from the Gucci runway is a wonderful example – together the blazer, top and pant are a bit overwhelming.  By replacing the teal green trouser with a black pant, the look immediately becomes more anchored, less gimmicky.  The warm citrus orange of the jacket is a fantastic way to update a wardrobe – there are so many ways to interpret it.  Imagine the blazer over a white tank and casual khaki trousers or a tailored camel skirt, or pair it with an simple espresso brown shirtdress.

For those who aren’t as committed to color for the coming season, employ shots of these wonderful hues in smaller ways that are both economically feasible and easier to incorporate into an existing wardrobe.  Small pops of bright in accessories – scarves, belts, shoes and bags – can update a look without breaking the bank, and have fantastic mix and match possibilities while still blending beautifully with the blacks, whites and neutrals that are already in most women’s closets.  Leather goods like bags, belts and shoes are particularly smart investments – if and when you tire of the color you can always have them dyed to a dark neutral.

This classic Dior bag, reinterpreted in color-blocking is a witty way to pull in this season’s craze for the colorful.  The specificity of the bag, however, means that after a season it may feel a bit ‘done’.  Any leather specialist that works with shoe repair can easily dye it navy or black — in essence giving its owner a new, utterly classic accessory for the following fall.

When working with powerful tones less is often more.  Anchoring a bright with a neutral lends elegance to what could otherwise be overwhelming.  Neutral and dark shades will always look more sophisticated, and bold tones from head-to-toe are something that few can pull off well.

Vibrant hues do require a certain amount of confidence, but working with them is hardly rocket science.  While it’s paramount to wear what feels comfortable to you, the challenge of trying something new often brings out aspects of your personal style and, perhaps the person underneath, that may otherwise not be discovered.

That, after all, is what style is all about…

Be well, all, and thanks for reading…



HUE CLUE — The Psychology of Color — Part I

10 Jan

“When in doubt, wear red…

– Bill Blass

There is certainly no lack of color for Spring/Summer 2011.  What is interesting, however, is that unlike past seasons, only clear intense tones were presented – nothing soft and understated, demure or subtle.  These colors possess a vigor that seem to be intent on provoking a particular response from the consumer – powerful tones that energize and strengthen, imbue a sense of positivity and hope that is much needed at the moment.

The psychology behind this energetic use of color is fascinating.  Physiologically human beings respond to color in both visual display and fashion faster and more strongly than any other aspect of design – line, shape, scale, texture or symmetry.

Yet the effect color has on us is as much genetic (red tends to excite more neuron activity in the brain, blue or green less so) as it is cultural (tonality plays a huge part in various religious and spiritual practices throughout the world – one society often views the same hue as having a completely different significance than their cultural counterpart).  For the most part, however, the human response to different colors is universal, and in turn generates the same unconscious reactions.


In art and design, color is divided into three basic families:  Warm, Cool and Neutral.  Warm colors include reds, yellows and oranges.  Cool colors are comprised of blues, greens and violet/purples.  Neutrals are a sort of ‘non-color’ color family – clean, understated tones like white, black, beige, grey and brown.

Warm colors are energizing and engaging – they tend to make one feel lighter, happier, more expansive; reminding us of warmth, sunshine and the fire of passion.  Shades of red, orange and yellow do other, more unexpected things – they make us work harder, move faster and increase the appetite.

Walk into any major fast-food chain and look around – warm, bright color schemes abound.  This isn’t done so that you feel all happy and fuzzy when you enter.  It’s done to make your eyes bigger than your stomach and get you in and out as quickly as possible.  It’s difficult to sit in a noisy, brightly-lit space with red and yellow furnishings and have a relaxing meal.  But then, you aren’t supposed to – these colors are chosen not only to increase your appetite once you step in the door, they’re chosen to make you wolf your food down and get out of there as quickly as possible so that you clear a table for the next unsuspecting ‘Super-Sizer’ to sit down.

This is also why stop signs, traffic lights and fire trucks are red – they’re designed to catch your attention and evoke an immediate and impulsive reaction.  Imagine a stop sign in a pale blue or a fire engine the color of an Easter egg – not very evocative, is it?

Cool colors have the opposite effect – they tend to mellow and calm, evoking images of blue skies, green grass, calm seas and spring-like days.  It’s not surprising that the overwhelming majority of people questioned state blue as their favorite color – its soothing, meditative properties tend to make both situations and individuals more approachable and less threatening.  Blue is often used in clinical, therapeutic and medical settings as it has the benefit of calming patients subconsciously.  Stylistically it’s often a choice made to engender oneself to others.

One must be cautions with blues, though – the wrong shade of blue can easily feel cold, moody and aloof.  Remember — no one has ever claimed to have ‘the pinks’, but an entire musical genre is dedicated to singing ‘the blues’.

Neutral colors can also be tricky to work with, and depending on the tonality, can be anything from rich and sophisticated to chilly and antiseptic.  A crisp white shirt is a symbol of classic style, whereas in design settings it can be quite sterile.  Hospitals are predominantly white for this very reason – it’s not just to make it easier to wash the blood off the walls (kidding) –  it’s to give you, the visitor or patient, the unconscious impression that everything is as clean and safe as possible.

We gravitate towards black in our wardrobe so consistently not simply for the fact that it’s classic and flattering, but because in many ways it’s the sartorial equivalent of armor – black is not only easy to mix with and difficult to get dirty, it transmits the impression that the wearer is confident, bold and sophisticated.  This in turn makes the viewer see the wearer as someone who is both formidable and desirable.

Interestingly, it was not until 1926 when Chanel introduced her first ‘little black dress’ for evening that black ceased to be a color worn only for mourning the dead, but an acceptable shade to be donned by the fashionable mainstream for any time or occasion.

Greys, beiges and browns can be murky and uninviting but when done correctly, are utterly stunning.  Worn together, beige and black is a timeless mainstay of many wardrobes.  Dark greys and browns are the perfect foil for otherwise too-bright tones — some of the most striking tonal combinations are espresso brown with bright fuchsia or emerald green; steel grey with scarlet or cobalt blue.


As universal as our response to color is, there are two other diverse aspects of tonal psychology that must be taken into consideration – the breadth of world culture and the uniqueness of individual experience.  In essence, it is a question of nature versus nurture.

Culturally, how we perceive certain colors is dependent on our location geographically.  White in western cultures is seen as something pure, untarnished, virginal.  Because this allusion to the chasteness of white is so powerful it has, since the 1820s, been the only acceptable color for a bride to wear for her wedding ceremony.

In many Asian cultures, however, white is symbolic of death and the color of mourning.  It would be unheard of for a bride in many Eastern religions to wear white for her wedding – where instead she dons scarlet red – a color that is felt to bring luck, fortune and fertility.  (Imagine the reaction in the United States if a bride glided down the aisle in a bright red taffeta dress and veil.)

In Eastern religions orange is a color that represents a healing calm and enlightenment – hence the garb of Buddhist monks.  As evidenced earlier, western culture hardly finds this color relaxing.

In ancient Rome purple was a symbol of the hierarchy of the senate.  Any individual who was not a member of the senate was prohibited to wear the color upon penalty of death.

This propensity for purple later found its way into many Christian religions, where garments in that hue are reserved for only the highest of holy holidays.


In Part II next week I’ll cover the more personal aspects color on the subconscious, and delve into how to wear these new and powerful colors for Spring/Summer 2011

Be well, all – and thank you for reading



1 Jan

This is about as esoteric and off the subject of fashion as I will ever get on this site, and I promise next week we’ll be back on target.  However, I keep coming across all of these media stories about New Year’s resolutions and how to keep them, and it’s both fascinating and disturbing.

The psychology behind a New Year’s resolution is puzzling.  We initially make this resolution with steadfastness and often-grim determination because, let’s face it, it’s usually a promise about something we really don’t want to do in the first place, or is challenging for us to keep up for a long period of time.  If it weren’t so difficult, we’d already be doing it, no?

So, of course, two or three months into the new year you’ve lost a fair amount of enthusiasm about this new, very trying resolution, and before the year is halfway through you’ve given up on it, and you’re frustrated and disappointed in yourself because of it.  It all seems very self-destructive — rather like cutting off your foot right before a marathon – you’ve set yourself up to fail (or at least be in a lot of pain).

Why not establish a ‘life resolution’?  Something basic that you desire to do that will improve yourself or humanity?  Something that you consistently strive to accomplish every day in your life, and re-address every year?  There’s no expiration date, no frustrating time constraint, no deadline that you’re almost guaranteed to miss.

My life resolutions are pretty much the same every year:

Treat others as you wish to be treated.

Remember that what goes around comes around.

Be open to new possibilities and ways of thinking.

Be as true to yourself and what you believe in as you possibly can.

Care for yourself – if you don’t you’re no good to anyone else.

Have faith in the innate goodness of humankind.

Know that everything happens for a reason.

So, when I start getting wrapped up in artificiality and unrealistic expectations — when the world tries to convince me that it’s imperative to keep up with the Kardashians, or make sure my toothpaste is sexy enough, or attempts to frighten me with commercials that spend 30 seconds of their one minute explaining the potentially fatal side effects of their amazing new drug, I remind myself of the above.

And, to clarify – just because I use these as my life resolutions doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days where I forget one or all of them, that I walk through life with unwavering confidence or, for that matter, that I only watch PBS.

I have plenty of lousy days where I’d just as soon stay in bed, question myself constantly, and without apology watch “Wipeout” and “Dancing with the Stars” every week.  I just thought I’d share this with you in the hopes that you get something out of it that makes your 2011 just that much better.