Can colour theory make you a sharper dresser?
Words: James Nash | Images: Rex Features by Dale Scogings
Understanding even the very basics of how colours work, and how our eyes perceive them, is an important step in understanding what can make or break an outfit. Coordination is key, and knowing how to work with colours is among the most important aspects.
Let’s start with the basics: Primary colours are the foundation upon which we build. Red, yellow, and blue, through varied combinations, make up every single colour in an infinite spectrum. Purple, green, and orange are the secondary colours, the initial products of mixing any two primaries. When these mix, they make endless tertiary combinations, creating every colour imaginable. Critically, the secondaries serve as complementary colours for the primary three. Blue and orange, red and green, yellow and purple all seem aesthetically pleasing to the eye because of the contrast inherent to their pairing.
These pairings don’t often look all that complementary, especially in the context of an outfit. There’s a reason why no one’s paired lime green pants with neon pink shirts since that ill-advised colour-blocking thing that happened a few years into the 2000s. This has to do with what “value” a hue of colour has, its position on a greyscale that allows us to see the subtle differences in shade or tint. Essentially allowing us to see a pure colour in its lightest to darkest form.
Understanding value is the most important part of colour theory, and of using colour in your outfits. It’s important to use different values of colour to further create contrast – the interaction of colours that our eyes so deeply enjoy. If adjacent colours have values too similar, or worse still, the same, then our eyes struggle to pick them apart, creating a disconcerting effect for the viewer. An on-trend example of this is tonal dressing: single-colour outfits work when their values differ, defining each piece while still fitting into an aesthetic whole. However an attempt at a tonal outfit with too-similar tints can lead to a confusing result, so the ideal solution is a pairing of pieces that create enough contrast between them to be each clearly defined as unique items and create a visual balance of opposing forces, in this case values, which makes your look more dynamic. Having different textures is another ideal way to create this balance if your gradient is looking a tad too similar.
Beyond that, values set the mood of your outfit. Higher values (closer to black) have connotations with gloomier or more mature looks, even if you’re wearing a colour that is supposedly loud. Lower values (with more white) often seem dreamier and more youthful, though should be used more sparingly. An obvious example of this is the massive difference in mood created by a midnight blue and a powder blue. Deliberate use of value allows whatever you’re wearing to subtly speak for you, displaying how you might feel or even who you are: that means that you’ll be wearing the powder blue shirt to an optimistic first date, while the navy is ideally suited to a job interview, or that post-breakup bender.
Context is a major key for colour. Some colours come with connotations of their own: blue reminds people of authority, while red speaks of power and sex. Certain combinations also have stigma attached to them, for instance, forest green and luminescent orange when used together create the connotation of a hunter, while a royal purple and bright yellow combination might refer to the Los Angeles Lakers. However, this doesn’t mean you have to eschew them entirely: bright orange might remind your uncle of prison, but it’s definitely this year’s strongest colour.
Working within context allows you to reference the real-world inspirations that you’ve drawn from. Awareness of how your use of colour fits inside of a larger world helps to create more defined sense of style. Being informed as to the connotations certain combinations might hold can give you a library of social and cultural reference points, which you can either take as inspiration or leave behind entirely, in favour of your own interpretations.
Ultimately, nothing’s written in stone, and rules are meant to be broken. How you use colour is up to you, but an awareness of how it works and the connotations it might hold go a long way into making an outfit greater than just the the sum of its parts.