Mighty Life List
Aug 30 2010

Flashback Monday: Women’s Fashion Part II, Color

In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, every Monday I post articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. This piece was originally published by the The Morning News in 2002. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin, for the edits.

Black is easy. Black is mythic. It can make you look 120 pounds when you weigh 250. Black is the new…well, you’ve heard it. But do you own anything that makes you laugh when you put it on? Not even a pair of ducky yellow boots tucked into the back corner of your closet?

If not, you need more happy clothes. Even in big cities where women tend to be more adventurous with their clothing, you can count ten women in muted colors for every one woman wearing a bright blue raincoat or green trousers. This is why designers have such an easy time hooking us with their color du season. We’re starved for something juicy.

And you can be juicy. Oh, yes.

Now in Technicolor

Color gets you noticed, especially when everyone else looks as though they’re in mourning. Think of who gets photographed at the Oscars: Nicole Kidman in her chartreuse Galliano, Gwyneth Paltrow in her glowing pink Ralph Lauren, Kate Winslet in her flowering red Ben de Lisi. Remember Helen Hunt’s black Gucci cloak dress? Or Julianne Moore’s sheer black Chanel? Yeah, neither does anyone else.

Get some glad rags. If your closet lacks color, refuse to buy any more navy, beige, brown, or black until your wardrobe is more vibrant. You may hear the inner voice that your mother so cultivated, shouting, ‘A pink suede skirt? That won’t go with anything!’ Perhaps. But it will make you want to shimmy.

Don’t wear green if green makes you look dead. How can you tell? Stand near a window in the store so you can see the color and your skin tone in a natural light. Now hold the item in question up to your face. Do you glow a little, or do you look hungover? If you are hungover and you still glow a little, snap that baby up. Also pay attention to people’s comments. If they ask whether you’re feeling tired when you wear your green sweater, chuck it. If they ask whether you’ve just had your hair cut, buy some more skirts to go with your fabulous green sweater.

Eschew black for special occasions. Consider your little black dress a standby for events that catch you off guard, not a default. If you know a fete is coming, find an outfit that will own the room, something that snaps. This will make you easy to find in a crowd, which makes it easier for charming strangers to hit on you.

Invest in a bright coat. It looks fantastic with an all-neutral outfit, and can make even a T-shirt and jeans look stylish. A colorful coat also adds some flare to more conservative work outfits.

Wear more red. It’s the only color that’s both bold and classic, and every woman can find a shade that flatters her. If you’re not sure what looks good on you, go to an upscale makeup counter and ask them to help you find a red lipstick that works with your complexion. Once you’ve found something attractive, you can buy red clothing with the same base shades. Nothing beats a red dress for sex appeal. If you don’t believe me, lick your finger, press it to your hip, and make a sizzling sound. Now isn’t that more convincing when you’re wearing red?

Mix and Match

The best way to figure out what colors work well together is to pay attention to fashion spreads and imitate the combinations you like. Hard-and-fast fashion rules on what matches and what doesn’t are somewhat naive. Styles are in constant flux. While neon pink with lime green would have been fine in the ’80s, today it would be a cause for concern. Some basic guidelines:

Stick to two or three colors per outfit. The rainbow effect hasn’t worked since you were six. If you’re pairing solids, choose two colors and work with those, perhaps adding a touch of a third color in your earrings or with a pair of strappy shoes.

Dress in color families. When you’ve collected enough pieces in a single color family, consider wearing them together once in awhile. Of course, they should be shades that match, mint green isn’t so hot with olive drab, and they should also be tones that vary. Wearing exactly the same shade of a bright color from head to toe can be an assault on passersby, but pairing a barely turquoise angora sweater with a robin’s-egg wool skirt looks smashing. Avoid an undesirable schizophrenic effect by offsetting a monochromatic outfit with a swingy little jacket and shoes in neutral shades or accessories in a complementary, but distinctly different, color.

Pay attention to color tones. Pastels work better with other light colors, while saturated colors work well together. Pale pink is beautiful with beige, but dark pinks are nicer with a chocolate color.

Pucci Over Pinstripe

Patterned clothing isn’t nearly as versatile as solids. There are a few exceptions—pinstripes, Burberry plaid—but patterns are often a liability. They hang forlornly in your closet because they don’t go with anything; they’re the reason that your white T-shirt is always in the wash.

Still, patterns are fun, and fun is the point. So if you’re going to buy a few things that don’t match much, buy outrageous things. See that bright green ’60s print with huge blue barracudas swimming all over it? That’s what I’m talking about. See that little tank top with the giant spiky flowers in fuchsia, and red? There are forty others like it on the sale rack, because no one else was brave enough to wear them. You don’t have those kinds of hang-ups. Vintage shops and deeply discounted sales racks are the best places to find striking prints.

Those who feel exposed in a crazy, dramatic pattern can balance it with classic clothing in a conservative cut. If you’re not particularly adept at choosing colors that work together, select a neutral or a shade featured prominently in the pattern. Your new barracuda pants would look great with a slate gray T-shirt. Your floral tank would be sweet with a little red skirt.

Tennis Bracelets Are for Sissies

If you’re not a brave girl, or you don’t have enough extra cash to invest in a fuchsia section of your closet, start with accessories. You can dress as conservatively as you like and still look dashing if you wear bold jewelry. What do I mean by bold? Colorful, and big.

Find two or three bright colors that you love—a lipstick crimson, Tiffany’s blue—and begin to collect scarves, pins, and bracelets in those colors. Bright, dramatic jewelry is especially nice with clothes that take no chances. A beige T-shirt, jeans, and sandals looks ho-hum until you add a chunky orange necklace. Your little black dress stands out if you added aquamarine chandelier earrings or a pink tassel necklace that falls to your waist.

The extra bonus with dramatic jewelry is that you can always remove it and stuff it in your purse if you feel overdressed or silly. This is not as true of thigh-high leather boots that lace up the back.

Bold and Brave

Nothing looks good on a woman who isn’t brave, and it takes a brave woman to wear orange pants. Not everyone will like what you’re wearing, but a few people will love it as much as you do. Those people are the correct ones.

Fashionable women are willing to wear what other women won’t (yet). They have a sense of humor about what they put on their bodies, and they’re often respected less for their artistry than their chutzpah.

What the rest of us need to figure out is how to be daring without being reckless. Playing with color is the most foolproof way to do that. Next time, buy the pink suede skirt. It’s practical.

17 Responses to “Flashback Monday: Women’s Fashion Part II, Color”

  • tasha Says:

    I actually owned a hot pink suede skirt. I love love loved it and it went with nothing. Unfortunately, I have no idea where it is now. Insert sad face here.

  • Bea Says:

    Of course I read this on the day I’m wearing beige shoes, grey pants, a white shirt and a navy blazer. Now I feel the urge to start collecting colorful pieces. I’m thinking Edie Sedgwick earrings and orange pieces all around. Oh, and HELL YES to prints.

  • Miss B Says:

    Or one could simply _be_ fun, and brave, and bold, and interesting, instead of relying on wardrobe items to be those things for oneself…

    Though that is said as someone who owns primarily black clothing, with some deep blues and greys thrown in, and very little else. Red was great when my hair wasn’t dyed blue, but now I feel like it’s unpleasantly noisy (had to adjust my lipstick choices, too, to accomodate the hair change), so my (few) red clothes are on hiatus. However, I don’t wear mostly black because I am frightened of color, or because I’m dull, or because I hate fun. I simply have a clear aesthetic preference. And isn’t that part of the point, if not most of it?

  • Kara Says:

    I like to keep most of my actual clothing to be pretty simple and classic (I have a lot of grey, black, and white in my wardrobe)… so that I can go wild with accessories and shoes.

    That being said… I also own a bright (fuchsia) pink suede skirt, and because it goes with nothing, I feel free to wear it with everything. (I especially like to pair it with graphic t-shirts.) It is a favorite of mine on grey gloomy days when I need a little pick-me-up.

  • jake donohoe Says:

    You rule.

  • amy Says:

    I own massive quantities of colorful clothes and shoes. My mantra- Why not have fun?

    Although, I do disagree with the LBD statement.. A fabulous LBD, with red vixen-y heels and a hot pink wrap is pure genius.

    Also, you’d be amazed at how versatile orange sandals are. True Story.

  • Shilo Says:

    HERE HERE!

    I love color, but I’m always a bit afraid to wear it. In fact, just the other day, I dared to put on some audaciously bright tights that I bought on a whim. (Not trying to be one of those “look at my blog!” types, but seriously check them out, suckers are PINK: http://bit.ly/96VGVY) I was nervous when I first put them on but figured if I felt over the top I could always quietly remove them in a coffee shop bathroom or whatever.

    Turns out, I got compliments all day long and felt like a total sass machine.

    In conclusion, where are those kelly green trousers of my dreams? Sign me up!

  • Jessica Says:

    Someday I will be brave, Maggie. Someday.

  • Marla Says:

    A long time ago, I went to Joyce Jonas’ Jewelry Camp (It was as fantastic as it sounds) for work purposes – and John Loring (who was at the time design director for Tiffany & Co.) was giving a lecture about his personal, and later, business relationship with Paloma Picasso. In speaking of her love of colour, he related something she said and it’s SO TRUE:

    “When I wear a red coat on a rainy day, I give a gift to all who look at me.”

  • Dottie Says:

    Your writing is like the champagne you sip on Wednesdays–bubbly and delicious!

    Thanks for adding a little pip to my day!

    Now excuse me as I put a bid on that glorious vintage turquoise jacket…

  • samantha Says:

    I love wearing jewel tone clothes. I figure that as a redhead in gray Seattle I already stand out, so I might as well also be visible from space.

  • amanda | web design belfast Says:

    I love vibrant colours – being a designer helps as I’m using a varied palette everyday. But one thing I get stuck on is black pants. When I wear a colourful top, I try to tone it down with black or dark pants. Awful i know, but until someone shows me what goes well with bright colours – they stay on!

  • kate Says:

    How perfect to see this as the Flashback piece after my weekend at a wedding. It was a gorgeous event…actually a string of several gorgeous wedding related events. But dear Lord, the lack of color in the guests’ party-wear! I was the proud pop of color for the reception (lemon yellow with sky high heels and just the right jewelry). The compliments were endless, I felt as stunning as the bride looked, and I’m sure the photographer was pleased to have that punch of yellow on the Black Sea of a dance floor. Maggie, thanks for all you do. You and your blog never fail to add color to my life.

  • Nora Says:

    A few years ago, I sort-of-but-not-really decided that I was only buying new clothes in orange, purple, and brown.

    I still wear other colors (right now I’m on a red and blue kick), and I own a few black things for when I’m feeling dour or 1950′s bohemian, but buying things in “my” colors makes getting dressed in the morning when I’d rather be lolling about in bed ever so much easier, and helps me edit out pieces I probably wouldn’t have anything to go with when I’m out shopping. Plus, no one could ever accuse me of shying away from color!

  • dgm Says:

    So, so spot on, as always!

  • jmk Says:

    What an inspiring nudge to dip into color for some ZING in the wardrobe. I clearly remember a dim, snowy day in my city, and as I began walking downhill to work, I could see all the coats in front of me. A sea of black, speckled with some brown. But there, in the midst of it — a beautiful PINK coat! It made me grin (and I’m a big black/brown/grey girl myself). A few days later, I saw a yellow wool coat on sale and snapped it up. Makes me grin every time I put it on.

    Maggie, would love to see as a companion piece to this article some of your (or your friends’) pops of color in your wardrobe that you especially love!

  • Margret Nesset Says:

    I greatly loved reading your post! I get excited by anythings antiques, but in particular engagement rings.