If, like me, you grew up the 80s, you’ll know having your colours “done” was a Very Big Thing. People were judged not by the colour of their skin (well they were judged by that too) but by the undertone of their skin.
One would hear people saying “well her perm is nice, obviously, but how could she go ash blonde? She’s an Autumn for heaven’s sake! Now go pour me a wine cooler, while I rewind my cassingle of George Michael’s Faith. Now there’s a fine figure of a man. His girlfriend must be one lucky woman…” and so on.
Somehow I escaped the 80s without having my colours “done”. Doomed, was I, to spend the next 25 years wandering the earth seasonless, lapsing into a coma every time I heard people launch into in-depth discussions on whether a particular shade of coral was “warm” or “cool”.
I wore the colours that I liked the look of; the ones that I felt reflected my personality. I am vehemently extroverted; my favourite hobbies are acting and over sharing (by the way, I must tell you about my vaginal reconstruction surgery. What? I already did? Oh, yes, perhaps I have mentioned it before). So I have always been drawn to bright, attention-grabbing colours. My wardrobe consisted entirely of bright red, electric blue and bright green – with a bit of black thrown in for good measure. I had about 6 pairs of fire-engine red shoes.
Bright, clear, vibrant colours said something about me. And I looked awesome.
*may not be a genuine 80s pic
So when my bookclub decided we would have a fashion consultant come for consultation-cum-party, I thought it would be fun hearing my sartorial choices praised by an expert.
We went to my friend’s house and we had a couple of glasses of wine. We were full of good cheer, ready for a night of mindless frivolity.
She started by “doing” our colours. I volunteered to go first. Volunteering to go first is another of my hobbies.
I sat in front of a mirror with my friends looking on. Our consultant first alternated holding up silver and gold scarves to my face and asking everyone which they thought suited me best. Gold, we all agreed. So far so good. I didn’t have strong feelings either way about gold.
Then she held up what I thought of as my signature colour: bright red.
Awful, they all agreed. Truly awful.
…I’m sorry – what?
Let’s try mustard. You know – baby poo colour: Lovely, they all murmured, appreciatively. Just lovely.
I beg your pardon?
Electric blue: hideous. You look like you’ve just thrown up.
What’s happening here?
Brown (another poo colour): glowing! You are glowing!
Bright green: you look like you are in late-stage liver failure.
Olive green: perfect!
Black: argh, you look anaemic
Murky, rusty orange: gorgeous
I was pronounced “warm toned”. “You are as warm as warm can be” said the expert. She took down the last scarf to again reveal my normal clothes. I crossed my arms over my bright red jersey.
Ha, isn’t this fun ladies? Ha ha ha HA! HA! Hahahahahahaha HA!
I wanted to cry. But you don’t cry over a fashion consultation. That would be pathetic. It’s just clothes.
So, I don’t own a single stitch of clothing that suits me. Oh well!
Apparently I have looked hideous for most of my adult life. C’est la vie!
This whole night was probably engineered so my friends could have someone else tell me how bad I look. No biggie!
I watched my four friends being diagnosed. All cool toned. Two “mid cools” and two “cool brights” (the lingo has changed since the 80s seasons craze).
I half listened to the advice on the right styles to wear to flatter our body shapes. Eventually it was over, and a few drinks and a lot of forced smiling later it was time to go home. I walked out in a daze.
I know how self-indulgent and shallow this all sounds – I know it’s just clothes. I know I could have just ignored what I’d been told and carry on. But unfortunately part of me also believed the consultant and my friends that I was wearing all the wrong things. I believed them that I would probably look much nicer if I wore the colours on the “warm toned” colour card I had been given to take home with me.
But even though I knew all this, what it felt like was that part of my personality had been unceremoniously stamped out. I spent two days feeling weird. I felt like I’d just been told I was a cylon or something.
I went out on one of these days to get my little girl from school. I was wearing the burgundy cardigan one of my book group had given me the night of the consultation. It was on her banned colours list and appeared on my card so it might as well have a good home. A woman whom I vaguely know approached me at after school pick up and said “Jessica, you look so chic!” (this would sound ridiculous from any other New Zealander, but this woman happens to be a 9-foot tall Brazilian model. Everything she says sounds lovely).
I snapped out of it. I went shopping with my warm-toned card in my warm-toned hand.
I went into each shop and immediately ruled out 90% of the clothes: those colours weren’t on my card. I then picked up almost all the clothes in my colours and tried them on. A normal shopping trip for me involves trying on 10 things for every one that I actually want to buy. This time those figures were reversed. I looked so… well. My skin appeared creamy rather than pasty. I’d become so used to pastiness that I thought that was just how I looked.
I was sold. Sold by the compliments I was getting on my appearance. Sold by vanity.
Some theatre pics may help to illustrate the change:
Me in lemon – a banned colour
Me in brown – a recommended colour
With the zeal of the convert I banned cool colours from my wardrobe. I even removed almost every shred of black from my clothing and shoe collection – my neutrals are brown and burgundy. Black is not on my card. I filled 3 rubbish bags with contraband clothes and accessories and spent the week feeling like Father Christmas giving away clothes to my friends and family. Since I had four book group friends who had been banned from wearing all my colours I acquired a lot of their banned clothes in return.
I became obsessed. Googling warm-toned celebrities, silently diagnosing strangers, having long discussions with other colour-obsessed people about whether a particular shade of coral was warm or cool while normal people lapsed into comas all about me. I was a bit like someone in the first flush of love. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And now I’m writing about it. Because I am still in love with colour theory and I want you to fall in love with it too.
Lots of you probably already know all this and many probably know it better than I do – but I figure if I got to my mid-30s not knowing this maybe you don’t either.
Here’s what you should know about colours.
How do I know what my skin tone is?
Skin tone is different from skin colour. Your skin colour is probably how you would normally describe your skin – it’s mostly about the shade of your skin – how light or dark it is. Skin tone is about the undertone – basically how much yellow, red or pink there is in skin.
As far as I can tell, there is some correlation between ethnicity and skin tone, but you can’t tell your skin tone from your ethnicity. For instance, pale-skinned people are more likely to have cool undertones, but I, for instance am very pale, but have very warm, or yellow undertones – my sister is also very pale but has cool, pinky undertones.
This is my sister. I love her, she is amazing.
How can you tell what your undertone is?
There are lots of ways to test what your skin undertone is. Here are a few:
- Do you suit gold or silver jewellery? If you suit gold, you are probably warm toned. If you suit silver, you are probably cool-toned.
- Look at your veins (this one is easier if you have pale skin). Do they look blue or do they appear greenish? If you have warm-toned, yellowy skin, your (blue) veins will appear greenish. I couldn’t see how green my veins were until I compared them with my sister’s very blue veins.
- Try, with clean skin and in good light, holding up different coloured clothes to your face. Look at your skin, not at the colour of the clothes themselves. If clear, cool colours make you look bluergh like they do for me, you are probably warm toned. If warm, murky, muddy colours make you look bluergh you are probably cool toned. I think mustard is a good colour to check – although it is a revolting colour in and of itself; it will either make your skin look equally revolting or it will make you glow.
My sister and I took no-makeup selfies to show you us in the right colours and then we swapped clothes and lipstick to show you us in the wrong colours.
Then we decided we looked too hideous for words so we allowed ourselves one makeup item each (mascara for me, eyebrow pencil for her) and we did the photos again. We still look far from our best, but this is what we do for science:
With me you can see how my skin looks creamy in the first pic and yellowy in the second one. My sister looks paler and sort of clashy in the second one.
Here is another warm and cool sister combo (see what they did there? Subtle, right?)
And another warm-toned Jessica looking very sallow wearing cool colours:
And looking very lovely, if a little nippley, in warm colours:
Why should clothes make such a difference to how your skin looks?
From what I can tell there are three effects going on here:
1) we are seeing the effects of contrast. Have you ever had, say, a white bra and then got a new one and realised by holding them next to each other that your “white” bra has gone yellow or grey? Or not known whether some pants are black or very dark blue until you hold them next to something black? For me, as a yellowy person, when I wear white, my skin looks yellower by contrast. When I wear cream, the yellow isn’t so noticeable.
2) We are seeing the effects of reflection. When I wear bright green, bright blue or bright yellow, the colour reflects on my face. I don’t understand physics well enough to explain this properly, but something about the light bouncing off these colours onto my skin makes me look sickly. When a cool-toned person wears warm colours they tend to look washed out and a little grey.
3) We are seeing clashing. Some colours just don’t look nice next to each other. You can see this in fabrics. There’s something kind of icky about mixing khaki and hot pink, or electric blue and brown. But khaki and brown work together and hot pink and electric blue work together. Mustard clashes with a cool-toned person’s skin and bright green clashes with a warm-toned skin.
Oh – and there’s more:
Contrast and intensity
There’s another factor at play here too: intensity and contrast of colour. Basically even if you get the tone right, you also want to wear the right intensity or saturation of colour for you, particularly if you are pale and have pale hair. If you are pale all over and wear intense colours, you tend to look “washed out”. I think a fancy fashion consultant might say “the clothes wear you”.
Kirsten Dunst is cool toned and low contrast but she often wears warm, intense colours:
Yes, she is still a very beautiful woman – but look at her in colours that suit her better. Dreamy, yes?
Even in black, which counts as a cool colour, she looks less glowy and lovely because intense colours kind of make her face disappear into the background:
My rule of thumb is that if there is a lot of intensity in the colour of your skin, hair and eyes (i.e. skin, hair and eyes are dark), or if you have high-contrast skin, hair, eyebrows and eyes (i.e. skin is pale but with dark hair, eyebrows, eyes) you look better in intense, or highly-saturated, colours. If you have low intensity of colour in your skin (ie if you are pale) and if you have low contrast in your skin, eyes, eyebrows and hair, you need to wear less intense colours.
So my sister, who is cool-toned and very pale, but has black hair and eyebrows, looks best in cool-toned bright colours (eg fire engine red, canary yellow, black). So too, someone with dark skin and hair will usually look better in intense colours.
Someone with cool-toned, pale skin and blonde hair (like Kirsten Dunst) will usually look better in less intense colours (eg mint, aqua, lemon, grey, white).
Someone who is warm-toned and has dark skin and hair or has high contrast in their hair, skin and eyes (like me) will look best in intense, warm colours (eg chocolate brown, rusty orange, burgundy).
Beyonce is warm-toned and looks amazing in mustard and olive.
Contrast her (still gorgeous, obviously, but looking relatively sallow) in hot pink:
Someone with warm-toned, pale skin and low contrast features will look best in less intense versions of those warm colours (eg paler browns, dusky pink).
Poor, warm-toned Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) spent years looking pasty in cool colours:
If only they’d had olive green uniforms:
And lest you should think that is just makeup making the difference, see what happens to her skin when she chooses to wear cool, bright colours
I think, in general, pale-skinned people with low contrast features have to be more careful about the intensity of the colours they wear than people with high contrast because they’re more likely to look washed out. People with darker skin or higher contrast can probably get away with less intense colours, even if more intense ones are better.
Oh – by the way, this all goes for makeup colours and hair dye too.
Emma Stone is warm toned. This is her looking clashy (but still beautiful) in cool clothes, hair and makeup versus creamy and dreamy in warm colours:
Wait – so what do I wear again?
Ok, so obviously you should wear whatever you want, or whatever you have and blah, blah blah. But! I’d encourage skeptics to at least experiment with wearing the colours the 80s fashion textbooks tell you to wear.
Otherwise, even if you are fortunate enough to look like Kim Kardashian (cool toned), you might look like this:
Instead of this:
So! The easiest thing to do, if you have the means, is find one of those colour consultants; it’s their job to tell you what your friends may be too nice to say. It seems like there are heaps of them about now. We used Wardrobe Flair (in Wellington and Auckland last time I checked). Otherwise, if you’ve figured out your skin tone on your own, Google is awash with advice on what clothes, hair and makeup will likely work for you.
Here is a rough guide though:
Cool toned with darker skin colour or high-contrast features e.g. Kim Kardashian, my sister: Bright, clear, crisp, intense colours
Black, electric blue, fire engine red, canary yellow, bright green
Cool toned, pale skin and low contrast features e.g. Kirsten Dunst: Clear, less saturated or intense cool colours
Grey, periwinkle or powder blue, peach, lemon yellow, mint green
Warm-toned e.g. Beyonce, me (vary the intensity according to how dark or high contrast your colouring is):
Brown, burgundy, teal, rusty orange, mustard, olive
And here are some more beautiful people showing us what not to do:
This stuff won’t ring true for all people. Some people are more in the middle of warm and cool and look good in everything. Some people tend to wear colours that are a bit in the middle too, like teal and some shades of purple. People with high-contrast features get away with a bit more too. Makeup and hair colour (and retouching! It’s no good looking at photoshopped images to see what skin tone celebrities have) can help people carry off colours that probably aren’t what the textbook recommends for them.
So I now love being warm-toned; you can take my poo-brown, and baby-poo-mustard clothes from my warm, dead hands.
PS: here are some outtakes from my sister and my selfies for your entertainment.
And the pre-eye makeup shots that I told my sister I deleted:
Sorry Bub! Love you!