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Thou Shalt Not Be Afraid of Colour


I love to wear colour. Not only because, as I’ve shared on numerous other occasions, I wish to confound Melburniuns’ infernal reputation for wearing funereal black summer and winter, but because wearing colours – especially vivid shades – simply makes me happy

Colour Theory and Symbolism

Colour can have a huge emotional impact in our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. While I don’t buy into theories of universal colour psychology (eg, magenta being ‘spiritual yet practical, encouraging common sense and a balanced outlook on life’), I do believe we respond differently to colours depending on our individual experiences. For whatever reason we will have our favourites, and we will have those we loathe. Personally, I dislike pedestrian pastels as I find them insipid (although I do like the ‘icy’ versions of these shades that suit me), and I am not fond of brown (except, for some strange reason, in coats and jackets, especially winter outerwear). I love robins egg blue, red, bright pink and yellow, many shades of purple, and I also have a passion for grey.

When I was a teen I wore mainly what was in fashion, but gravitated to bright colours. By my early 20s, I was seriously into vintage (partly due to my art school’s proximity to many op shops and vintage boutiques), but I started to wear more muted colours – I preferred them because I thought they were more subtle and intriguing. Interestingly, in refutation of this mid-twentieth-century analysis of  the colours artists prefer, I still prefer to use muted, warm colours in my artwork, even though I am a ‘cool’ person.

I’m not interested in the perceived symbolism of certain colours, but whether they look good on me, or not.

It was not until I had my colour epiphany in a Sussan’s clothes store trying on a candy pink blouse on a whim that I realised brighter colours suited me. Understand, before that I hated pink – I dismissed it as too girly. But after that experience, I was able to change my prejudice, ditched the dull rags and started wearing brighter shades. Now, I’m not interested in the perceived symbolism of certain colours, but whether they look good on me, or not. (The symbolism from a cultural point of view is certainly interesting however, such as red being associated with love, yellow with jealousy, etc; click here to read a little more about it.)

Read on for the secrets to discovering the Expressionist in you …

This 60s ribbon lace appliqué dress is in my favourite shade of blue. I don’t like Sixties fashion, and I don’t like V-necks, but this glorious colour saves the day. I love it paired with scarlet satin heels too!

The Fear Factor

Over the years I’ve had many comments and compliments about the bright colours I wear, especially red and yellow – it seems those two colours inspire the most awe and fear. People – women, mostly – express admiration that I dare to wear such vivid hues. ‘I could never wear that,’ they shake their heads. I am tempted to demand, ‘Why not? Will it bite you?’

Of course, people are afraid not actually of colour itself, but of attracting the wrong sort of attention by wearing the wrong colours together, or they are simply afraid of attracting attention at all – there are those shy types who prefer the safety of merging with the crowd, or even invisibility altogether. But I don’t know of one woman (except perhaps very eccentric types) who would not like to appear her best, and even appear attractive. Why would you not want to wear a colour that lights up your face, makes your eyes sparkle, and you look radiant?

For the truly fearful, it is less daunting to start small, perhaps with a little accessory, such as a scarf, bag or shoes, or a piece of jewellery. Build your confidence slowly and then branch out. 

Of course, people are afraid not actually of colour itself, but of attracting the wrong sort of attention by wearing the wrong colours together …

The Flatter Factor

The inverse applies: wearing the wrong colours for your complexion will wash you out, make you look sallow, or tired. They will drag you down – I tend to believe if you look depressed you will end up feeling depressed! One glimpse in a mirror when you look like this can be a shock. That’s exactly what happened to me: I was wearing a maroon coloured top and caught my reflection in a distant mirror. It was as though I was seeing a stranger, and it made me completely objective. I saw at once that maroon made me look awful – tired, drawn and sallow, as though life was a terrible burden.

You do need to figure out which hues suit your colouring, but it doesn’t mean you can’t wear other favourite colours – just don’t wear them next to your face.

The simplest way to figure out which colours suit you is first to find out which ‘season’ you fall into: summer, winter, spring or autumn. There are plenty of online sites that will explain how to do this (read my story on seasonal colourwithin that there are links that will take you to these sites). If you don’t have enough of the suggested colours in your wardrobe to try against your face, go to a department store where you’ll have access to many different design and colour ranges. Always do your comparisons in natural light however, not in the fluorescent lighting of many changerooms. Also take note which colours you are wearing when people compliment you – or when they ask if you are not feeling quite the thing! 

Whatever you want to call this shade of yellow: sunshine, daffodil, goldenrod – it is hard to come by. I searched high and low literally for years before I found this 70s cotton dress in exactly the right shade. This colour is so happy, and this dress so swirly, I immediately want to dance when I put it on!

The Match Factor

Some people are also daunted by the prospect of matching colours – they feel they don’t know which ones go together, so it is easier and safer to stick to black, or neutrals. That way no one will point them out as a figure of fun in the street. The secret to conquering this fear is to not care what other people think of you. After all, who cares what some stranger on the street is thinking in their head about your outfit? You’ll never know! And if they do have the impertinence to shout out rude remarks to you, ignore them. They are the ones with abysmal manners and unkind, ungenerous spirits. That is certainly no marker of elegance.

The secret to conquering this fear is to not care what other people think of you

Try out different pairings at home – most likely if you don’t find colours offensive to the eye, then they probably aren’t offensive. Trust your instincts. Harmonious shades always look lovely paired, but contrasting colours can look great together, and even clashing colours can be daring and exciting. If you’re feeling nervous, stick to two colours, but don’t rigidly alternate them from head to toe. Feel free to add a third colour into the mix as a little accent in a belt, or your shoes – for example, two muted hues with one bright shade can be wonderful. Also check out the outfits of someone whose style you admire (make sure the same colours suit you), or ask their advice.

I remember once when I was young trying to determine what my ‘style’ was; I was a bit afraid of getting it wrong and those nebulous ‘people’ sniggering at me behind their hands until I had another fashion epiphany and realised that a) it didn’t matter what other people thought and b) boldness and confidence can carry almost anything off. We all make fashion faux pas sometimes, and it’s not the end of the world if we do. As Scarlet O’Hara said: ‘Tomorrow is another day’. And she wore curtains.

So here are the simple rules about wearing colour:

  1. Learn which colours suit your complexion
  2. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different colours – just have a go

This here is a colour wheel. The main thing to remember is that complementary colours are those opposite one another, while those close together are harmonious. Image from Modern Wedding.

Colour Rules

Revolutionary American fashion designer of the 40s and 50s, Clare McCardell, said of colour: ‘Always different in different fabrics; sometimes dangerously so’. This is true. The type of fabric will affect your perception of a colour, whether it is stiff or flowing, sheer or opaque, matte or reflective, and whether it is new and crisp, or old and faded – the former can be fresh or brash, and the latter can be charming or shabby. Consider these aspects when matching garments. There are no hard and fast rules, I don’t believe; you will simply have to trust your instincts and learn through experience. Cheap fabric, however, rarely looks good beyond a few wears and washes, so always try to buy quality natural fibres.

There are some stupid rules touted about that are begging to be broken, such as pink and red looking terrible together, or that blue and green should never be seen (hello, blue sky and green grass?). Usually it is dependent on the particular shades of these pairs, but even severely clashing colours can be awesome fun, though it does take boldness to carry that off, and a strong dash of panache.

Monochromes look great together: black and white are the classic combination, but also consider wearing all one colour in different shades – this can make you look slimmer and taller (usually a plus)! Many people like to wear black with a bold colour, and that is not an evil, though I limit that for the simple fact that it reminds me too much of unlikeable aspects of Eighties fashion. I do like to add a third bold bright however when I wear black and white, or black with a neutral. I am fond however of black with a warm, light pink because it is such a classic Fifties combination.

Harmonious colours that blend one into another will not offend the eye – the hitherto mentioned red and pink, or red and purple, or lemon and lime, for example. These are the colours that sit together on a colour wheel.

Neutral colours such as grey and beige will go with anything, depending on whether they are cool or warm.

Contrasting (or complementary) colours will make one another pop, but will be easier to wear if you pair two with one neutral, rather than three contrasting colours all together. Some pairings I would be wary of, such as dark green and bright red being too Christmassy; on the other hand, I love mint green with scarlet.

Clashing colours (those that are too close to one another on the colour wheel) are for the daring and colour confident. I recently wore burnt orange and raspberry pink with violet as an accent during my Week of Wrong (more on that in the coming days) and it worked wonderfully. I also love turquoise or sky blue with scarlet – it’s positively delicious!

I love red! It is passionate and joyful! Did you know the Russian word for it is close to the word for beautiful? Periwinkle is my second favourite shade of blue – I love the hint of purple.

For the timid, here is a list of colours from A Guide to Elegance by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux which work well together as pairs. Note, she does not mention the more daring combinations I have suggested – hers are considered safe options. She believes wearing three colours is difficult (except when black and white are two of the colours), but for guidance, refer to my suggestions above, such as black, neutral and one bright, or two muted with one bright. Her basic colours are followed by their secondary colour matching.

Basic Colour Pale

White – Black and all the dark and bright shades
Pale beige – Black, browns, red, greens
Pale grey – Browns, dark greens, dark grey, red
Sky blue – Browns, dark greens, raspberry, purple, beige, dark grey
Pink – Beige, purple, navy, grey
Pale yellow – Black, navy, brown, grey
Mauve – Plum, brown, navy
Pale green – Dark green, red

Basic Colour Dark

Black – Beige, white, toast; clear shades but not pastels such as sky blue or pink (with the exception of pale yellow, but only for a hat, worn with black shoes, bag, and gloves)
Brown – White, beige, black, orange-red, orange, dark green
Dark grey – Beige, black, all the pale and bright colours
Navy blue – White, lemon yellow, turquoise, raspberry, bright green, mauve
Dark green – Sky blue, white, beige, bright red, pale yellow
Plum – Sky blue
Dark red – Black, sky blue, beige

Basic Colour Bright

Blue (with violet undertones) – Black, white, bright green with a bluish cast
Turquoise (blue with greenish overtones) – White, beige, toast, navy blue
Green (bluish) – Navy, black, white
Green (yellowish) – Beige, white, toast
Golden yellow – Black, white, brown
Lemon yellow – Black, white, navy, dark green, pale pink, orange
Orange – White, lemon, black, dark green
Raspberry red – Navy, white
Bright red (vermillion) – Brown, white
Purple – Brown, white, sky blue, pink, turquoise

So now that you're armed – and not alarmed – with all this new-found knowledge on colour, and have learned which season you are and the colours that suit you, take your colour wheel and dive into the paintbox that is your wardrobe. Lose your preconceptions and inhibitions; paint a rainbow, be joyful, make mistakes and airbrush them out – for life is short!


Come back soon for the Tenth (and last) Commandment of Miss Moses: ‘Thou shalt not wear all black all the time, for thou art not an Italian widow’. But before that happens, look out for lots more stories on colour in the coming days, including the story behind my Week of Wrong. If you’ve just tuned in, or would like to refresh your memory, click here to review all the Fashion Commandments. 

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