You probably remember learning how our eyes work in biology class, but here’s a quick review of the science behind seeing color. The human eye has receptors that take in light and transmit this information to the brain, which then translates that light into colors. Upon receiving this data, the brain determines our reaction to these colors or color combinations. Incredibly, some colors have been found to physically affect our bodies, while others stir an emotional response within us. In considering one’s outfit, it is useful to know how the colors we wear affect us and those around us.
Did you know that viewing red has been connected to an increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure? It is a color with one of the biggest effects in terms of physical and emotional response. Red signifies intensity, passion, enthusiasm, and sometimes even aggressiveness. That’s why it’s better kept to accents or utilized in darker shades (magentas) or lighter shades (pinks) if used to cover a large area of the body. Wearing red can make you feel more confident, but take these effects into consideration when planning your look.
Orange is closely related to red and is nearly as polarizing, though for different reasons. People tend to either love or hate orange, especially depending on the color(s) it’s paired with. It’s certainly eye-catching, which is why, like red, it is used for road signs that are intended to get your attention. It’s usually seen as a friendly and cheerful color, but those who don’t like it feel that it’s gaudy and too loud. Bright orange and black will always be reminiscent of Halloween, so it’s usually wise to avoid that pairing.
Yellow is yet another of the more polarizing hues. Like its fellow warm colors red and orange, yellow also projects energy and warmth, and contrasts with the soothing effects of cooler tones, which we’ll also touch on. Yellow tends to remind people of the sun and of warm weather, so it makes sense that it’s most popular in the Spring and Summer. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t wear it year-round, but it’s a better fit for those seasons. As a general rule, wear yellow sparingly, or choose shades that are toned down so as not to be quite so harsh on the eyes.
While warm colors have been shown to increase blood pressure, testing has shown cool colors to do the exact opposite. Green is perhaps most closely associated with nature and engenders a sense of peacefulness and harmony. According to human psychology, green is trustworthy, probably because it is the most organic (and thus the least “fake” or artificial) color. Like most colors, green has a spectrum of cool to warm shades, so judge their appropriateness according to the situation and season.
Recent international surveys have confirmed blue’s popularity around the world. Blue’s apparent dominance is not surprising, since it is an especially versatile shade, with common iterations ranging from sky blue to royal blue to the ever-appropriate navy blue. Like green, blue is a trustworthy and dependable color, and is also inherently calming. Interestingly, it is seen by some as a masculine color, perhaps due to the cultural perception of pink/red as female and blue as male. Regardless, blue is usually a more conservative choice and is often considered interchangeable with black and other neutrals.
Since ancient times, purple has been irrevocably linked with royalty and the upper class. The process of obtaining purple dye was so time- and resource-consuming that only the very wealthy could afford it; it was only a century and a half ago that a synthetic purple was invented and could be mass-produced. Purple is still commonly associated with power, glamour, and especially luxury, and it is very popular in both womenswear and menswear.
Brown is a neutral, and like green, it is organic and reminds people of the natural world. Like blue, brown is often viewed as interchangeable with black; however, you must be aware of which colors ‘go’ with black and not brown or blue, and vice versa. Brown represents dependability and is a solid choice for a grounded look.
As you can probably guess from the expression “black tie,” black is an inherently formal color and makes up the basis for many an outfit. Black manages to be both bold and sophisticated, and it is also widely connected with power. It is best to avoid an outfit that is all black, since it is a look that is generally too serious, so add pops of color or utilize a contrasting white. A quick tip – many people don’t realize that black does indeed come in different shades, so when pairing black pieces make sure they are the same color or you’ll look slightly mismatched.
There’s a reason white is considered a classic color – think, for example, of the incalculable practicality of white dress shirts! White exudes purity and freshness, and since this color is essentially a blank slate, it can also inspire creativity and aid mental clarity. Too much white, though, can seem cold and sterile, so like with black, contrast and pops of color are smart ways to perfect any look.
Complementary vs. Analogous Colors
As we mentioned before, the pairing of two or more colors will have a specific effect. Two of the most important types of color relationships are complementary color relationships and analogous color relationships. Complementary refers to those across from each other on the color wheel, like red and green, yellow and purple, or blue and orange. Analogous refers to those side by side on the color wheel, such as red and orange, yellow and green, or blue and purple. A complementary relationship will be energizing, and conversely an analogous relationship will be harmonious and peaceful. When you are putting your outfit together, consider each color by itself and in relation to every tone in your outfit.