The Psychology of Colour in Fashion

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I'm really interested in the ways in which ideas about colour relates to how we shop and how we dress, and also how by learning about the psychology and theory of colour can help us make more conscious buying decisions and get more use out of our existing wardrobe.

As someone who is not great at wearing colours other than grey, black and khaki, I needed a little help to write this blog post, so I enlisted the undisputed Edinburgh expert on colour, Karen Finlayson, a fellow Fashion Revolution Scotland member, and the founder of Colour Elements, a personal styling service based on finding colours that work for the individual to encourage sustainable fashion habits.

I am posting this as a precursor to my own continuing self-education on building a more capsule wardrobe, and also learning how to style my existing clothes in more effective and creative ways; I thought that colour was an excellent place to start. Here is Karen’s take on how colour theory and colour psychology can impact our wardrobes for good.

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Colour forecasting was famously highlighted in the Devil Wears Prada movie when Meryl Streep’s character, Miranda Priestly, explains the role of colour forecasting in Anne Hathaway’s choice of her blue jumper. It’s gut-wrenching moment which illustrates the amount of thought that goes into decisions regarding the colours of clothes available for us to buy.

But what if those colours don’t make us look good? What if the shade that’s available for this season in all the shops drains the life out of your appearance?

My own experience of worn-colour began in 2006 when I travelled to New York to train as a stylist. Colour analysis, the process of determining which specific shades of colour complement the unique features of each individual, was mandatory for qualification. I wasn’t convinced, I thought the concept was a bit “meh”, but I was astonished to see the effects of colour on different people and I’ve worked in this field ever since.

On that same trip to New York I saw a quote from Wassily Kandinsky at MOMA which said,

“Colour directly influences the soul.” It became my mantra and has been central to my work. I believe that the colour of the clothes that we wear can affect our sense of well-being and can affect the way that others perceive us. Clothes are about identity, they differentiate us and help us to find our tribe.

I love the way that fashion is developing now, our consideration of what we wear is deepening as we waken to the effects of previous fast-fashion practices. This week a new customer contacted us as a result of watching Stacey Dooley’s investigation into fast-fashion. She wanted to stop buying clothes that she hardly wore and wanted to build a wardrobe that only contained clothes that she loved to wear. Knowing which colours to look for when shopping and which ones to avoid reduces our shopping time and our chance of making a mistake.

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But worn-colour expertise doesn’t just stop with knowing which specific shades to wear. If you wear a sack in the colour that makes your eyes shine it still won’t be that exciting to wear unless you add accessories and use your own sense of style to claim the look as your own. How we use colour is almost as important as the colours we choose to wear. Slicing neutrals with brights, using texture to increase the brightness of colour and knowing where to put certain colours within our outfits are vital components too. It makes styling our look more interesting and takes fashion to a different place where we really think about what works for us instead of just copying a look.

The best thing is that we can find colour in clothes and accessories everywhere, it’s not the preserve of the rich. For instance, I found a dress in a vintage shop made of a gorgeous coral silk with a neat white pattern. I cut the dress in two and made a blouse with the top half and two scarves with the skirt material. I was wearing the scarf when I met an eminent scarf designer and one of her first comments was, “I love your scarf.” The dress cost £8.

Owning your specific element of colours gives you a special relationship with them, you tune in on them when shopping online and they call to you from rails in shops. There’s more reason to look after clothes which make you look good, less of a guilt trip about discarding too quickly because you really want these clothes and accessories to last.

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Outfit details

Coat: Margiela (TK Maxx)
Blazer: H&M x GP & J Baker
T-shirt: Kenzo (charity shop)
Trousers: Armani (charity shop)
Boots: Topshop (charity shop)
Earrings: H&M

*Photos by Alice Cruickshank

Find out more

Download the Colour Elements ‘colour ID’ mobile app
How to Implement Colour Theory Into Your Wardrobe