I work in a fairly relaxed professional environment: marketing, and digital marketing in particular, are known for being quite creative and down to earth. Agencies can turn up in jeans and trainers and it fits perfectly with their artistic image. On the other hand, I work with a lot of luxury brands, where women (and, yes, sometimes men) strut about in top-to-toe designer wear and bold accessories. As a result of this mix, I’m used to a pretty varied fashion parade around the office.
Sometimes, though, I leave this comfortable world of variety behind and I go into central London for a meeting. Lo and behold, I enter a world somewhere under the rainbow where everything is black and grey.
In my bright blue coat, I gaze with wonder at the grey men and women on the escalators around me (like John Major in Spitting Image, remember that?). Aren’t the daily commute, the traffic jams on the M25, and the overcrowded underground trains bad enough without making them more depressing with funeral attire?
Something must be done. Like Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon in Pleasantville, I resolve to bring colour to the monochrome world of London.
With that in mind, I’ve consulted an expert on the topic. Here, image consultant Joanna Gaudoin offers her advice on how to liberate yourself from a wardrobe of only blacks and greys…
Why do we all wear black all the time?
JOANNA: People tend to see black as a ‘safe’ colour, thinking it goes with everything. There is also the impression that it’s more professional, although sadly for many people it has just become a uniform that requires little thought. Just think how we all moaned about our school uniforms!
It’s true that darker colours are more slimming, and the eye is drawn to the lightest and brightest item you are wearing. For that reason, you may want to wear the darker colour on your largest area, or the part of your body you feel least confident about. However, note the reference to “darker colours”: if black isn’t your best neutral colour (neutrals being black, brown, beige, grey, navy and white), then it will just drain you and people will see the black first, and not your face. As much as we might like our clothes, we do want people to be focused on our face, which is our communication centre, particularly in professional life.
You may think it’s predictable when image consultants say that you shouldn’t wear black, and people often groan at the statement. However, black actually suits very few people, especially among those with Caucasian colouring.
What if you work in a very formal environment – a bank, a law firm – aren’t there certain settings in which you have to wear black?
Yes, you’re right, although the number of these environments is diminishing. In some law firms, black suits are still very much the norm. However, in many formal offices, I would say other dark colours are now equally acceptable, so you can wear charcoal grey or navy, for example. You would want to be careful with a brown suit, though, as this is far less formal and can look a bit 1970s!
I do appreciate that there are times when you need to wear black, so it’s also about helping people wear it positively. For women, there are a lot of great accessories that can be worn between the black item and the face. Even if you are in a more traditional environment, wearing a dark suit, you have the opportunity to introduce a coloured top, and maybe even matching shoes. It’s less easy for men but they are far less likely to wear black on their top half.
How do I know which colours suit me?
A lot of people tell me they can’t wear a certain colour but often it’s simply about choosing the right tone. With my clients, I use a set of 42 coloured drapes that I put next to the face to see the effect on hair, skin and eyes, and another 100 to identify exactly the right tones. We’re looking for harmony with natural features, and the effect of lifting your face and making you look healthy rather than looking drained. I spend up to 2 hours with my clients, helping them to understand the best tones and how to combine them. It’s fun and often very surprising for people!
Every colour in the world can be defined in terms of three qualities. The first is depth, essentially whether a colour is deep or light; the second quality is cool versus warm, that is, bluer tones such as a fuchsia pink compared to yellowy tones such as salmon pink; lastly, clarity, from brighter to more muted tones. Once we’ve identified the tones and the priority of these qualities, we look at how best to combine them, including how to achieve a more authoritative and more approachable look.
Although you can’t get a fully accurate result without going through the analysis with an expert, you can take a look at your features yourself to give you a guide as to what might work for you. For instance, if you have dark hair and eyes and tan well, then deep tones are likely to suit you better. If you have hazel eyes and slight red tones in your hair, then warm tones are likely to suit you better than cool (this is the trickiest quality!). Finally, if you have a high level of contrast between your hair, your skin, and/or your eyes, then bright tones are likely to suit you better.
I can’t afford to buy a whole new wardrobe, what can I do?
I am never in favour of people just getting rid of everything, although some want to! There is a lot that can be done working with what you have, especially for women. When it comes to colour, accessories and jewellery can be used between the clothing and the face to help the less than ideal colour tone work better. The same goes for styling: often an item worn in a different way, matched with something different, can be ‘rescued’ from the charity pile.
I suggest that you carefully consider which new items you need to buy by identifying gaps in your existing wardrobe, in terms of both the type of item and the colour. I also recommend that you start building a capsule wardrobe, with items that work well together in order to create more outfits. Start by buying a base wardrobe of items – tops, trousers, skirts, a jacket – in a suitable neutral colour for you; then do the same with a more interesting colour tone that suits you and is available in the shops; lastly, you can add accessories and shoes.
If you follow the capsule idea, you should be able to create many more outfits, suited to different occasions, from fewer items. I now own approximately 30% of the clothes that I did before I was a trained image consultant! As and when you have more money to spend on clothes, focus on buying items in another interesting colour that will also all go with the neutral items you have. A good guide is to avoid combining more than three colours in an outfit (often two may be easier) – for example, two neutrals and an accent colour, or two accents and a neutral.
What about men?
Colour analysis applies equally to men and can be especially important in a work setting where formal attire is expected. Getting the right combination of dark suit, shirt and potentially tie is really important. A negative impression takes a lot to overcome.
I would say, though, that men have less flexibility, as they’re limited to their clothing. Women have many more options with scarves, hairstyle and jewellery.
What other advice would you give?
Try to see how different items can be worn for different occasions to decrease their cost per wear. Clearly there are some items that are less flexible, such as dinner jackets and evening dresses, but often items can have more than one purpose. A nice jacket worn to work will also go well with jeans and a toning top for a weekend outing.
With my clients, it’s not about just dressing them like me (particularly not the men!), and I spend a lot of time getting to know them to be sure my recommendations will work for them. It has to be about the individual, not just your physical features but also your personality – you have to feel comfortable that you are still ‘you’. Knowing what suits you in terms of styles and colours will help you be confident in your appearance, avoid wasting money on clothes you never wear, and instead have a wardrobe full of items that make you look and feel great.
Joanna Gaudoin is an image consultant who works with individuals and organisations on the ABCs: Appearance, Body language, and Communication skills. Visit her website to find out how she can help you or your business, or email her for a complimentary 20-minute telephone consultation.