Mixing meaning into your clothing helps you feel good – and sends a secret message from you to yourself.
Back in the late eighties – the era of Benetton, BLITZ Magazine and pâté de foie gras baguettes – a number of my creative colleagues began enthusing about a brand new system of dressing based on the work of Johannes Itten, expressionist painter and colour theorist at the Weimar Bauhaus. Itten was an imposing friar-like figure who observed that human skin has either a blue or yellow undertone and that it behoves one to wear hues which comply with the type you happen to be.
As a Bauhaus aficionado my interest was piqued. Upon attending a session I found Itten’s research repurposed by the Americans into a programme called ‘seasonal colour analysis’ which was inspiring a new wave of would-be colour (sorry, color) gurus to set up shop all over.
My own guru turned out to be pretty green, since it was only her third session. Nevertheless she wrapped me in a motley of reflective fabrics, evaluated the ‘temperature’ of my skin, pronounced me fit to wear rich autumnal shades, then trousered twenty quid for my personal fabric swatch in addition to her fixer’s fee.
For the next few months I complied with the diagnosis, clad in buttermilk and terracotta, looking some days like a Tupperware enthusiast, others like a candidate for palliative care. But eventually the whole lot was bequeathed to Oxfam and I went into colour rehab – emerging as a different sub-season entirely.
Colour as a tool for change
Despite this dubious experience, colour analysis still has a place in my storycrafting work, four decades on. Itten wrote that ‘every woman should know what colors are becoming to her; they will always be her subjective colors and their complements’1.His point applies equally to men. I meet guys all the time who are unaware of which shades become them, and the colours they wear – well, do them no favours.
But identifying the colours which suit you is only the tip of the iceberg.
In the business arena, I helped many organisations undertake identity programmes and build individual colour palettes which made brand statements. That’s not unusual. But I’ve always made sure that those colours carry meaning too – inwardly to the people in the organisation, and outwardly to their audiences and customers. I believe that colours should be chosen for their semiotic qualities as well as their aesthetic and audience relevance.
We should also add into the mix something known as the ‘semiotics of dress’. Simply put, this is just the psychology of how individuals see themselves and how they are seen by others – one’s ‘self-perception’ and ‘self-presentation’.
Now it’s probably accurate to say that you don’t consider semiotic colour as you slip on your Calvin Kleins in the morning. But you could. And maybe you should, especially for those times when a particular impression is called for, or a statement needs to be made. Or when you just want to feel more damned confident about being you.
Colour that explains you
Prince. Though he riffed on several shades over the course of his career (and his favourite was alleged to be orange) his ‘Purple Period’ with its subtext of royalty, spirituality, magic, mystery and creativity has made an indelible connection between the man and the hue. Purple was a motif he wove into his music, presentation, environment and following – and of course, his clothing.One exemplar of this was
Other artists like Roy Orbison had adopted signature colouring. But for Prince, purple was no signature. It was a fundamental expression of the artist at that stage of his life – akin to an aura. He literally wore his heart on his sleeve. So much so that after his death in 2017, Pantone created an official hue called Love Symbol #2 – you can guess the shade.
When we take the stage, working or socialising, we can use colour in a similar way: internally as a reminder to us2, outwardly as a projection of us.
Colour that empowers you
A friend of mine did this as she prepared to return to the workplace after a number of years. She’d already ascertained that her palette included dove-greys, lilacs, light teals and Carolina blues which gave us some colour parameters to work with. Now she was going to use them.
We explored a number of associations drawn from her personal history, and linked them to those colours, a ‘secret code’ only she would know. She then selected outfits based specifically around them, to use as an aide-mémoire. Two outfits for strategic occasions were enough, a statement inwardly to herself and outwardly to the world, denoting her new trajectory. It was one small piece in an overall programme of personal change, but it played its part as a new mindset was embedded.
To take a shot of my own medicine, I applied this process to the Symbologian, too, with a palette of burgundy, Russian green and charcoal. I found the process surprisingly liberating – I’ll write about it soon. As any actor can tell you, the costume helps makes a character come alive.
So don’t just put on a different jacket – put on a different persona. With a little meaning mixed into the colours you wear, you may well begin to step into the role you’ve always dreamed of.
Top: Prince performing during his Purple Rain period | PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock
1 The Art of Colour (1961) Johannes Itten
2 A kind of Émile Coué-style ‘reflective auto-suggestion’