Next to the silhouettes and textures you choose, the colours of your wardrobe and how you mix them are one of the most defining features of your own personal style. In previous posts I’ve talked a lot about finding the right distribution of all the different elements that make up your wardrobe, but I feel that colour deserves a special mention. As with all things wardrobe building, the tricky aspect about selecting the right colour palette is figuring out a way to combine form with function or, in other words, utilizing colour to shape a coherent overall look that expresses your aesthetic ideals (form) through a set of clothes that suit your lifestyle and are both versatile and practical (function).
Below you will find a blueprint for developing a colour palette for your wardrobe. As always, feel free to mold it to your own creative process and needs. I will explain the steps by creating an example seasonal capsule wardrobe, but the general method will also work on a smaller scale, e.g. for planning a travel wardrobe or a single outfit. If you just generally want to become more aware of your preferences and colour style, the first couple of steps will help you define a colour hierarchy that you can then use to tweak your current wardrobe or as a guide for future purchases.
Within any visual concept, colour is perhaps the single most important factor to consider, simply because it has the ability to instantly trigger a mood, an emotion, an association to a culture or a certain era. In one of my favourite style books ‘The Fashion File’, Mad Men’s costume designer Janie Bryant writes about her thought process for giving each character's wardrobe a very distinct colour palette to enforce their personality, history and aspirations. A good example are the three lading ladies of the first seasons: Joan, Peggy and Betty. Joan almost exclusively wears jewel tones, deep saturated shades of blue, purple and forest green, to emphasize her bold, headstrong queen bee personality. Peggy’s favourite colour on the other hand is a hot shade of mustard to show her (initial) innocence and frumpiness, whereas Betty’s wardrobe featured lots of pastel shades to represent the classic 60s suburban dream.
Although many associations with specific colours are universal to an extent, your culture and past experiences will have provided you with your own unique aesthetic ideals that amongst a whole array of different elements also include a preference for a certain colour palette. My favourite method for revealing that preference, your unique colour style, is working with a good old mood board: collecting everything that inspires you and editing that collection like a sculpture, removing elements that no longer speak to you bit by bit and adding more of what you like, until it is perfect. At the beginning, your style might still be relatively undefined but overtime, as you train your eye, your aesthetic preferences will become more and more apparent until a coherent theme crystallizes. If you look closely, you can spot this evolution on many pinterest boards, where people’s first pins are often quite scattered but eventually converge and follow a single style. Sometimes, revealing your colour style is more about subtracting than anything else: Many people already have a preference for colours that has remained relatively stable since childhood, but might have adjusted that preference according to current trends or watered it down with other random colours they found in the shops. In that case, the key is to consciously define these preferences and extract any irritators that ultimately just distract from the essence of your colour style.
Your colour style is likely to be overarching in the sense that it will influence not only your wardrobe choices but also many other lifestyle areas such as your living space. However, your specific preferences may well vary slightly for different contexts, for example between seasons. For the following exercise it’s important to first choose the exact context you want to create a colour palette for, whether that is your general personal style, a single outfit or your summer capsule wardrobe.
Once you have picked your context, start by collecting a ton of images with colours that inspire you in some way in regard to your context. Go through all your pinterest boards and inspiration folders and organise everything in one place, digital or physical. Even if you are developing a colour scheme for you wardrobe, you absolutely do not have to limit your search to pictures of outfits. Focus solely on the colours of an image and feel free to pick landscapes, objects, abstract things, animals or food. I created two separate boards to use as examples for this post, one with a cooler theme and one with warmer, more saturated colours, you can check them out here and here. Once you have a set of images, inspect it from far away, look for themes and pick out the main shades. You can do this by simply choosing your own descriptions of colours or using an image Colour picker to get the exact shades. Be as specific or general in your colour descriptions as you want (grey, light grey, silver, charcoal....), and include variations of similar colours if they are a dominant theme in your collection. I created the mood board at the top of this post as an example for colours that inspire me in regard to my summer wardrobe and picked out the nine shades below. Of course any set of pictures, including my example, is going to consist of a very high number of individual shades, so the key here is really to focus on the ‘big picture’ and pick out the 6-10 most dominant colours.
If you followed the above exercise you will now be left with an unstructured colour palette, guided just by your visual preferences. The second step is to organise those colours into a coherent colour scheme that is both practical and versatile and can be applied to your current wardrobe. There are a lot of different ways to structure a colour palette, but my favourite method involves creating something like a hierarchy by separating colours into one of three groups: main colours, neutrals and accent colours.
To build your own hierarchy, go back to your list of <10 colours and think about how versatile each colour is and how big of a role you want it to play in your wardrobe. Then, assign each colour to one of these groups:
Main colours: 3 - 4
Your main colours are the key ingredients of your colour palette. Look at the most dominant colours of your mood board and pick three to four shades that you feel best represent its overall feel, and that you can see yourself wearing a lot. I chose a soft blue, a light blue and a grey as the main colours for the example, because to me they best convey the overall cool-toned, light vibe of the mood board. The main colours of my example are all relatively muted but they could just as easily be a bright yellow, pink and turquoise or red, teal and navy. If I was developing a colour palette based on this mood board, my main colours would probably be peach, warm medium pink and tomato red.
Neutrals: 1 - 3
The neutral shades in your colour palette are supposed to support and balance out your main and accent colours. Obvious choices for neutrals are white, black, grey, navy and sand, but you could also pick a muted light blue, as long as it goes with all other colours in your palette. In the example, I chose white and the dark grey from the top-middle picture. During the initial picture search it can sometimes be quite easy to get carried away and just focus on the ‘real’ colours, so if your mood board doesn’t include any neutrals, brainstorm a few possible shades and test them out by adding an image of those colours to your mix.
Accent colours: 2 - 5
Any colour that you picked out from your mood board but that you don’t feel should play a main role or could work as a neutralizer, makes a good accent colour. They are worn primarily with neutrals, or in small doses with your main colours. In my example, the accent colours are a lot more colourful than the other shades, however black or white could also be an accent colour, e.g. to combine with a brighter main colour from time to time.
How to use your colour palette
If you just wanted to refine your overall colour style, you can stop here and use your colour palette as a general guide for building outfits or reorganising your wardrobe. However, if you set out to develop a colour palette for a capsule wardrobe, like in our example, your hierarchy comes into play after you have already chosen your uniform and proportions and created a framework with rough item counts (after part ii). Check out this post for a full step-by-step guide on how to create a capsule wardrobe if this all sounds confusing. Once you have designed a structure of item categories (like the one below), you can start filling it in with your colour palette.
- Skirts - 5
- Shorts - 5
- Shirts - 6
- Tank tops - 8
- Dresses - 3
- Footwear - 5
To get started, go through your closet and pick out every item that fits one of the colours in your palette. Then examine each item category separately (e.g. dresses, tank tops, etc.) and fill each slot either with an item you already own or by picking a colour from your palette. Pay attention to the overall weight you give to your main colours, neutrals and accents and play around with the distribution until you find one that reflects your colour palette well. For maximum versatility, assign each item category at least one neutral colour (two if possible). Accent colours should make up about 25% of your capsule wardrobe items (not counting accessories) and it’s generally a good idea to reserve them for categories with lots of items (e.g. tops). Once you have distributed your neutrals and accent colours, fill in the rest with your main colours. To show you an example, I used the colour hierarchy we created in the previous steps to fill in a possible structure of a summer wardrobe. Each category includes two neutral items (white and dark grey), except for dresses because they can be worn on their own and thus have to be less mixable. I reserved accent colours for the larger categories (shirt and tank tops) and filled in the rest with an even distribution of the main colours.
Of course, things always get shuffled around in the end, but a rough plan like this always helps me to spot the gaps in my closet and ultimately leads to a better capsule wardrobe that is really in tune with my aesthetic preferences and mood of the season.