Ask Allie: Minimalism and Color Choices

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As I am minimizing, I am paring down my clothing palette pretty much to black, gray, white and denim. I enjoyed your post on why you promote black and agree that it is the most versatile color out there and a perfect choice for a small wardrobe. My question is around the flattery piece – if you don't have a good eye for color and its effect (which I don't), how can you decide whether it is flattering or not? I just turned forty and don't know if it's ‘aging' me. Also, I have dark hair and fair skin and always thought black was fine for me, but I've been told I am a “summer” and thus should stick to gray or navy instead – but neither is as easy and versatile as black IMO. In particular, I'm moving away from navy because it does not support my minimizing goals. Should I keep the grays by my face and the black elsewhere? Or just throw on some extra lip gloss and forget it!?!

What a great question! I think many readers will have their own opinion on this subject and many are far more expert on one’s colors than I. Readers, I look forward to your feedback and advice for this woman.

And now my opinion, which is only that and not gospel.

Color Wheel: Color and Minimalism

When I was little, my mom got the book Color Me Beautiful. I can recall many rainy afternoons spent in her bedroom with her and my sister, draping different colored garments from her closet around our necks to see if we were Winters, Springs, Summers, or Autumns. We decided that I was a Winter, like my mom. We looked best in colors like emerald green and cobalt blue. To this day, if you think of my mom you likely think of blue, her favorite color and her wardrobe signature, usually paired with black or white and silver accessories.

Though it was clear I looked better in emerald than olive, I so wanted to be an Autumn. I loved (and still do) orange and neutrals like cream and khaki. In high school, I dyed my hair red and wore brown-toned lipstick to better carry off pumpkin and plum, and in college tanned my skin to a crisp to look better in neutral shades and orange-red.

After college, I worked in apparel and was surrounded by every color in the rainbow and plenty of opportunity to try them on and get instant reaction from strangers who didn't have to be polite. I found that the color mattered more than how it worked with my skin. I got bold, wearing copper eye shadow, pale pink dresses, brown turtlenecks, coral lipgloss, and seafoam green sweaters. Sometimes it was obvious that I’d look better in another shade (hello seafoam green), but I was having fun and played it up with makeup and accessories and learned from my experiences.

And now I’m 39 and I don’t have the budget or the time or the desire for a rainbow closet and 30 different colors of eyeshadow to make crazy colors work. Like you I am heading towards a more minimalistic wardrobe and color palette of predominately black, gray, and white. I’ve noticed that the older I get the more I am faded, from the color in my cheeks to the brown of my hair, and some colors just aren’t as flattering as they used to be. Black is one of them. Black used to look elegant and sophisticated with my fair skin and brunette locks and I carried it off with NARS ‘Orgasm’ flushed cheeks, lots of mascara, and a lipgloss close to my natural lip color. Now black seems more edgy and rocker, and I find myself reaching for a wine or red lipstick to add what I feel to be a necessary pop of color to keep from looking tired or unfinished.

Yet I continue to purchase black because I like it. I like it better than navy, even though navy adds a natural glow to my cheeks. I like it better than gray, which often makes me feel gray. I like it better than brown, which makes me feel more gloomy than gray. I like how black shows off detail and texture, how black is timeless, how black is versatile, and how black does give me a bit more of an edgy feel (an especially nice feeling when you’re otherwise feeling very Suburban Soccer Mom or Office Drone).

I think we all make compromises when it comes to style. It may be because of our budget, because of our lifestyle, because of our figure. We want long Rapunzel locks but our hair is thin so we choose a shorter cut with volumizing layers. We long for Manolos but our budget has us stick to a similar style by Nine West. We choose certain cuts of clothing that may not be our dream style but flatter our figure best, and other times we choose what our heart loves not giving a damn about whether it whittles a waist or lengthens a leg. I make a compromise for black; I love it so much and find it so appropriate to my personal style and lifestyle that I sacrifice the best my complexion can look.

What color you wear, what color you choose to have your hair, whether or not you wear makeup and what colors and type you apply, these are all your choosing and there is no universal right or wrong answer. The same holds true for any aspect of fashion or style. What is right is what feels most right to you. If having a simplified wardrobe and color palette makes you happy and makes style more attainable or fun, that is what matters. Who cares how youthful or glowy you look if you spent an hour agonizing over an ensemble or end up going over budget to find coordinating outfits for each day of the week?

Own your choices, own your opinions, and know no style advice is gospel. Take what speaks to you and works with your lifestyle, figure, and budget. Try, fail, and learn from your experiences. A stylish woman knows herself and listens to her heart, and that confidence is more flattering than any color under the sun.

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. I love so much that you’re pretty much the only style blogger I know (or one of very few anyway) who will say ‘go with what you enjoy’ instead of dictating rules about the most flattering colours and styles. 🙂

  2. I find that as I get older, I look more and more washed out. With dark hair and fair skin, black can make me look like a witch. As a result, I really try to stick with color and try to get away from the dreaded black and grey (and forget beige altogether!) with regard to tops. With that said, sometimes black is impossible to avoid, such as with suiting. My suits are black but that means I just add a nice bright color underneath.

    Also, when people talk about having a minimalistic wardrobe, I don’t understand why they go to black, grey, white, and denim. Such drab colors especially as we age. As I get older, I too find it easier to have a uniform but I don’t limit myself to bland colors. Why not pick a style of shirt and then buy that same shirt in various colors? For example, at one point I bought a number of button down dress shirts from Lands End in various colors. I then paired those shirts with black and grey pants and an easy every day uniform was born. I recently did the same thing with some basic crew neck sweaters I found that were inexpensive. I bought a number in different colors and as a result, I have an easy uniform that will go with almost any kind of skirt or pant. I can then add some statement jewelery to vary the look.

  3. When I had a lot of grey but colored my hair I found I could not wear black, but now that I am incorporating my grey into my hair color with highlights I feel like I can. I am so grateful because I love wearing black and I missed it so much! I mix it with greens and blues and corals . I’m a muted autumn I think but light colors make me feel silly.

  4. Hi Allie, I love your blog! I am a very fair blonde- for years I persisted with black, because a misguided CMAS analyst, years ago, told me I was a winter who looked good in black, white, grey, silver and icy colors. I could never get my head around how these colors worked, but they were easy to find. Then I hit 40 and realized that whenever I put something on, I felt tired, faded and flat. I did some more reading about color analysis and found out about the SCI-ART system, had a color analysis done and discovered that in their groupings, I’m a Light Spring- with winter colors being pretty much the worst.colour.choice ever for me. I went away from the analysis reeling with my color swatch, full of spring greens, carribean blue, melon and peach, and tried to get my head around the shift from black. But oh my gosh, what a difference! The effect on my skin tone, hair and general feeling of vitality is so marked. Shopping is much easier, things in my wardrobe tends to go together so effortlessly, and I have saved a lot of money. My neutrals are now light creamy beiges, yellow-greys, and I work the colors in over that base. So, if in doubt, I can strongly recommend a SCI-ART style analysis. And on that note, Allie, maybe you’d want to look at the palettes for bright spring or winter for yourself 😉

  5. Gosh, I hope I don’t grow out of looking good in black! I’m about the same age and colouring as you (possibly darker hair) but I can’t say I’ve noticed myself not looking as good in black. Then again, maybe I haven’t been paying attention – I’ll have to check next time!

      1. Allie, thank you SO much for answering my question! What great, encouraging advice and you are so right – the pain (to me) of bothering about color has to be at least as aging as the black is – maybe more! Will make good use of the scarves and stick with the black, as well as keeping an eye out for some of those super-dark grays that were mentioned … Eleanorjane, I hope I haven’t started you looking for problems; really, speaking as a black-lover, don’t mess with it if it’s working for you 🙂

  6. Wow! I just turned 38 and am realizing a lot of the same things. I love, love, love black but I am so much better off in navy and brown. I am happy to have a wardrobe of simple flattering colors and styles that look great in every combination. I am glad so many of us have found the key to simplicity and style.

  7. I would like to add something, too. Somebody has mentioned the connection between character and colours, and I think’s that’s quite important. Earlier this year I had a colour analysis at the only company that I could find in my city. First I was a little disappointed when they explained to me that they don’t work with the concept of seasons, but in the end I was actually delighted. The woman attending me did the usual cloth-test, but instead of giving advice or drawing conclusions, she just stated the effect that every colour had on my face, asking for my input once I got the knack of it. She told me that the traditional colour analysis would have recommended to wear something similar to my own colouring (soft warm colours) to create a harmonious picture. But the colours that I liked best were the clear and strong cold ones. With the warm colours I felt that they made me disappear, making me look soft and pale, whereas the dark cold ones created a harsher contrast that made my features sharper and more defined. Now, you see, I’m not a soft person, I can be sharp and harsh, and the last thing that I want in the world is to come across as soft.
    It might be difficult to make a connection like this without help, but I think if the asker does feel comfortable in the chosen colours and they are in synch with their character, great! If not, pops of a flattering colour near the face might really be helpful.

    1. This is such interesting insight, Sonja. Long ago I decided that I loved orange and I would wear orange, gosh even my wedding color was orange. I see it as bright, but unexpected, and cheery/positive, and I think that fits who I am and how I want to come across. This reaffirms my feeling on the color. Thanks for sharing this!

  8. What a wonderful topic. I too am fair skinned with dark auburn hair, but I have no idea what season I am. I totally remember my mom doing the draping to find her colors. I love how you put it that there is no universal answer. We all feel a certain way when we wear certain things whether it is a color or pattern. I can’t think of a time when I was ever attracted to black clothing. Although I admired it on others, I think it was their confidence in black clothing that I was more attracted to. I to am 39 and am still boldly mixing colors and patterns in my wardrobe. It just makes me happy and I think that is what is important, just as you were driving at here.


  9. Many years ago I went to Color Me Beautiful (and a few other companies). CMB got me wrong at first, but finally, after some struggle and tweaking, they got it right. I am a soft summer, and for those who “know color” you will know that black and I just do not get along. It makes me look like I am going to my own funeral. My neutrals are grayed navy as well as blue gray and gray. I also include blue-green and burgundy. Before my hair started to gray, I included rose brown (really hard to find but great when you do). This many years later, I still feel that to truly look one’s best, color analysis is necessary. We can try to figure it out from a book, but I too wanted to be an Autumn and really tried to make myself fit that niche. It doesn’t work. Generally when wearing the wrong colors, we need to tweak hair color, or wear more makeup, or a makeup foundation that doesn’t work. It truly makes things easier when we know our colors. I carry my swatches with me everywhere. I should add that the company that I felt was most correct was Color One. The swatches actually include the colors in your skin, hair and eyes as some of the best colors you can wear. “Your” red is determined by the inside of your lower lip or the color the tip of your finger turns when you squeeze it. I carry their swatches everywhere.

  10. I am 40 and have also noticed that in recent years black makes me look more washed out and tired, whereas it used to add more drama. I am fair skinned with blue undertones and blondish hair (though going naturally gray with some white streaks in front that I adore). I’m trying to move more toward gray and navy both because they are more flattering, but also I find them more soothing, less tiring colors to wear than black. And I think it was Allison, or maybe other fashion bloggers I follow, who have convinced me that navy can work almost as well as black as a neutral. It is hard, though, when you set out NOT to buy black and realize just how much clothing is sold only in black! So even now, I usually end up with one more black thing, but then I try to make it an interesting texture or highly versatile item that will mix well with scarves and other pops of color.

    1. I’m 42, and I appear to have passed from the age where black looks chic to the age where black looks a tad petit-bourgeois, i.e. going from “Sweet LBD” to “I look like the help.” I’m a soft autumn type (pale olive skin, greeny-brown eyes, brown hair with blonde streaks) and I’ve found that charcoal gray is my new miracle neutral. If J. Crew offers something in charcoal, pavement, graphite, or coal … it works for me.

      So my new neutrals are charcoal, ivory and dark olive. So far, it’s working well.

  11. I’m a 65 yr. old “summer” with salt and pepper hair, blue eyes and very fair skin. I too like to limit the colors in my wardrobe…mostly for economy. I use mostly black and grey as neutrals but make liberal use of colored scarfs/shawls and shirts/blouses…pink, pale blue, aqua, soft white and lavender to lighten up around my face. I love navy, but it really seems to be difficult for me to incorporate into my wardrobe 🙁

  12. Ah, Color Me Beautiful! My mom was obsessed with that book! I’m an Autumn all the way – hazel eyes, light brown hair, relatively fair skin. For work clothes, I don’t buy anything that I can’t wear with black shoes, which makes blacks and grays my base colors, but I try to have actual color close to my face – any kind of saturated color like burgundy, dark green, or teal, usually with a black topper of some kind. I think what makes it work instead of washing me out is that I wear glasses, and I have large chunky plastic frames with a tortoise-shelly kind of pattern in tones of brown and black. Little bit of pinkish gloss and I feel like I’m wearing the black instead of the black wearing me.

  13. I think for a capsule wardrobe it can be as difficult to find blacks that go together as it is to find navys that tone. If you are picking black as one of your core colours because you love it then that’s one thing, but if you’re picking it because it’s ‘easy’ then I would be inclined to switch to a colour that’s more flattering as a base (and something like navy will still go with all the other core colours in your wardrobe, and probably make you look more individual given black is so ubiquitous).
    ps. I love colour, although I’m trying to wear more tonal shades than bright colourblocking, and searching for both grey and navy base pieces as a result!

  14. I find the people that look best in black are people with high contrast in their coloring, e.g., dark hair with fair skin and bright eyes. My dance teacher has this coloring and she looks fabulous in black and wears it all the time. I am so low contrast. I have medium brown hair, hazelish/light brown eyes, and light olive skin tone – basically brown/olive all over. Black does nothing for me. I’ve been shedding black from my wardrobe and it’s been a challenge but I just don’t like how it looks against my skin. I look tired and yellow. So, I’ve just been building around gray, khaki and navy/deinm and I have a lot of jewel toned tops. It’s even harder with shoes but I just go with rich shades of brown or leopard print. If I have to wear one of the few black pieces remaining in my wardrobe I also add a colorful scarf or necklace near my face as another poster suggested. That can help a lot.

  15. Great post! I naturally gravitate towards blush colors, light pinks, and corals, but am super pale and always look washed out in them. I still wear them because I love them but have been working on gravitating more towards gray. It washes me out less and is still a color I really enjoy.

  16. I try to keep my basics to black, grey and white. I’m a fair-skinned, blonde with green eyes. As I get older, I find that I look tired and blah with black near my face. I still try to keep my wardrobe limited in color so things mix and match, but I tend to add red, teal or purple near my face, either in the top itself or at the very least with a scarf. It is like an instant facelift for me. On the rare occasion that I do wear black, I change my makeup to brighten up my face.

  17. I used “Dressing Your Truth” to help me minimize my style while looking my best. It’s similar to the Color Me Beautiful idea that we look best in certain colors but DYT takes it even further in that it reflects what your natural energy is like and how that plays a role in the colors and clothing we wear. What it boiled down to for me was that I look best in primary colors (not jewel toned or pastels) and black is my friend. Luckily I already dressed that way often but after learning more about DYT, I finally understood why certain colors and fabrications just did not look right on me. I got rid of all the items in my wardrobe that weren’t working for me and it makes shopping much easier because I can hone in on the stuff that works best for me.

    1. I use Dressing Your Truth, too. Discovered it about three years ago and haven’t looked back. The best first step for me (a bubbly, random and animated Type 1 who was trying so desperately to be taken more seriously by dressing as a Type 4) was to pull everything black out of my closet and sell or donate it. Immediately, I just felt better. Since then, I have been steadily rebuilding in navy, chocolate and charcoal for my neutrals. It’s more of a challenge to work in those colors, as others say, but I rely heavily on thrift stores and ebay. Ebay is tops for me because I filter “-black” in the search terms and immediately get rid of 3/4 of what’s available. Then I sort through the smaller pool of offerings to choose new pieces. Dressing Your Truth was a learning experience. One hurdle was in realizing, yes, 3 or 4 navy dresses, 3 or 4 navy skirts, etc. was my minimum target. I expected to own many variations in length, fabric content, fit, etc. when I dressed in black. Why was I holding back trying to make do with one navy skirt? From then on, it’s been easy and my closet is fun.

  18. I am also going minimal and ending up with gray, black, and navy. I have a few jewel-tone tops for pops of color. but my favorite way to brighten the basics – favorite because it is inexpensive and versatile – is to accessorize with scarves. I have two: a pretty, pale silver-blue number, and a deep plum with splashes of emerald and gold. both look great against my skin, both can change the look and feel of my basic outfits, both make me happy, and both cost less than $40.

    1. I’m going to the same color – black, gray, and navy. I’m using it for bottoms – skirts and pants, and long term tops – jackets, sweaters, cardigans, but I’m doing my tops – tee shirts, blouses, other tops in colors. I’m late 50’s, short, mid-brown hair (dyed), brown eyes, light to medium skin. I’ve only begun minimizing my clothes since I have retired – don’t really need suits much. But I too use scarves for color. It does work.

  19. Thanks for this post! I’m in exactly the same boat: Trying to pair down and finding myself drawn primarily to neutrals, which is good because my ability to coordinate colours is…lacking.

  20. You should wear the colors that give you great pleasure – your joy will show on your face, and nothing can be more flattering than happiness! Thanks for giving us all some perspective on the world of colors, and the pressures we resist as we try to be our best selves.

  21. Thanks for sharing this perspective. I often feel pressured to have a colorful wardrobe simply because, but I don’t have the budget or knowledge of how to make it work. My wardrobe is mostly neutral with pops of color and a few flashy accessories and it is SO easy. This post is affirming.

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