Style Notes: Using a wardrobe color palette to make your life easier, not harder

In my last Style Notes post, I mentioned that many guides to creating a cohesive look in your wardrobe or making it easier to get dressed suggest limiting your wardrobe to a palette of several colors, or colors of a certain undertone.

Does limiting your clothing to a curated set of colors make creating coordinated outfits easier? Yep! Does curating that sort of wardrobe take more mental overhead and the guts to commit to that set of colors for years? Also yep.

If the idea of using a wardrobe color palette isn’t something that immediately sounds like a great idea to you, you don’t have to commit to it 100% or go about it by sticking to exactly five colors to get some benefit from the idea. Heck, it’s totally fine to decide it’s not going to do anything for you at all.

If you’re thinking that you might want to tighten up your wardrobe’s look and are figuring out the best way for you to go about that, ask yourself:

  • Do you ever need to make getting dressed and looking cohesive as easy and strong as possible (i.e., get dressed in an appropriate way for work pre-caffeination)?
  • Even if not technically necessary, would something like having a perfectly curated loungewear capsule just completely change your outlook on relaxation time? Make workouts something to look forward to?
  • Is shopping frustrating because you can rarely easily think of ways to wear items you’re interested in with your existing clothes?
  • Picture yourself teleported into an alternate universe where you’ve got a perfectly curated and color coordinated wardrobe (not necessarily neutrals! Just in some colors that you enjoy.) that you have to wear for six months. Are you relieved? Excited? Anxious?
  • πŸ‘‰ Where would it actually make a difference in your quality of life to have a clear and cohesive color palette?

How do I know if colors go together?

There have been a zillion other people who have already explained color theory better than I ever could. If you want to brush up on color theory and have an overview of how it’s often applied in fashion, you can check out this video from Zoe Hong.

There is, of course, the @frisky_gatos approach of “hold your shit up to your other shit and see if you like it”. No theory, just try on the outfit and see whether your first impression is to wince or smile. I think that for personal fashion, the latter approach does the job, although it will probably help if you have at least a basic color theory background to make it easier to identify patterns or better understand why you are drawn to certain color combinations.

πŸ”¬ Ways of defining a color palette for your wardrobe

How strongly can you visualize your color palette? How much flexibility do you want within it? Do you tend to find color theory helpful or just confusing? Besides the actual colors you end up with, spending some time to decide how you’ll come up with them can make it easier to actually get something you like and will stick to.

πŸ“‹ Exact colors

This is what it seems like you should do from a lot of common advice. I think the unspoken follow up to that is usually “as far as is practical”. After all, unless you’re wearing very very common colors like black, white, khaki, and navy it would be really hard to militantly adhere to a palette of several colors to the exact hex code.

Still, if you know what you like, and you want to keep the “is this in my colors” question straightforward instead of having to do some complex color story analysis any time you’re shopping, there’s nothing wrong with this approach.

πŸ‘―β€β™€οΈ Color families

The softer version of the exact colors approach, and what I suspect most people who set out to do the former end up doing anyway, is to keep new items all have some property tying them together.

One you’ve probably considered was sticking to cooler tone colors or warmer tone colors (meaning undertones, for example going with warmer tone cream white or a bluish tinged icy white, not that you just wear red/orange/yellow or green/blue/purple or just traditional neutrals).

Another option in that vein is going for colors with a common color mixed in. “Colors with brown in them” or “colors with white in them” or “colors with a greenish shade”. This can be especially helpful if you’re looking for a color palette that works with your skin and hair coloring to make you look particularly lively. For example, if you notice that shocking pink always feels like it overwhlems you, and salmon pink feels like it clashes, but you like how you look in mauve, you might look into other colors that are tones, aka colors mixed with gray. (Not that everyone needs to aim for the most conventionally flattering colors, you can apply this for any color that you enjoy wearing whether or not your Aunt Susan says it suits you).

If that sounds terribly dry, you could also go by popular color story: desert colors, dessert colors, evergreen forest colors, jewel tones, pastels, ‘8-pack crayola colors’, sepia tinted neutrals…. Anything that you can strongly visualize!

πŸ₯‘ Core pieces

I think this might be my favorite way to go about keeping some color coordination within a wardrobe. Take a look at which of your frequently-worn items, particularly high wear-rate items like shoes, jeans, and outerwear that you LOVE wearing and make your outfits feel familiar and feel like you. Then aim to mostly acquire clothing that pairs easily with those pieces.

Especially if your sartorial preferences are easily swayed from day to day, if you at least know what couple of items actually make it into your dirty laundry basket every week, even if one frequently-worn dress is a soft lilac and another is a deep navy, while your favorite jeans are super light wash and distressed, if everything you take in can happily work with at least one outfit made of mostly favorite/core/staple/weekly-worn items, then it’s no biggie if it doesn’t work with most of your other once-a-month pieces.

One common (and not wrong on its own) piece of advice is to not buy anything that you can’t think of at least 3/4/5 outfits to wear with. If you can, that’s great, but I say, even if you always wear the same pairing of items, but you wear it often, then who cares if you never pair that skirt with anything else? Better than being able to make 5 outfits with a piece, but they’re all outfits you wouldn’t tend to favor or are specific or extra enough that you wouldn’t wear any of them more than every several weeks.

Depending on how constrained you need to keep your clothing count, this can take a little more restraint than the other approaches, because you can easily convince yourself that you have so many key items and end up without any solid clusters of easy mix-and-match pieces.

πŸ’­ Mood

This one’s obviously gonna be fuzzier and really depend on the person, but I think it would be doable to curate a closet of clothes that work for you by choosing colors that consistently evoke a particular mood or feeling.

Maybe you like to get dressed and then feel energetic! For some people, that might mean lots of high contrast with, unadulterated black, white, blue, red, green, and yellow. But maybe for someone else that just means having a lot of things in their favorite color, or dressing in all black makes you feel ready to get stuff done. Like with the ‘popular color story’ thing, the idea is to find a way to think of a palette that’s inspiring and easy for your brain to understand and visualize.

Either way, having that sort of mission statement apply to most of your wardrobe can give it a cohesive feel in a way that’s a bit less staid than checking off some color theory elements. This combined with the core pieces method I can see being a fun but helpful way to provide some structure to your search when considering new items.

🎨 Ways to incorporate a color palette into your wardrobe

Once you have a way to define your color palette, which areas of your wardrobe can you apply it to?

  • By season – switch it up every couple of months as you need to swap out clothes anyway. Rotating items by season can keep you from getting bored with your clothes as quickly, even if you live somewhere you can make do with the same sorts of clothes most of the year.
  • By activity – Work, lounge, casual going out, formalwear, activewear, etc. This can be handy if you’re the sort of person who benefits a lot from visual cues (e.g. it’s a lot easier for you to do computer work if you’re at a desk than on the couch or bed). For clothing categories where you likely don’t have as many pieces, particularly formalwear, having a tighter palette can help you get the most mileage out of mix-and-matching items.
  • By aesthetic – If you’re already not keeping your closet to more or less one style and you don’t like mixing up your favored aesthetics within any one outfit anyway, you can have fun curating each to have a more distinct color profile to make it feel like you’ve got multiple wardrobes. Luxury!

And of course, the point of all this isn’t for you to meticulously define the exact method which you will use color in your outfits. You can use any of these or a combination of approaches; they are simply ideas on how a more curated color palette may be helpful to you depending on how your brain works and what you want out of your clothes.

I spent a while dressing almost entirely in warm earth tones and neutrals, but over the last two years I’ve transitioned to a more core-pieces x aesthetics based approach. I’ve been happier with this since some days I want to dress aggressively Halloween-y colors, sometimes do an outfit of neutrals, and sometimes in muted watercolor-y tones or 90s brights. I have pieces in different categories that I’m happy to wear frequently, or that I love so much that they’ve basically inspired a whole palette (my soft turquoise fairytale mood dresses, the obnoxious patchwork cardigan, the famous orange dress) and having multiple item-based groupings lets me strike a balance of flexibility and cohesiveness.

Are you a stickler for color coordination in your wardrobe or do you take a more laissez faire approach?

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