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Friday, April 13, 2012

Black, White and Every Shade of Gray

"I have heard with admiring submission the experience of the lady who declared that the sense of being perfectly well dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquility which religion is powerless to bestow." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Something many of us don't think about is how much contrast we're wearing in a given outfit. Here's why it's important.

First a quick explanation; This is a value scale.  It shows white (0) at one end and black (10) at the other, and 9 shades of gray in between. 

Contrast refers to the light vs. dark- if you put black (10) next to white (0) you have 'high contrast.' If you put pale gray (1) next to white (0) you have low contrast. If you put a #3 gray next to a #8 gray- shades that are 5 or so numbers apart on the value scale- you have what I would call medium contrast.  When looking at color, the same applies- you can put the palest blue next to the darkest navy blue and have fairly high contrast, or put the same navy blue next to a slightly paler slate blue and have a low contrast combination. 

Below is an example of where two different colors fall on a gray scale- in the top example you see a fairly pale yellow- clearly darker than than white, yet lighter than the number 2 gray- that makes this yellow a #1 on the value scale.

The blue below is darker than the 5, yet paler than the 7, so it's a #6 on the value scale.  This is how you asses where on the value scale a color falls.

This is important to know because if you have high contrast in your coloring- say, dark hair and pale skin and eyes for example- and you wear a low contrast outfit, you're likely to look 'washed out.'  On the other hand, if you have low contrast coloring - dark hair, skin and eyes- or pale hair, skin and eyes- and you wear a high contrast outfit, the outfit is likely to 'wear you.'  In this case the first thing people will notice is your clothes, not you. This is not good.

In other words, use the contrast present in your coloring; if you have high contrast coloring, you need to wear high contrast in your clothes in order to 'sparkle.'  Medium contrast coloring, wear medium contrast in your clothes so you'll look your best, and of course if you're coloring is low contrast wear low contrast in your clothes and you'll shine.

Most of the time you'll find that people who have high contrast coloring are more likely to look best in bright colors, in their proper color family- warm or cool.  Not always, but most of the time. Also more often than not, people with medium and low contrast coloring will wear muted colors; just how muted depends on their coloring.  I myself am 'medium' contrast and wear cool colors- I have light brown hair, medium beige skin and medium value green eyes. My coloring isn't very 'vibrant'- fairly soft overall.  I have found an interesting fact in that sometimes whether a color is muted or not is sometimes more important for me than whether it's cool or warm; I would have thought it more important to stay within your color family than your contrast range, but when confronted with the choice of a 'neutral' or even slightly warm version of a more muted color vs. a color that's slightly too bright for me, the muted version almost always wins.

The great part about this is that to find how much contrast you should wear, just look in your mirror, just as with determining your color family and how bright your colors should be.  If you're new to this you may find it helpful to get yourself a value scale at your local art supply store to determine where your hair, eyes and skin are on the scale. The farther apart the numbers are, the greater the contrast you should wear.  For example- say your hair is a 9, and your eyes are a 6 and your skin is a 3; your contrast range is from 3-9, so that's a difference of 6.  That means to really 'work' your contrast you should try to keep the contrast in your outfit at about 6.  If your range is only 3, then you need to keep the contrast in a given outfit at around 3. When you're first getting used to this you'll probably need to check what your wearing against the value scale. After a while it'll become second nature.  You'll also learn as you go little ways to break the rules that'll work for you.

If you have trouble with determining your contrast range, your color family and whether you look best in bright or muted colors here's something that might help; try doing this with one or two friends, side by side in the mirror.  Sometimes it's easier to see that your coloring is indeed 'low' contrast when you see someone else who's so clearly high contrast. Or maybe that you're obviously in the 'warm' color family when you see your other friend who's so clearly 'cool.'

The whole point is to present yourself looking your very best. It's the job of your clothes to make you look good; no matter how much you care about or spend on the clothes, ultimately it's not about the clothes, it's about you. Your clothes are there to make you look good and express your aesthetic sensibilities.

Happy Dressing!