Know Your Palette

When I was a younger man, still an undergraduate and still naively optimistic about my future, I used to believe, in that customary fashion of youth, that I was capable of anything and undoubtedly suited to everything. On a brief shopping trip to a Polo Ralph Lauren factory store for ‘essentials’ – crew neck and v-neck sweaters – I grabbed a white crew neck jumper, which my other male companion had also selected for trial, and after pulling it carelessly over my head, marched triumphantly from the changing rooms to be appraised by the third companion, a female. She looked at us and winced in that peculiar way; a warning indication of the discomfort and awkwardness they were about to cause. My companion, she pointed out, was tanned and toned and the brilliant white looked magnificent next to his skin. I was rather pale and slight and, when compared to the sun-kissed specimen standing next to me, looked, as she put it rather indelicately, rather horrible indeed.

As degrading and puzzling it was to a young man who was stubborn in his resistance to defeat, I had to admit on reflection that she was exactly right. It is a glorious folly of youth to believe that we can do anything; limitations are forgotten, mistakes are made, albeit in the most honourable and admirable way. I eventually selected a navy blue jumper which, both of my companions agreed, suited me well. Although, I was still disappointed.

‘Know your palette’ has since been a mantra of mine when gazing upon the racks of the rainbow in countless stores. It is perhaps unfortunate for many people that some of the colours we adore are the most inappropriate and impractical. Like the doomed lovers; hearts aflame for one another, passionate and even devoted – but tragically unsuitable as partners. Such is my relationship with pastel greens, orange and purple: glorious colours that deserve to be worn, but not by me.

1. The Pale Caucasian

If you are, like me, a Caucasian of light brown or blonde hair, light skinned and perhaps a little freckly with green or blue eyes, then you might already be aware that some colours are not as appealing on you as others. Summertime might give way to a little tanned skin and generously highlighted hair, but generally speaking I find that strong ‘fruit’ colours; orange, banana, kiwi and the like, tend to overpower the subtlety of our features. In moderation white looks acceptable but when I use too much of it, my skin looks blotchy; it’s quite incredible how much redder a slight shaving rash can look wearing such quantities of this colour. The best tones to stick with are navy and mid blue, black, dark and moss greens and deep red. Ferrari reds do look delicious on the shelf, but when I see a ‘dark haired olive skinned lothario’ casually considering such a tone, I begin to realise my limitations.

2. The Dark Haired Olive Skinned Lothario

You are a fortunate chap. The appealing depth and patina to your skin tone, coupled with the shock crop of dark hair means you possess the striking qualities to compete with even the hardiest of difficult colours. Violets, purples, bright reds, tangerine yellow…it seems no bright colours can affect your image negatively. Having said that, certain shades don’t do as much for your overall image; weak navy blues flatter the Pale Caucasian and the Exotic tone, but against the dark chic of your visage they are rather something and nothing. Secondly, think ‘saturated’ when choosing unconventional colours such as pink – the just-about-pinks can drag your ensemble down from a fabulous to a mediocre.

3. The Exotic

If you have rich dark skin, you are also very fortunate. There are few colours that pose a challenge to the luxuriant tones of your face. However, it is wise to choose colours like white, bright blue, greys and red over browns, blacks and navy as the contrast is magnificent and much more appealing than wearing colours of the same palette as your skin tone. The fact that you are most likely to possess dark eyes means you can experiment wildly in terms of colour; watermelon, imperial purple and the like are all at your disposal.


  1. Ted B. (Charging Rhino) said:

    While I qualify as the “Pale Caucasian” in-spades; I NEVER wear blue when it can be avoided. I stick to “martial” tones of grays, tans, khakis, and greens for shirt, suits and slacks….with yellows, orange or reds as accents. White shirts are since they contrast so-well with the red in my skin-tone….dirty strawberry-blond. (My Norweigen ancestors didn’t do “tan” well, just burned between the freckles.)

    May 8, 2008
  2. Caligula said:

    I am from Greece and live in Monte Carlo. I’ve been a model since I was 6, now I am 35. I have never heard of wearing different clothes due to your skin colour. All the white northern Europeans wear all white here in the summer. Claudia Schiffer is in all white, red and orange through the summer. Yes, designers due work with skin tone for their collections, but in the world that I live in I have not heard of anyone tell me such a thing. I would never tell Cameron Diaz to weat this because she is so white and tell Queen Latifa that she couldn’t because she is black. I would be fired as a stylist in Athens and the south of France.

    May 8, 2008
  3. Caligula said:

    I did some research on this mates. After speaking with some designers, top-models and some Euro-pop-stars here in Monte Carlo. I find that most agree with me yet this does exist in the fashion world. However, if you saw fashion week in New York last February there were no black models to wear all the bright colours. The white models wore them all. Nobody I talked to wears clothes based on skin tone. This is only done for professional reasons such as print work or runway. This is a personal thing I believe, not a fact of fashion. I am dark, about 5% African from my fathers side and I look good in every colour. My blond and blue eyed friends also look good in every colour. I am struggling with this one mate. Sorry.

    May 8, 2008
  4. Barima said:

    As an “exotic”, I’d just like to point out that beige suits are the enemy, as are (non-pinstripe) brown ones. Far moreso than your choice of navy (a colour pretty much any man can wear, no matter the ethnic group – some of my best outfits are navies) do they fit your theory of less appealing colours. Plain black (outside of eveningwear, of course)and charcoal grey are tricky, but nevertheless popular across the groups. They are perfect for business attire because they come off as blandly professional and are far too difficult for me to work in any imaginative shirt/tie combos, unlike with blues and lighter greys. Mileage may vary

    May 8, 2008
  5. Barima said:

    Having read Caligula’s posts:
    Yes, it is a personal thing. Many don’t choose their threads on the basis of skin tone because most people outside the fashion industry aren’t wired to consciously think that way – they only go for what they believe looks good on them. As I was hinting at in my post, not everyone has a good idea of what does suit them, and much as we’re starting to feel the tide change at the moment, nevertheless, most guys don’t look for what is best but for what will do
    Winston is doubtless aware that he is generalising, so it’s only natural that you’d disagree with him in areas, just as I too have caucasian friends who can work a variety of colours, in some cases, better than I can, just as other black guys can rock seersucker suits better than I could hope to
    I agree on your point about black models, but occasionally, you do get surprised by the likes of Ralph Lauren and Etro, who tend to put on my favourite looks and shows

    May 8, 2008
  6. Good discussion here chaps. Barima touched on something which is very important to this topic; “not everyone has a good idea of what does suit them…most guys don’t look for what is best but for what will do.” This is particularly pertinent to the point about appropriateness of palette. Barima was right, I was generalising intentionally. Partly to encourage discussion, but also because a more detailed analysis would have resulted in a verbose, unattractive essay. I fully expected (and desired!) response contrary to the theories I proposed – especially in relation to ‘colour restrictions.’

    Caligula: I understand your points that people of all tones can wear many colours, but as I stated above, I was generalising; I was not referring to Claudia Schiffer or Queen Latifah particularly and I am certainly not suggesting they cannot wear certain colours. I was merely pointing out that the colours I suggested, as with my own example in the Ralph Lauren factory store, flattered and accompanied well the relevant skin tone. I think that although it might be true that your blonde and blue eyed friends might look good in the same colours that suit you, this is not true of everyone. On a pale slip of a chap like myself, a violet t-shirt would look terrible; on yourself or your friends I imagine it would look magnificent.

    May 9, 2008
  7. Caligula said:

    I really do believe that fashion has much to do with character and sense of style. Havina a certain strength that some people just don’t have when it comes to dressing well. Skin tone can play a role in fashion but you must look at the deeper issue of actuall styll. If you are white as milk, with red hair, blue eyes, etc… I believe you can work an all red Armani suit. It takes a certain know-how. If you look at people in lapland, primitive africans, native americans, they all wear colours that would go against what we are discussing here and yet they all look quite good in what they are weaing. Being in fashion most of my life and a client of top designers around the world fashion means a lot to me. I just don’t want this to become racial because not everyone is as smart as you might think. They will not understand what you are talking about. That is all my friends. If you come to Mykonos or Monte Carlo we can go shopping and see what happens. Ciao and gia sas.

    May 9, 2008
  8. Caligula said:

    Please excuse my English, evertime I look back at my posts I see mistakes. English is my 3rd. language and I forget it sometimes. Thanks.

    May 9, 2008
  9. Vickan said:

    I would just like to say that I think, most of the time, people should dress after their skin colour. Just because a model or a designer wears something, it doesn’t mean that they look good. (Models like Gisele can obviously pull off anything, but the mainstream models can’t) Mostly, on the catwalk, the models wearing strong colours are tanned, and as pointed out in the article, if you are tanned, you can pull off strong colours more easily.

    Moreover, what colours that work are def depending on more than skin colour, as I am sure most people understand. I am of the caucasian type, but I have dark green eyes, therefore I really like wearing green, but I avoid bright blue colours since I think that the colour clash with my eye colour.
    Some people suit everything, but you need to be damn attractive to do so, unfortunatly most people (models and non models) aren’t.

    (btw, may I ask you, Caligula, why is English only your third langauge? Being the most important language in the world, it should be everyones second if not first! =)

    May 11, 2008
  10. Caligula said:

    I was born in Athens, Greece so I learned Greek first. My family is very pro-hellenic and Greek culture was a must for us. Greek is our main family language. I was raised in Istanbul, Venice, Monte Carlo and Montreal so Turkish was my second lang. and French was actually my third, but I learned English on my own. I come from a very intellectual family and sorry but English and the US, Australia, Canada and such places were just not a part of our upbringing. I never speak English unless I am in America or the UK etc… I never speak English with Russians for example and I work with them all the time. We usually speak French. The Indians speak English yet I speak French with most of them as well. I don’t think that English is such an important language anymore especially with people like me and new nations like Russia, India, China and Dubie bringing other languages and culture to the global community. The world is becoming very nationalisitic today. I am a Greek and Greeks speak Greek unless I need to speak a language of a nation that is close to mine such as Turkey or France. I’ve never had a problem with not speaking English to people in European countries whose languages I don’t speak. As for the topic at hand I still believe it is silly. The models I saw at New York, Milan and Paris fashion week were not tanned they were white like milk.

    May 11, 2008
  11. Caligula said:

    Also Vickan how can English be someones first language if they are not from an English speaking country. If you are Swiss for example you learn up to 4 languages, all being Switzerlands national languages. Nobody speaks English anymore mate, where are you from by the way.

    May 11, 2008
  12. Vickan said:

    Caligula: What you write about here is irrelevant really, because this is a fashion forum, but I will reply to you. I didn’t expect a life story of where you have lived and what languages you have spoken at particular stages – I really just expected you to provide a shorter answer. However since you asked, I am actually Swedish. English was, and still is the language we had to learn from a young age, and it still is, over the whole of Northen Europe. The internet’s language is English. Some of the nations you mentioned, like India and China have long promoted English as a second language; the Indians partly because of the era of British rule but the Chinese, because the Chinese know that although more people in the world speak Mandarin than any other language, for international business and trade, you need to speak English. African nations are taught to learn English in their development schools alongside other skills as it is considered an essential tool. ‘Nobody speaks English anymore’? That’s a laugh. Turkish and Greek are important to you, and other native speakers, but I am afraid they are not important as international languages. My own language, Swedish, is also unimportant internationally.
    And to get back to fashion, I have seen the photos from GQ online of the shows, plenty of the models were tanned or ethnic. Could you mention what shows you were referring to, from all three cities? As I said, just because a white model wears something, it doesn’t mean it looks good. I would like to be proved wrong! =)

    May 12, 2008
  13. Caligula said:

    Nobody in Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, Japan, Brazil and others speak English and they are not taught it anymore either unless they get private tutoring. None of these people use English on the internet either, they use there languages. In business English is still important, but if you go to Moscow, Dubai, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Lisbon and other emerging markets they don’t even know “hello”. If you don’t know there language “good luck”. They are not learning English, they learn Chinese, Russian, Arabic and French. Sweden is not a part of the true European Union and your culture is not as strong as other European nations. You have closer relations with the US and England and that is why so many Scandinavians speak English so well. You don’t have strong cultural roots like Greeks and Italians and thus have no issues with adopting foreign ones. You love hip-hop and Coke and we like wine and cheese with a good rebetiko or flamenco on Ibiza. As for the models on the runway. New York fashion week last February had no black models and no true darker ethnik models except for some Brazilian regulars. I’m talking Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Zac Posen, Carolina Herrera, Donna Karan, Mark Jacobs, Michael Korrs. Look at Tyra Banks blog she had a lot to say about it. Many were surprised. Milan was the same. Paris is a bit more diverse, but not with mens collections. Designers want the best on the runway, they put who looks the part on the runway. If darker models looked so good in all those colours that were in Versace, Roberto Cavalli, Zac Posen and Michael Korrs then they would of put Naomi back on the runway this season not Claudia and Nadja. Come to Monte Carlo and look at all the fashion crowd this summer and ask some questions and you will see the way it works. I have been in fashion since I was 6, I love it. I have a great deal of passion for it and I feel strongly about this silly topic. Don’t you love September, she is so cool. I’ve seen her a lot in Monte Carlo.

    May 12, 2008
  14. Whilst it is thoroughly flattering that I have a fantastic response to my original article, I am afraid a lot of what is being said is drifting away from the crux of the issue. And I am actually saddened that Caligula has taken to finger pointing and insult; “You don’t have strong cultural roots like Greeks and Italians…” – such a statement is actually ignorant and inaccurate, let alone offensive. If this is an example of your ‘culture’ then I am glad I am not, and never will be, a part of it. I do not wish to attempt the role of ‘regulator’ but since it was my opinion that has given birth to this tawdry and unreasonable bitching, I ask all who feel inclined to respond kindly to think of the feelings and thoughts of others before doing so. I wish this because this forum is not a place to brandish flags and languages with hideous patriotism; it is a place of international meeting. Of acknowledgment, celebration and enjoyment of style.

    May 12, 2008
  15. Caligula said:

    Having 3 different looks of human beings, one being African American and calling him exotic is offensive and that is why I responded. The offensive material was posted before I responded. Such material would of never gotten into the pages of GQ, Vogue, Elle, Numero and many others. Such a journalist would be fired. I have nothing against Vickan and nothing against Sweden. We are having a simple discussion. Different nations are older than others and that is a simple fact that can be learned in any university. There is nothing wrong with my culture, I was expressing my own oppinion. If I was rude, I am sorry, you ended the discussion with rudeness, so all is finished. A discussion on language is simple debate, really. I will forward this discussion to Anna Wintour, an expert in fashion and a true sophisticate, I hope she responds.

    May 12, 2008
  16. Jamel said:

    Nice blog Winston!

    May 13, 2008
  17. Jason said:

    Calling the african american exotic isn’t offensive to me as a black man. At least he includes black men. Great post Winston.

    May 13, 2008
  18. Sophie said:

    I also am from Monaco and have never heard such utter twaddle in my life (and have yet to meet a Monaco full-timer who calls in Monte-Carlo).

    Whilst Caligua does have a point that one must not simply dismiss certain colours from one’s wardrobe based on Winston’s comments, he makes a fair point on a very general scale. Which, to be fair, is all he can do as he has not met all his readers.

    May 25, 2008

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