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How To Avoid Wardrobe Color Mistakes

How To Avoid Wardrobe Color Mistakes


When I was nine I got into a phase where I used to wear black all the time. It was my favorite color: black shirts, black pants, black socks, even black sneakers if I could find them.

Little did I know that I was, even then, becoming sensitive to colors and how they affected other people. When I wore black I felt that other people paid more attention to me, and as a firstborn with a strong desire for recognition, that was a very satisfying feeling.

I have a slightly more sophisticated understanding of color today, but as surprising as it may seem, our appreciation for how color works in positive and negative ways is tied to the same reaction that drove this childish preference for black. We now use wardrobe semiotics to analyze the meaning and effect of color on other people, and this can tell us whether sky blue, for example, is better than baby blue for a professional, whether or not green is good for suits you wear to the office, or even whether defendants in criminal trials do better in one color as opposed to another (traditional colors usually work best).



Semiotics is the study of the meaning and significance of signs, both linguistic and visual. Roland Barthes, the French philosopher, and his associates, give us entry into this fascinating world, where the color, texture, and design of garments communicate meaning. Color, to take one important aspect of wardrobe, has multiple layers of meaning. According to two recent analysts of fashion, George Sproles and Leslie Davis Burns, the meaning of color can include elements of “physical attractiveness, femininity and masculinity, power and dominance, and self-confidence and assurance.”

In order to tease out the practical meanings of color for professionals we conducted two tests. In the first, a set of photographs was made of the same person in different color suits. We showed these photographs to a group of executives and asked them to rate the subjects based solely on the photographs. In the second test, we dressed actors in blue, green, brown, beige, and red, and had them appear in front of colleagues and supervisors, asking them to record in a fashion diary the reactions they noticed while wearing these colors. The results of these tests confirm the hypothesis that color influences how other people react to you.



The most effective colors are different for different professions. For example, the most effective color for bankers and certified public accountants, especially when dealing with high net worth individuals, is a medium gray suit with a white shirt. Our findings reveal that there are only a limited number of colors that a male attorney can wear if he wants to be effective with clients, colleagues, and judges. Those colors are the traditional business colors of blue, gray, and beige, and shades thereof.

We also know that variations on these colors can work wonders for men with short stature, who are more effective in blue pinstripe suits, for example. Very tall men, who may intimidate people with their height, or men who by virtue of their genetics have a gruff appearance, do better when they wear lighter shades of these colors. Darker shades impart more authority, so a man or woman who is going to be making a speech before an audience will generally be more effective when wearing a darker shade as opposed to a lighter one.

While professional men are still restricted to only three colors, women can be very effective in other colors, too. We have found, however, that they are challenged more by men if they wear pastels. When working with men they are more effective in darker colors, such as plum, burgundy, or chartreuse, provided their outfits are in deeper, richer tones of these colors rather than pale, almost pastel tones. When working in an all-female environment, pastels can be effective for women.

Knowing the significance of color, that is, how others will react to it, is important for anyone in a profession, such as law, where you’re meeting new people and need to be credible and authoritative. The colors of your outfit communicate more than you might realize.

Michael Christian on Email
Michael Christian
Michael Christian
Michael Christian is a former trial attorney and president of Manhattan Makeovers, which conducts research about effective attire for professionals. Writing as William Cane he is the author of eleven books. His firm provides image consultations and makeovers for attorneys from all over the world in their New York and Los Angeles offices.


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