How to Make Unflattering Colors Flattering


Unflattering Colors When I started my style consulting business in 2002 I took an intensive two day course to learn how to analyze colors using the seasonal draping method.  This method is the well known approach where people are categorized into the fall, winter, summer and spring seasons.  I went into this course already having a pretty knowledgeable understanding of color theory.  When I was a fashion designer I would spend countless hours a week inside a device called a light box looking at lab dips, which are fabric swatches dyed to match color standards sent to a factory or fabric mill. We would do these lab dips before dying yards of fabric for production. It would be my job to look at the swatches and figure out how to get the lab dips as close as possible to the color standard.  It often took several tries.  To give the factories or fabric mills proper direction I would tell them to do things like add percentages of color, lightness, darkness, and more.  All these years later I can look at a color and tell you exactly what colors are used to make it.

As a stylist who is trained to analyze colors on clients, plus my keen eye for color, I have seen how and why some colors look really good on a person and others horrible.  Unfortunately, teaching someone how to analyze their own colors through a blog is pretty impossible.  However, I can give you some pointers on how to choose and wear your best colors, how to correct any bad colors you may own and how to make unflattering colors look flattering.

Despite the fact that most women don’t know much about colors, like what makes them warm, cool, clear, bright, soft or muted, I have found that most women often choose the right colors for themselves even if they don’t know why or are consciously doing it.  Just like we know when our butts look big in a pair of pants we also know when a color makes us look washed out, drowned out, sallow or grey.

Below are some common color issues that many women struggle with and my tips on how to work around these issues.  As you will see the solutions are actually quite simple.  All you have to do is add a flattering color to an unflattering one through your accessories, accents and pop pieces.  These tips are great for pieces in colors that you love but know aren’t the best shades for you, for accidental purchases in the wrong colors or just times when you want to wear a color in the best way possible for you.

How to make unflattering colors flattering

Problem #1- When a color is too washed out and light

When a color is too washed out and light it usually in a pastel shade, has very little saturation and looks like the color has been faded with white paint. The white added to color is what gives it its washy, pastel effect.  The more white, the lighter and whiter the color becomes.

Light Color

While these soft, washy colors can be pretty to look at, sadly, very few women look good in them.  Unless a woman has very soft, light coloring these colors can wash a woman out, make her look peaked, grey or just ill looking.  When this happens the color just doesn’t have enough saturation or depth.

This outfit is an example of how to fix a color that is too light, you anchor it.  I use this term all the time with my clients when they have pieces that are too pale for their coloring.  Anchoring a color means to pair a lighter color with a darker color to bring the shade down.  Here, for example, I am using this grey Athleta cardigan to anchor this light pink Elie Tahari top.  The deep grey anchors the very lofty pink.  In addition to this I added a necklace in a richer burgundy shade to darken the combination.   When a color is too light, anchor it with richer colors.

Problem #2- When a color is too dark or saturated

Dark colors have a tremendous amount of saturation in them.  They are usually clear, heavy, somber and stark looking.  Obviously, black would be the darkest color on the spectrum but there are dark and saturated hues of every shade that exists.

Unflattering Colors Most women love dark colors, they’re flattering and slimming.  However, there are times when a dark color is just too heavy in tone for a woman’s coloring.  This often happens to me when I wear black.  It just brings my coloring down and does nothing for me.  People who don’t look good in all dark shades often notice that their energetic and bright coloring looks dimmed.  Women who look best in rich, dark, heavy colors are usually women who have strong, rich and deep coloring. If you love dark color but find that these types of shades just seem too heavy for you there is a way to fix it.

The solution is quite simple.  The color just needs to be lifted and energized a bit.  The best way to do this is to pair it with a brighter, more vibrant shade that isn’t so heavy.  In this outfit, for example, I added a mint scarf to this French Connection striped tunic and used mint Stella & Dot earrings.

Warm colors and cool colors

Before I get into the next two color problems, I want to go a little more in-depth about warm and cool colors, as this often needs a lot more explanation.  First, most people don’t even understand the difference between warm and cool colors despite the fact that they understand that warm colors are yellow based and cool colors are blue based.  For these people, even if you put warm and cool colors in front of them, they can’t see the difference let alone identify if their undertones are warm or cool.  It’s a tricky thing to diagnose and the first step in seasonal color analysis.

unflattering colors Yet, whenever I put a cool red and a warm read side by side and show a woman the difference they seem to start to understand the difference.  As you can see above, both colors are red.  The red on the left is cool, meaning it has a blue base, and the red on the right is warm, meaning it has a yellow base.  Red is the only primary color that can either be warm or cool.  When I was learning how to decipher color as a fashion designer I was taught to stare at a color long enough until the base tone of the shade started to rise to the surface.  If you look at both the cool and warm reds long enough you might start to see the blue coming through the cool red and the yellow coming through the warm red.

Alternatively, you can look at metal shades and figure out whether warm or cool colors look best near your face.  Typically, people who look better in yellow golds have warm undertones, meaning their skin tone looks warm, glowing and healthy in this shade.  People with cool undertones look better shades of silver and they look bright, rested, alive and vibrant.  In cool tones, people with warm undertones often look grey, washed out and flat.  People with cool undertones often look sallow, jaundice and muddy when gold is draped across their face.

It should also be stated, however, there are many people who are hybrids, people who look fine in both warm and cool colors.  If this is you, don’t over think it or assume something is wrong.  It just means that you can wear both and to choose colors based on personal preference.

Problem #3- Colors that are too cool

As stated earlier, colors that are cool are blue based, but cool colors are not exclusively blue in shade.  Generally speaking, most blue based colors are jewel tones, like cobalt, bright purple, emerald green (a green that has a lot of blue in it), cool reds, and even soft blue based pastels.

unflattering colors People with blue based (or cool based) skin tones look best in blue based colors.  When someone looks good in a blue based color their skin looks like how I described above, bright, clear, vibrant and rested.  People with warmer skin tones often look greyed out, the skin under their eyes can look darker and they lose a lot of their warm glow.  People who don’t look good in blue based colors may also find that fine lines and wrinkles show more, but this isn’t always the case.

Of course there are ways to work around wearing a blue based coloring if it isn’t flattering on you.  The answer is to warm up the color.  For example, here I paired this cobalt top from Reiss with warmer shades through the printed scarf that has warm accents and the cognac color found in this J. Crew blazer.  By adding warmer colors a balance is created between the warm and the cool shades.

Problem #4- Colors that are too warm

Warm colors have a yellow base.  Warm colors aren’t exclusively in the autumn palette of rust, mustard, browns, camel and olive.  Warm colors are peach, coral, shades of green, like kelly and grassy greens, orange and warm reds.  Warm colors can be very bright and vibrant and they can also be very muted.

unflattering colorsOn people with cool or blue undertones, warm colors can be the kiss of death because they will literally look sick in them.  Women with cool coloring will run for the hills if they see orange, yellow, warm reds, mustard colors, olives, golds and rusts.  However, on people with warm undertones, these colors are so beautiful.  People who look great in warm tones look rested, alive, sun kissed, fresh and bright.

Warm based colors on people with cool undertones look better when these shades are paired with blue based colors.  For example, here this yellow Boden dress is paired with a purple necklace to create balance.  If you have an orange top that makes you look sallow, try it with navy, or try adding some bright pink accents to a green dress.

Problem #5- When a color is too bright

Bright colors have a lot of energy, even if they are light colors.  These shades are clear, vibrant and loud.  When someone has softer or more muted coloring these colors can jump off a person and drown them out.  When I drape vibrant colors on someone with softer coloring the color overwhelms them.   Bright colors include cobalt, emerald green, bright orange, magenta, and more.  Bright colors can be warm and cool.  The qualities of the bright colors have more to do with clearness and vibrancy than they do warmth or coolness.

Unflattering Colors People who look best in bright colors have clear, bright coloring.  They can have fair skin or dark skin, it doesn’t really matter.  What does matter is that their coloring isn’t muted or soft.  Often people with clear coloring have bright, sparkling eyes, are free of freckles, are typically not sallow in skin tone and have the energy of coloring to withstand such bright shades.  Alternatively, when someone doesn’t look good in clear brights the color vibrates off their bodies and are too energetic.

Despite all this information about bright colors, it doesn’t mean that they are off limits for everyone.  When a color is too bright and clear on someone all I do is pair the color with softer colors, like soft pinks, grey, heathered shades and muted colors.  A balance gets created between the two tones.  As you can see in this outfit, the bright blue turquoise top from Boden is brought down in vibrancy with the softer jacket from Reiss.  Lastly, I added earrings in softer colors that tonally works with the top and strikes an even greater balance.

Problem #6- When a color is too muted

Muted colors have a grey cast to them.  Pastels can fall into the muted category because they have been softened with white, but muted colors are also gold, olive, taupe, khaki, rust, mustard, for example.  But truly and color can be muted because all it takes is toning down a shade to make it less clear and bright.  Muted colors look a bit muddy.

Unflattering ColorsOn the wrong person, muted colors look blah and lifeless.  These shades will make someone look like a corpse because they don’t have enough energy and vibrancy to match their own personal coloring.   On the right person, muted colors look rich, warm and very flattering.

If a color is too muted all you have to do is pair it with some energetic brights.  Take a look at the previous outfit.  The muted grey is balanced with the bright turquoise.  And in this outfit, the bright red in the necklace adds some life to this somber olive J. Crew sweater.  If you love this color and other muted shades, but this color doesn’t love you, just add some clear brights through your jewelry, scarves or layering pieces to brighten up the outfit.

How to determine your season

Like I said earlier, being able to tell someone who to decide what season they are through a blog post is virtually impossible.  It took me two days to learn how to do it and explaining how to analyze yourself in this post would be about as difficult as teaching you how to tie your show in this format.  However, below you will find the characteristics of each season.  By looking at the color problems above and figuring out which ones you may struggle with, you may be able to hone in on what season you might be.

Spring- The colors of spring are clear and vibrant, with a crisp quality to them. The spring palette perfectly represents all the lively colors of the spring season. These colors have a warmer yellow base and give off a pleasant radiance.

Qualities of spring colors: Warm based, clear, vibrant and light

Summer- The colors of summer are soft and muted with a pastel quality to them. These colors havea cooler cool blue base and give off a subtle soft energy.

Qualities of summer colors– Cool based, soft, muted and light

The difference in lightness between spring and summer is to imagine a color being lightened with white paint- that would be summer, and a color lightened or diluted with water- that would be spring.  The color is light but still clear.

Autumn-  The colors of autumn are warm and earthy, with a rich depth to them. The autumn palette perfectly represents all the harmonious colors of any clear autumn day. These colors have a warmer yellow base and give off a rugged outdoorsy feel.

Qualities of autumn colors- Warm based, earthy, muted and rich

Winter- The colors of winter are clear, crisp, bright and bold. These colors have a cooler icier base to them and give off a lot of power.

Qualities of winter colors- Cool based, bright, clear and deep

It’s rare to meet someone who is only one season.  A lot of people are primarily one season and can borrow from another.  If you look at the qualities of each season it makes sense as all the seasons have similar qualities.  For example, summer and winter are both blue based and autumn and spring both yellow based.  Further to that, autumn and summer are both muted palettes and winter and spring are both palettes with clear colors.

This is why people typically need to be individually analyzed and it can be too difficult to read a book or blog post on the topic to diagnose yourself.  However, these tips should start to point you in the right direction.  In my 13 years of working with women and their style 99% of the time my clients are already choosing their best colors which means there is a strong possibility that you are as well.  The colors we are usually drawn to and the colors we most often wear are typically our best shades.  Instinctively we know what’s best.  So trust that you are making the right color choices.  If you’re not, or you have some unflattering colors your closet, my hope is that with these tips you’ll be able to fix them.


  • lasallepal

    I remember the Color Me Beautiful system when it first came out. Your mother probably did, too. I bought the book. There were Color Me Beautiful parties in homes much like the tupperware parties. A woman who (I assume) was trained did out colors although I do not remember the fabric draping–it may have been there, but I do not remember it. I was found to be a SPRING and it made sense as all the colors that looked good on me were in that “season.” However, I found that I could wear a lot of the AUTUMN colors as well (plums, mustard/golds, loden, rusts, burgundy, brick reds) and depending on how my hair was highlighted could slip back and forth. Summer hair highlights are a bit lighter than autumn highlights. So, I am glad you mentioned it as I always wondered why I seemed to fit into two seasons.

    With that said, I love cobalt blue. I need to wear a scarf with the tops as it is too strong. I usually find a scarf with a pattern and that is flattering, but has little areas of cobalt blue to pull it together.

    I love the sandy colors with white in winter. They seem to look good, but I am not sure they are in the washed out range. I am so sick of cold winters and the beachy colors make me feel good. I add a touch of turquoise to the mix.

    Love camel–it must be a warm color, but I cannot remember and am NOT buying the book again (already had 3-4 copies of it and all loaned out never to be returned)

    • You bring up an excellent point that should be noted. The reason why you can straddle more than one season is that each season shares something with the other. Like you, I am a spring. However, I can borrow from autumn because both seasons are yellow based, or warm. I can also borrow from summer, as well. The reason is that both seasons are lighter in tone, yet, summer can sometimes be a bit washy and blue based for me. Winter I can also dip into because this season, like spring is very clear and bright. I think the seasonal color method can work IF you understand color theory enough and how each season is connected to the other. Rare is it that someone is exclusively one season. What I usually do is find their dominant season and work from there, explaining why they can borrow from another season based on their coloring and the commonalities found between the multiple seasons. And I do know that book. I think I own it, though I have never read it. The system itself is a bit flawed and can come across as limiting. For me it is always a good starting point because it is helpful to diagnose if someone is clear or muted in coloring as well as warm or cool. The truth is, any woman can wear any color as long as she understands how light or dark, warm or cool, clear or muted the colors should be.

      • lasallepal

        Yes, I have a very warm undertone to my skin. In fact, every time I have had makeup applied by a professional makeup artist, the comments were always — warm undertone, tone down the red, warm complexion……

        I look good in muted colors as well, so I am not sure where that leaves me. I would say I am neither light or dark. Rather, I am a bit neutral almost caught between the two. I am going on line and researching this a bit more.

        • Well from what you are saying, that you fall into the medium, you probably can borrow from two seasons, likely the lighter from a deeper season and the darker from a lighter season. Feel free to email me a photo if you want me to take a quick look. I can’t officially diagnose you but I can certainly figure out a range if that would help you at all!

          • Simmchen

            Hi Bridgette,
            I miss your insightful posts over at TPF I’m in the process of editing my closet, and I think I’m having trouble choosing colours for myself. I remembered you said that I would look great in pastels and jewel tones, I have ben told that I have warm undertones, but I have been told that I’m neutral. I’ve been told that I have warm brown skin with golden undertones, can I e-mail you a photo so that I can have an idea of the colours I can choose? thank you

  • trace

    Wow, what a terrifically helpful post. Thanks!

  • Jeri H.

    This has to be the best explanation I have ever read about color analysis and why people like me fall into more than one category. I have dark hair, grayed blue eyes and very fair skin. Many people have told me I am a winter. One person said I was a summer, but I look good in many Autumn shades too. The thing is, while I have a high contrast, my undertones are warm and clear, but I look ill in the saffron yellow and mustard that most Autumn’s can wear. My professional artist daughters told me to remember that all colors have a warm shade and if I stick to them I should be fine. I just skip the sickly yellows and opt for lemon to icy yellow. Any shade of red looks great on me so I always go to that when in doubt.

    • Thanks so much Jeri! It sounds like you probably are a winter but I can see why you can borrow from summer because both seasons are blue based. At the same time, I can also see you taking from Autumn with the exception of those classic russet and goldy shades, they’re probably too yellow. Yes, all colors have a warm shade, just like all colors have a cool shade. As i always say, no colors are off limits, it’s just about finding your right tone. I am really happy this helped you figure it out further!

  • Laura

    Dear Bridgette,

    Thanks so much for this post! I read several books about color and figured out that I am a soft autumn that is very close to the border with soft summer. The realization was both helpful and frustrating. There are many instances when I can’t find clothing in “my” colors because they are not being offered by the stores when I need to buy a particular garment. In addition, there are some colors that I really love, but are not in my palette, such as navy, blush and white. I have avoided buying these colors for years, but no more, now that you have taught me how to work them into my wardrobe.


    • Hi Laura, I am so happy this helps you! Yes, what autumn and summer share is they are both soft and muted. Summer is blue based and lighter and autumn is yellow based and darker. However, if you look at the light ends of the autumn spectrum and the dark end of the summer spectrum you can see that the colors do share a lot of similarities. But, yes, the good thing is that if a color is not in your particular palette there are ways to wear them. I am glad this was helpful for you to expand your wardrobe options! Yay!!

  • Stacie

    This is a WONDERFUL post!!! Sooooo very, very helpful!!!!

  • Beth

    That exact pale pink in the top you used is one of the worst colors possible on me and I gave up years ago trying to make it work (I always thought it’d be dynamite with black and gray but couldn’t pull it off). I just started following your blog a few months ago but have really been enjoying it. This one of my favorites so far – very helpful. That and the shoe post – bought a pair of metallic sandals on that advice that have been very versatile this summer.

    • Hi Beth! Thanks so much! I am so glad you found my blog and I appreciate your loyal readership! One thing you can count on me to be is very practical. I am glad this has been resonating for you. You can never go wrong with a pair of metallic shoes for summer! Thanks again for your kind words!

  • belanus5

    Thanks for this great post. I have been doing an extensive study of color analysis, trying to identify my best colors. In the late 80s, I was draped and came out a Summer. I dressed in those colors for years but got bored and wanted to inject some new colors into my palette. I have found that if I want to wear warm colors, they need to be muted and soft. And I need to combine them with a good “dose” of cool colors. For example, a soft orange tee with textured white pants and a denim jacket looks great but wearing the same orange tee with khaki and warm brown doesn’t. Your examples help expand my thinking even more. I appreciate all the work that you have put into it.

    • Such a great point! I think we can all get a little bored if we exclusively play in our seasonal sandbox. Sometimes we want some other colors! When I was writing this post I didn’t even think of the fact that this advice allows us to do that!! I really appreciate the feedback!

  • Renee

    Best thing I ever did: Hire you to help me figure all this out. So very practical to have you say “That color has too much white in it to be near your face…”or “You can wear the white pants with your neutral navy on top….” or “Even though that’s a warm color, too much of it washes you out…” Even the right color can be worn in the wrong proportions.

    I don’t know if you want to go here or not, but I haven’t found the “energy profiling” systems to be very helpful. To be told that “autumns” share things in common with wild ethnic dramatic artsy styles is just not me. I’m the autumn that wants denim, leather, apples in a wooden bowl, and a knitted throw by a fire.

    Thanks again for another very helpful post!

    • I am so happy to hear this, Renee!! I am not familiar with the energy profiling systems. What is that? I think all color systems are flawed. It’s the experts administrating them who make them good.

      “I’m the autumn that wants denim, leather, apples in a wooden bowl, and a knitted throw by a fire.” had me LOL’ing!!!

  • AK

    This is one of the most helpful posts I’ve read on your blog — it explains a lot about why I choose the clothes that I do, and how to make the handful of problem ones work. Thanks!

  • Susanna Kay

    Just discovered this post- and never too late to say how super helpful it is. I’m definitely on the cool side of the palette but its great to learn how to incorporate the odd gold or orange piece. Having spent my entirely life in blues/green/pinks/mauves it will be fun experimenting with one or two warm shades suitably cooled off!