Colourful suggestions for darker skinned people

posted in: Colour Analysis, Inspiration | 13

Do you follow the wonderful, funny, talented  Nakisha Smith’s blog Dressmaking Debacles?  She and I tested a jeans pattern together and I have followed her ever since. The other day she wrote an interesting blog on colour analysis. She concluded that it has nothing to say to people with darker skin shades,   except “dark” – which sounds fairly dire.

Here she goes:

“I would encounter these conversations about colours and season and all that jazz and be utterly confused. I finally figured out the confusion – those “tests” were not for brown ladies! There was always one “dark” and it supposed to cover all of us women of colour. Like really? The cool browns, warm browns, the olive skinned … we are all just …”dark”. And that’s it. So I’ve always just gone off my own reaction to a colour when I encounter it and how I feel when It is on my body”.

Now Nakisha is highly competent at making clothes and she knows what suits her. She is very confident of her look and figure. She looks great in blues, greys and orange and she has agreed to me continuing this conversation on my blog. Although I cannot disagree with her “wear what you want” conclusion I felt I would like to respond to her critique.

The Winter palette

Colour analysis
“Winter” Snow White

The “Seasonal”  approach was the system used in the 1970s and 1980s. Let’s start with “Winter”- the category that most people will darker skin would traditionally be put into. Funnily enough the archetype for this “season” was Snow White – with skin as white as snow, hair as black as ebony wood and lips as red as blood.

Of course it was fairly odd to suggest that the whole world could be slotted into just one of four categories. The Seasons gave some people a clue, but it was rather crude and colour analysis has developed since the early days.

More recently the different companies have made the “tests”, as Nikisha describes them more sophisticated, looking to see what primary direction a person will have. Today we decide which of the following dichotomous groups of colour look best against someone’s face.

Deep or Light? Cool or Warm? Bright or Muted?

The old Winter palette would mean (if we tested Snow White herself), Deep (she has black hair and dark brown eyes), Cool (blue undertones) and Bright (lots of contrast and brightness – those lips for example). Walt Disney choosing red, white, blue, purple and orange with little touches of brown for Snow White’s costume – a cool, bright and deep wardrobe to complement her colouring.

The Deep colour direction

So let’s go back to “Deep” or “Dark”.

Deep doesn’t actually mean “dark” – it implies that the colours are intense and saturated. Light colours have lots of water in them, not lots of white. And deep colours are not blackened – they just contain more pigment. Does that help? A dark red might be deep, but so too is a strong scarlet or yellow. A  light red would be pinky, a light yellow might be lemon.

Now let’s turn to Nakisha’s brown ladies or women of colour (some of our UK terminology is different, so please forgive me if I inadvertently offend). She is right that there are infinite versions of skin, hair and eye colour and actually we are all unique. Like white people, there is more than one version of black people in terms of colouring.

Here are a few of my family members and friends just to show what a wide range of skin, hair and eye colours black British people sport. Hello Rosa (Esme’s step-sister back row), Ade (next to Esme), Ted (behind Esme’s arm) and Kit!

Kits Third Birthday

Ade definitely suits deeper (more intense) colours, whereas Rosa’s primary direction is Muted. Ted suits cool bright colours, and I don’t know what is best for Kit as I haven’t run the test, but I would guess he will also suit the cools.

So black people will vary, exactly as Nakisha suggests, and if you do colour analysis on people of different ethnic groups you will see all the colour directions.

However if you have black hair (and you will see that Kit’s hair is brown and more similar to his Mum’s colouring than his Dad’s) you will probably suit black as a neutral. Most of the people of the world have black hair – those who come from India, China, Africa, Asia, Latin America and Southern Europe for example. So whenever I meet someone with black (actually very dark brown) hair, when someone has “blackness” in their colouring, it will normally be enhanced by black clothing. Black as a colour is deep, cool and bright. People who are fairer, who don’t have so much “deepness” or “blackness” in their colouring are usually complemented by wearing softer or lighter colours.

Skin, eye and lip colour is important too, but probably secondary to hair shade. When doing a colour analysis I also try to look at the whole picture of the face/hair/eyes and see which range of colours harmonises best. So there is some subtlety to the “test” beyond sticking people in categories.

While deep (saturated) colours look great against darker skins many black people can carry off a strong contrast in their look. Pair black with white, or pastel shades, or pair deep navy with orange, or put a vibrant pink scarf on with a charcoal overcoat, and you will have a great look.  I would say avoid head to toe black or navy, and get some contrast in there – using pastels, or brights, or pattern.

Also many black people look good in head to toe brights, although in the UK at least (with our drizzly weather and dark evenings) this look can be too dramatic for the average person. I would say that Lupita Nyong’o has bright as her primary direction rather than deep.

Lupita in Orange

The other colour palette that suits most black haired people is the cool palette – colours with a blue undertone. Cool is my primary direction too. So here is an interesting experiment I tried at work today. Shai and I are wearing an almost identical shade of violet. We both have cool undertones in our skin. While I am better in lighter shades, and Shai looks great in the deeper colours I would say this cool-bright colour looks good on us both (but probably a bit better on him!).

Kate and Chay








13 Responses

  1. jay

    If you paint a portrait, the same colours are on the palette for people of all skin tones – so for example, where the light is striking Chay’s face we have a bright, almost white to render, tonally slightly lighter than the lightest tone on your face on my monitor. Colour isn’t perceived as a solid, like a swatch from the decorating store. Skin reflects, and colours appear different according to what colours they are next to. I’ve no idea where I’m going with this, but surely many aspects go into picking colours that make a person feel that they look their best, one of which must be that elusive quality of personality.

  2. Helen

    I really enjoyed this post Kate. As a mixed race person I know I can wear brights and as I’m moving along the road down to 50 I’m trying to keep colourful rather than going dull and disappearing. I know what you mean when you mentioned bright colours can sometimes be overwhelming in our grey climate, I recently bought a bright orange / reddish corduroy jacket from Boden. It looks great on and gets positive comments but I have to make an effort to wear it out as you really stand out in the crowd!
    I feel I definitely suit warmer colours better than cool. As child my mum who has completely different colouring used to dress me in what suited her, a lot of pale blue. I still dislike that colour on me to this day.
    I think the colour Chay is wearing really suits him and is a colour not normally worn by men.
    The party photo is great, I love the way Spiderman has a can of Stella within reach!

    • fabrickated

      If your primary direction is deep warmer colours (with yellowy undertones) and cooler shades maybe less important than depth of colour. Orange is often a great colour on deeper skins and the strong reds are great – they are not necessarily warm (a warm red would be orangey and a cool red bluish). And I can understand your reaction to light blue – it’s quite a funny story!

  3. jennifer miller

    Silly, I know, but those striped socks are so fun with your purple outfit! Did you and coworker plan the attire, or was it just a happy coincidence? I love your interest in and informative posts on color. It’s quite fascinating! Lupita is exquisite in the orange, isn’t she. That is such a great photo of family and friends!

  4. Mary

    This is so interesting Kate, thank you. There is an artist/poet here in Portland who explored skin color in her art and performance. One thing she did was go around to paint stores and have them try to use their color readers to create a paint color she (as a woman of color) could call ‘flesh’. Those of us of a certain age remember our crayon box having a a crayon labeled ‘flesh’ that was an odd peach color and not even close to any non-white skin tone. So she went and had her skin ‘read’ by the chip analyzers and asked people to name the resulting colors (which varied in shade). There were lots of coffee related names and of course nobody labeled the paint samples ‘flesh’. My own pale skin has such a blue undertone that I wonder how it would read by the paint analyzer.

    • KS Sews

      About 10 years ago I pointed this out to a young woman. All the “nudes” and “flesh tones” and EVERYTHING is all Eurocentric. Again, it is improving, but slowly.

      • fabrickated

        I think it maybe better in the US than here Nakisha. One of my friends, a make up artist, was saying that most ranges have say 7-10 version of fair skin, and only one deeper shade. I tried to argue that most women look better without a coating of foundation (or hair dye for that matter) but she does have a point.

      • Mary

        That is pretty much what I would call my skin tone! Just add a smidge of pink to skimmed milk and that is it. Plus a grating of nutmeg for my freckles.

  5. KS Sews

    The factoring in of undertones and hair color definitely helps. My daughter tries to teach me cool vs warm! 🙂

    I adore that bright orange and the deeper shade of that violet is my favorite!

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. ceci

    I was standing in line to vote yesterday behind a very dark skinned man in a peacock blue sweater – intense overhead lighting, the blue was reflected by his skin in the most fascinating way. After a while I realized the lady with him wondered why I was staring so intently……hopefully I looked lost in thought. An interest in the impact of wearing certain colors play out in embarrassing ways.


    • fabrickated

      Ha ha! Don’t we often find ourselves observing others Ceci? My Mum, left in the car with us kids while my Dad went to do something, would be happy to stare endlessly at other people. I found it boring, but she just said “I love looking at people, imagining what kind of lives they lead”. And now, older myself, I find myself fascinated by watching how people behave, and what they choose to wear. I get a real thrill when someone has chosen a nice vintage scarf say, that echoes their eye or hair colour. I love it when a woman has chosen two interesting shades of green, or who has two patterns that clash but also enrich each other. And of course anyone with interesting colouring always catch my eye.

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