Recently, I was commenting on the MMSL Forum (gone, alas) Men’s clothing thread about color analysis. Several men asked for more info, and so not to be too off-topic there, I’m posting it here. Welcome, MMSL friends! Readers who don’t know about Athol Kay’s work, check him out for relationship advice and self-improvement tips.
This post will be the “elevator pitch” version of color analysis, aimed at men who want to look good but don’t want to bother much about clothes and shopping. I’ll include references at the end for anyone who wants to learn more.
28 December 2015: I’ve revised this post a bit to answer some questions, include better photos, and simplify the Find Your Colors section.
What is Color Analysis?
Ever notice that some people look great in some colors, but look awful in colors that look good on someone else? Wearing the best colors for you can make you look younger, healthier, even sexier, but wearing the wrong colors can make you look ill , old and tired.
The art of figuring out your best colors is called color analysis.
I’m sure versions of color analysis have existed for centuries, but the modern system came into existence in the 1980s. It’s become less popular in recent years, but the original 4 category system has been expanded to be more useful, with 12 or even 16 categories.
Once you figure out your category, you wear colors from that category, because they are the ones that will make you look great. You decide which category has “your colors” based on your skin tone, hair color and eye color.
A note about coloring: The original 1980s system was heavily slanted to Europeans. However, the system works for people of all races and skin colors. If you’re not sure where you fit, try on shirts from each category until you find what looks best on you.
The Four Category System
The 1980s 4 categories are named after seasons of the year:
Winter men have cool, high contrast coloring. Hair is dark, and skin contrasts strongly with hair (the skin can be quite dark). The undertone of the skin is cool, pink rather than golden. Eyes can be brown or a clear, strong blue.
Black looks great on Winters, and so does pure white. Strong vivid colors work well: bright red, blue, purple, green … anything strong and vibrant. For suits, choose black, gray, and navy. Avoid browns, off-whites, muted colors and pastels.
Spring people have warm, light coloring. They are usually blond, with golden tones in their skin and hair. [If they are dark skinned, there’s an impression of warm lightness to them. Poetic, I know, but it’s the best way to describe it.] Eyes are green or hazel or soft blue, and there’s little contrast between skin and hair color.
The colors that look best on a Spring are the pale, warm colors. Think of a springtime flower garden — these are Spring colors. At first, you might think these colors don’t appear in men’s clothes … but they do. Traditional men’s dress shirt colors: off-white, pale blue, pale pink, peach, light yellow … and some brighter colors as well. For suits, think brown, warm khaki, medium gray, and the “ice cream color” suits. Black will probably make you look washed out, and pure white may be too strong for you.
Summer is another light coloring group, but Summers are cool toned, rather than the warm Springs. Eyes will be some shade of blue or gray, and you were probably blond as a child (and may still be blond). The skin doesn’t have that golden quality of Spring, but instead, is pink — or “ruddy”, as one of my former husbands called it.
The Summer color range is similar to Spring, but the colors are cooler in tone. For example, a Spring’s red tones will have some orange in them, but Summer’s will be slightly blue. Good suit colors are charcoal and medium gray, cool tans and browns, and light navy blue. Black may work for you, white will sometimes work.
Autumns have warm, high contrast coloring. Natural redheads are Autumn, but so are people with warm “dirty blond” hair and a warm pale skin tone, or are very dark, but warm. Eye colors are golden brown, green, or blue-green. Skin and hair have lots of contrast between them. There’s none of the delicate-ness you see in Spring.
Autumn is well named, as the best colors are those you find in New England in October: warm oranges and yellows, cranberry red, olive greens, and browns. Black and white are not good colors for Autumns — stick with browns and warm off-white. Good colors for suits are any shade of brown or dark blue.
12 and 16 Category Systems
Not all men fit neatly into the 4 category system. For example, you might fit into the Autumn category except bright orange and mustard look awful on you — and some of the Summer colors work well, too. The 12 and 16 category systems break down the 4 main categories into sub categories that veer to the other seasons. So, a “Soft Autumn” looks bad in the highest contrast Autumn colors, but good in the softer Summer colors. [This is Hilda’s coloring, by the way. I have warm reddish brown hair, pale cool-toned skin, and blue-gray eyes. Autumn hair, Summer skin and eyes.]
I won’t go into the full 12 and 16 category systems here — you can find out more in the “further reading” section below.
Here are the color charts for the remaining 8 categories in the 12 category system. You’ll need them when you test your colors below.
Finding Your Colors
If you ask a color consultant, you will get all sorts of complicated methods to figure out what your color category is. The complicated systems work, and produce good results, but if you aren’t concerned with perfect results, you can find your category very easily. I’m giving two methods here.
The best way to find your colors, guys, is to go shopping and try on shirts in the following test colors. These colors will help you narrow down your category.
Fuchsia •••• Cool Winter or Summer
Orange •••• Warm Spring or Autumn
Most people will look ill in either the hot pink or orange, and good or ok in the other color. It’s fine if you don’t like either one … pick the color that makes you look worse. This tells you if you need warm colors (orange looks better) or cool colors (hot pink looks better).
The next test is to find and try on the bright shirt that looks better, and a pastel version of the same color. [Pale orange •••• or pale pink ••••] Do you look better in the bright or the pale?
This gets you into one of the 4 seasons:
Bright Warm (bright orange) = Autumn
Bright Cool (hot pink) = Winter
Pale Warm (pale orange) = Spring
Pale cool (pale pink) = Summer
You now know your category in the four category system. Copy the correct color chart from the pictures above, and take it with you when you go shopping. Buy clothing that matches the colors in your chart. Done.
You can also do this test with greens, though some men have a hard time telling shades of green apart.
Bright Warm (olive green •••• ) = Autumn
Bright Cool (emerald green •••• ) = Winter
Pale Warm (lime green •••• ) = Spring
Pale cool (mint green •••• ) = Summer
If you still can’t tell, or get mixed results, you’re one of those “mixed” categories. You can probably narrow down to two seasons (in my case, Summer and Autumn). Look at the color charts above and figure out what total set comes closest to the colors that look good on you. The sets overlap, because many colors look good on different categories. Pick the best chart, and match your clothing purchases to it.
This is very simple. Look at the photographs of different men above, find the category of the man with coloring the same as yours. [Hair, skin, eyes.] That will be your category too.
The man in the lead photo is an Autumn. He looks much better in the olive green shirt (an Autumn color) than in the mint green (a Spring-Summer color).
A Final Note: Color Blindness
Many men are a bit color blind. You might not be able to tell emerald green from jade, or coral from salmon. That’s ok. If you stick to the “warm/cool, high contrast/low contrast, clear/muddy,” you should be fine.We’re not looking for perfection, just trying to get you out of colors that look awful and into colors that look good. You don’t need perfect color vision to know if bright purple is your color.
If you’re really confused, have someone with a good color sense help you. The best people to ask are:
- a male friend you trust, with a good color eye, and the honesty to tell you when something looks like dogs breakfast on you.
- a men’s clothier you trust (Many don’t care how your clothing looks, as long as you buy it from them. Others care more about a long-term relationship and will be honest.)
- a woman who will give you honest answers. Don’t automatically ask your wife/girlfriend! Many women will dress you in what colors they like, not what makes you look your best.
Note: Almost all color analysis is aimed at women, so you have to read between the lines for advice for men. And some of the writing gets very, very flamboyant.
Check your library for these (links are to Amazon.com):
Color Me Beautiful, Carole Jackson The book that started the trend in the 1980s.
Color Revival, Lora Alexander (out of print) A thorough explanation of the 12 category system, and the source of my lead photo.
The Science of Personal Dress for Men and Boys, Irenee Riter. I don’t know a lot about this book, but it looks like the book if you really want to dive into this.
all were online as of December 2015
http://www.askandyaboutclothes.com/clothing/style-tips/practical-color-help/ This is one of the few web posts I’ve found written for men. Andy also goes into basic color theory and how to coordinate colors.
http://www.12blueprints.com/tag/colour-analysis-men/ This is an index search of one blog for professional color analysts, of articles about men’s coloring.
http://www.30somethingurbangirl.com is where I got the photo collages of men in different seasons. The blog is a bit difficult to search, but has good info.
http://inventyourimage.com/2014/01/03/invent-your-images-color-analysis-pages-for-men/ Color charts designed for men in the 12 category system. I’ve used some of these charts above.
Pinterest has some boards for men in the different categories. Search on “Color Analysis <season> Men”
updated 15 March 2018 for some general tidying up