All gray and no color makes me a dull girl.
March 7, 2012 7:20 AM   Subscribe

Stylish friends, I am so tired of my style and clothes. I wear all gray, white, and black. All the time. Can you help me figure out how feel comfortable in color?

Maybe it's the impending springtime, but I want to throw every item of clothing I have out the window.

I have been wearing 90% black since I was a teenager. It's fine because it's easy, comfortable, professional, and sophisticated-looking, without being a huge effort in the morning. This is what I look like today. As you can see, I'm doing the semi-Annie Hall look. Not bad, perfectly acceptable. But tiresome.

But I see women on my morning commute that just look so effortless in color and it makes me jealous. It looks fun! But when I wear color, I just feel like all I'm missing is the clown nose.

Occasionally, I will go through a phase (normally at the end of winter) in which I buy a ton of colorful things, wear them once, and then have no idea what to do with them as part of a holistic wardrobe.

Here's the process:

That cobalt blue dress I just bought? All I have is black shoes. Can't do that, because there's something about primary colors and black together that just drives me nuts, even on other people. So, it's either overhaul the shoe selection or just not wear the blue dress. Rinse and repeat with accessories and handbags. So the dress ends up wasting closet space, until I purge it some months later.

And then I revert back to black. Every time.

Additionally, I don't have a very good sense of what colors go together, without being matchy-matchy. I hate matchy-matchy.

Jeez. I think I'm a fairly fashionable gal, but the thought of introducing color makes my head explode. My god, don’t get me started on patterns.

Can you:

A.) Help me feel more comfortable in color?
B.) Give me some anecdotes about how you introduced color?
C.) Show me some of the “must haves” from your closet?

posted by functionequalsform to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (43 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Can't you start out small, using splotches of colour to break up the monotone? Spring scarves or little accent brooches or necklaces or such?
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:24 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Scarves! Scarves are the answer! Or big colorful necklaces or bracelets. Colorful whole pieces of clothing are a commitment and I don't blame you for being hesitant about it. Accessories are low commitment and exposure. They let you ease into color. I understand your pain. I'm still easing, but scarves and other accessories definitely help.

Yours in (mostly) gray, sweetkid.
posted by sweetkid at 7:31 AM on March 7, 2012

Cobalt blue is really hot right now! Depending on the style, if you wore your dress with black tights and black oxford shoes or flats - that would be a really cute look. If you live somewhere cold, add a black sweater. The dress would be the "pop of color" everyone is always talking about, while still keeping you in your comfort zone of black.
posted by 41swans at 7:39 AM on March 7, 2012

I recently did 8 weeks worth of laundry at once, at which point I realized every single one of my tops was either black, white, or gray, except for the two green ones. What I've been trying to do is mix in more bright cheap pieces, like these tanks from Old Navy under a black cardigan. And I am way too old for this nonsense, but I'm getting ready to glitter the shit out of some old shoes. Make some silly yellow glitter shoes, wear them with that cobalt dress, and have the women of your commute be jealous that they can't look like YOU!
posted by jabes at 7:40 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

First, my sympathies! It's so easy for women in New York City to drown in pools of drab. When I see another lady wearing bright red jeans or rocking a crazy patterned jacket, I literally want to hug her for bringing some damn color into the subway.

Go slowly: buy a bright-colored purse (Kate Spade is having a sale, ahem) that will stand out handsomely with a muted wardrobe. Get comfortable with just that little pop of color first.

Then buy a dress or a shirt that works (complimentary colors!) with the purse without looking too matchy. If you're feeling weird, keep the shoes and cardigan and jewelry tastefully demure. It sounds stupid, but I often pay attention to color combinations that work on other people and copy them shamelessly. Last year I saw a girl rocking a navy-and-white striped shirt paired with a floral red/pink head scarf, and it looked AMAZING, and not a crazy vomit of patterns. So I went out and bought the same shirt and similar scarf. I never would have thought of that combination on my own. Same with the lady I saw last week who paired her orangey-red sheath dress with an ivory sweater with turquoise buttons - I'm already planning to copy that during my next shopping trip. If you read fashion magazines, they will also have some obligatory article on Spring 2012 colors and you'll see which hues go together.

You'll likely soon find that you're attracted to a palette of colors rather than just random hues. For instance, I really like teals, coral/watermelon pinks, sunny yellows and lots of ivory, so I have a lot of shirts that pair with a lot of skirts and then a couple purses, necklaces, and flats that match all of them. It helps to figure out your most flattering colors and build off of them.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:43 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

But I see women on my morning commute that just look so effortless in color and it makes me jealous. It looks fun! But when I wear color, I just feel like all I'm missing is the clown nose.

I'm not a woman and I don't have any real sense of women's fashion, but I wanted to speak to this. Once when I was a deeply twitchy teenager trying to decide if I was cool enough to get away with wearing something I very much wanted to buy, my much cooler younger brother told me something that has often helped me in life.

He said, "gauche, nobody knows how uncool you are. Wear the thing."
posted by gauche at 7:43 AM on March 7, 2012 [22 favorites]

Accessories! If you got a big string of big chunky beads in a bright color, or a scarf, or even one of those super-long cowl things that I'm seeing all the time now, you could wear it with the very outfit you're wearing now and it'd look awesome.

In fact, this would be a very "French" approach (at least that's what the fashion books I've read tell me) - you have the basic shirts, pants, whatever in your wardrobe, but you have a ton of necklaces and scarves and pins and belts and such, so you can make different outfits just by changing from a belt to a scarf, or a necklace to a belt, or whatever.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:43 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

What I would do is look for some big shawl/scarves in strong colors (that you feel comfortable wearing with black); look for a 'third piece' in a strong color that you can wear with black and grey; and look for shoes in a non-black. If it were me, I would incorporate cherry pinks, which are easy to find and flattering to wear. I'd also look for a couple of bright necklaces or pairs of earrings.

(Actually if it were me I'd wear blue, but I have no blue/black anxiety - lots of asian and african prints incorporate both, so if it's good enough for Japan it's good enough for me.)

The scarves and the cardigan/jacket are things you can take off if you feel uncomfortable.

I like black/grey/color as a combination myself.

I wear mostly muted tones and always have - I finally gave up after I realized that I like brights on others and felt foolish in them myself, and that clothing doesn't need to be subsumed under the American rubic of change=improvement=moral imperative. But I wear a lot of blues, including bright blues.

You might consider picking one color that you really, really like and that flatters you, and working to incorporate it, rather than aiming to add all kinds of colors. If you like pinks, for example, you could incorporate a couple of shirts in paler/muted pinks, a cardigan in a strong pink, scarves, etc. A way to bring in color might be a pink shirt (or shirt with a pink pattern like a stripe) that you could wear under a grey or black sweater. I wear blue patterns under grey sweaters a lot, and brighter blue patterns under muted blue sweaters. I have a couple of pairs of blue shoes and a lot of blue scarves. Because I know that blue is my default color, I can cue everything else in my wardrobe around it - I have more grey and camel pants than blacks, for example.
posted by Frowner at 7:44 AM on March 7, 2012

With the outfit you're wearing in that photo, there are so many possibilities! If I was starting with that outfit, I would probably go with a colorful necklace or colorful shoes.

You could try necklaces like this, this, this or this. In that case you'd wanna keep the shoes you have in that photo. (I chose links to Forever21 because the cost is so low, so it's great for experimenting- if you get something and it seems unbearably tacky to you in person, well, it cost three bucks. No big loss.)

Alternately, you could wear no necklace but go for a really bold shoe, like pink or yellow or purple. I have a pair of hot pink flats for Target that I love, because they instantly make really boring outfits seem 'daring' somehow, with exactly zero effort on my part.

(I lucked out on this because, in high school, I DID dress like a clown. There is a photo of me in a yearbook somewhere in a bright yellow shirt, turquoise cardigan, and hot pink chunky necklace. Once I realized I looked like a fool, I began adding in neutrals until I appeared semi-normal, and eventually I had a style that was colorful but not eye-searing. Starting from the opposite end of the style spectrum seems scarier, since you're trying to dial it up and not down...)
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:56 AM on March 7, 2012

I think accessories are the best way to add color. You can wear lime green shoes, even if the color when worn next to your face makes you look like you have jaundice. Scarves, tights, bags, jewelry. Once you feel braver, you can add colorful t-shirts and tank tops. I wear mainly neutrals myself but I like to splash out with a jolt of color from time to time. Your photo is darling, too.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:02 AM on March 7, 2012

Come over here and sit by me. I agree that it's hard to wear colour. It takes energy, and requires decision making. I watched this TED talk yesterday, about wearing colour (and shopping second-hand) where I couldn't ever see myself in one single thing she wore. I like to think black is classic, elegant and effortless, but there is a point in spring when it suddenly seems dingy and lifeless and grim. Today's skinny black jeans, clunky oxfords and gray and black striped tee suddenly seem like prison gear on a sunny and warm day like we're having in Toronto today. I also have "rules", like your cobalt and black fixation, that I can't get past. Sometimes wearing too many colours makes me feel noisy, and certain patterns make my skin crawl. I'm wearing black and white polka dot socks today, and I swear I can feel the little dots bugging me.

I do like that black and gray set off certain colours, so I shop that way - rather than thinking I need to suddenly wear a clown suit. I like a pop of colour on one great thing. Or, I like a black and white pattern; or if it has colour, that it also has lots of black and maybe a little white. I just realized I have five black and white polka dot dresses. Oy. But they feel brighter and lighter than solid black.

I also like black and gray, but now instead of choosing plain things, I make sure my shirts have detail - a ruffle, a stripe, an interesting cut or shape. That makes them feel more light-hearted. I also layer lightweight layers, rather than wear one big bulky thing, because sheer black or gray seems less oppressive too. But, for colour:

Scarves. Or jackets. Those are my answers. I have a few coloured scarves, in colours that look good on me and that I like to wear with black and gray. Teal, smoky blue, and reds that aren't bright. That puts the colour near my face so I don't look haunted. I have a smoky blue leather jacket shaped just like a denim jacket that I found at a clothing swap that I'm pulling out for this afternoon. I may get gutsy and mix a teal scarf with it. I have a deep red corduroy "denim" jacket that I do the same thing with, and a scarf that has that colour, plus gray and black in it. And those are pretty much the only two colours I wear besides black and gray, so all of those items go together well. I have lots of teals, turquoise, blues and blue-grays that are all tonally similar, so I can layer colours. I have a few shades of red tee-shirts or sweaters too. I have red sneakers, and teal sneakers.

I try to remember a few things about colour that I heard from John Loring, Design Director Emeritus of Tiffany & Co. He lectured at a Jewellery Camp I attended, and spoke about his relationship with Paloma Picasso and her love of colour, especially, her red. Not only did he relate her saying, as was quoted in the wiki: "It’s a bit like Kabuki – your face is a mask. You are putting yourself onstage, but you are also behind it", he also mentioned that she once said "When I wear a red coat on a rainy day, I give a gift to all who look at me."

So, I keep that in mind when I choose colour. That it's something both in front of me, and that I'm behind. That takes a bit of my anxiety away, for some reason. But I also, when I choose colour, like how I bought the same coat in both black and in turquoise, I make the world a nicer-looking place when I choose a little colour too. (And I always wear red lipstick too.)

Maybe some of those thoughts will work for you? TL;DR detail, pattern, layers, accents, and moods.
posted by peagood at 8:03 AM on March 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would start small. How about a pair of brightly colored shoes, if all of your shoes are black? In the case of the cobalt dress, I would think about pairing it with grey shoes (maybe a different grey than you have in your wardrobe - perhaps a metallic?). Or if I wanted to make the dress color "pop," I would pair it with these mustard yellow flats that I love.

Also, I would try looking at the color wheel to start getting a sense of what colors go together and what combinations you like. This site provides some guidance into basic and more advanced color theory.
posted by topophilia at 8:03 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Try a pair of bright shoes with an otherwise-neutral wardrobe. Preferably solid and uncomplicated, like plain pumps or ballet flats. You can buy either supercheap ones (so you don't feel like it's a huge commitment) or luxurious expensive ones (so you can walk around feeling great in your superfantastic shoes) - whichever approach works best for you. Shoes are about the same level of effort as any other sort of accessory, but they can feel a little less like an afterthought than a necklace.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:03 AM on March 7, 2012

Oh, as for "what colors go together": there are two ways to go with this.

* If you're a little uneasy trying to figure this out, start with a look at color theory. This is part of art school - it's a way to ascertain which colors "go together," and why. It isn't as basic as "green is good with X but not Y", it's more like "this green would work with X, but THAT green wouldn't. But if you did THIS with X instead, then THAT green would work better." That may sound intimidating at first ("what, I gotta figure out what KIND of green I'm wearing to tell whether it'll go with my jeans? Fuck that,") but it's actually kind of liberating ("wait, now, though, this only means that I can't wear the green tank right next to the jeans, I just have to throw a plain white shirt over it. Okay, I can do that.") The very bare-bones basic is that: if you look at that color wheel thing, colors that are across from each other on the color wheel complement each other.

* However, you could also just decide to not care. My Irish friend insists that blue and green don't "go together," but I wear that combination all the time and it looks fine to me. I've also seen people put all sorts of different colored accessories together on the same outfit - even different colored clothes that you wouldn't think would work together, but somehow it still looks good. Because sometimes a couple of things you wouldn't think would work just do (I have this red-and-white striped shirt I got to wear under a red sweater, but I saw it hanging next to a navy blue sweater in my closet and it actually looked kind of cool, so I'm doing that.)

The trick is: rather than worrying about whether two colors "go together," try just putting stuff on and then looking at you as a total picture. A lot of us fall into the trick of trying stuff on and looking at the clothes themselves -- we fixate on the blouse and whether the necklace goes with the blouse or whatever. But if we step back and look at Us in the mirror, we see things differently. Maybe the necklace doesn't "go with" the blouse -- but if you look at the total picture, the necklace compliments the outfit as a whole, and is okay. Or the necklace "goes with" the bluse, but it's too "matchy-matchy" looking for the whole outfit.

So -- yeah. Accessories. And just playing around.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:05 AM on March 7, 2012

You may be more comfortable with the tone/saturation behind the white/grey/black palate rather than the hue (or lack of) Start with earth tone colors before you try to force the brilliant ones on yourself?
posted by MangyCarface at 8:10 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

No. People. She's not wearing accessories. She doesn't like accessories. She feels uncomfortable wearing things that aren't simple greys/blacks/neutrals. A large chunky necklace or crazy shoes is not where you start, and god knows a scarf feels incredibly awkward when you're not used to wearing them.

What looks nice? Muted colors. Today I'm wearing a burgandy sweater with my grey pants, black shoes and black baselayer shirt. I'm also a fan of dark heathered green+grey. Colors are more seasonal than neutrals; in summer by go-tos are sage green and pale blue (varies between clear and greyed). Note, these aren't very saturated colors, they're all off toward the grey end of the color map.

Another good approach is to keep your neutrals for the most visible, but start varying your baselayer. I see the edges of a white shirt peeking out from under your scoopneck - what if that were light blue?
posted by aimedwander at 8:16 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, if you've got colorful things in the closet that you want to wear but feel uncomfortable in, don't wear them to work - wear them on the weekends, change into them after work, wear them to the grocery store, out to a bar, etc. You don't have to care what people think when you don't even know them, and you'll get used to seeing yourself in color, and used to pairing unusual items with the rest of your wardrobe.

ps - Go places that people don't know what you usually look like. Part of my fear of fashion is rooted in fear of people commenting on it. People can be jerks, and the last thing you need is to pick out a necklace you like and have some putz at work say "what's the occasion, GreyGirl? Mardi Gras was last month!" because he's a social idiot and doesn't know how else to say that he's noticed you're wearing jewelry.
posted by aimedwander at 8:23 AM on March 7, 2012

Thanks everybody. Oh, and I do wear accessories. They're huge and statement-y, but generally neutral. Like this.

I do own exactly one peach-ish scarf, and it has been worn exactly once, because I just think peach and black look kind of strange. Peach and brown? Better, but here we go again, with the intimidating overhaul of the wardrobe.
posted by functionequalsform at 8:27 AM on March 7, 2012

I think a lot of people are encouraging accessories because it's easier, and cheaper, to overhaul THOSE than it is to overhaul an entire wardrobe.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:31 AM on March 7, 2012

One thing that always makes me happy is a coloured coat. I don't own a neutral coloured coat (I don't own very many neutral things at all - two pairs of black cords, a black jumper, and I think a black cord skirt and that's it). To begin with, it felt weird in a sea of black and grey, but now I like having colour in everything I wear. It sometimes means you have to have more than one coat, but winter ls long here so that's not such a bad thing. Primary colours and neutrals mix well, so I usually have a red, yellow or blue coat.

One forum I read talks alot about something called 'getting your colours done' - ie. working out what colours best suit you. Not sure I agree that the world can be split into four colour 'seasons', but one of the theories there is that black, white, grey and beige are far from universally flattering colours. I don't suit black or beige, for example, but I really like grey and navy. Go into a store, pick up some colours you don't normally wear, try them on and see whether they do anything for you - do they compliment your hair? Make your skin look sallow? Look more or less striking than your usual clothing?

A friend of mine got past the 'nothing going' thing by picking four colours that suited her (black, blue, purple and white) and only buying things in those colours. It worked in a kind of Mondrian-esque way.
posted by mippy at 8:34 AM on March 7, 2012

H&M has tons of scarves, and they're great for adding a bit of bold to whatever outfit. A lot of multi-coloured plaids which go with everything, and introduces further colours to play off. They're all pretty cheap, ten bucks or so, making them fairly disposable according to the season.

I use them myself on casual Fridays here in the office, so I'm not wearing the Same Old Shit. It really helps. Being a guy in a conservative work environment, there's a limit to what I can get away with, and there's occasionally chitter chatter behind my back, but whatever.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:38 AM on March 7, 2012

For the record, I think black and cobalt look fine together, even great. I don't expect you to change your mind on that, but maybe you don't need to be the color person? Or maybe your innate color sense doesn't jive with the usual "rules" about color so you feel conflicted? Sounds like you totally rock the neutral palette, in a way that isn't at all boring, so you could leave the neon to others and appreciate it when you see it, but know that it's not your deal.

Maybe the cure to your boredom lies elesewhere- extra textures, shiny details (grommets, sequins), stripes or patterns that are still in the family of grey and black, etc. Just because fashion magazines show tons of color for spring looks doesn't mean you need to go that route.
posted by slow graffiti at 8:45 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm also a very black & grey person. (And I have light hair and pale skin like you; I think it's easier for women with darker hair and skin to look better in bright colors, so that might be part of the hesitancy you're feeling.) I got out of it, somewhat, by branching out into other neutrals. There are so many beautiful colors that aren't COLORS!! in the way that makes you self-conscious. The next time you want to buy black pants, get brown. Or tan. Buy a top that's grey-blue or grey-green or grey-purple instead of just grey, or off-white or pale yellow or pale blue instead of white.

After a while you'll probably find a few slightly brighter colors that work well with these working their way in, like lime green or maroon. I hate the "all black with a pop of bright color" look but I love all-neutral with a pop of muted color. Like soft brown with a pumpkin-colored bag, or pale grey with turquoise jewelry. For the accent colors, think of ones that occur in nature - not crazy tropical flowers but fall leaves, water, sky, stones/minerals, moss, etc.

It's true that you might have to get some new shoes and bags eventually to go with these new things. But they can also give you other ways to wear your black stuff. Try shoes in metallics, they go with so many different colors and are sort of neutral themselves but much more interesting.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 8:53 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I will actually disagree with the suggestions of scarves and necklaces, though I love me some colored scarves and necklaces, because I think it's easier to add color when it's not near the face -- you feel a little less drowning in color, and you don't have to worry about what looks good with your skin tone. So will second the suggestions of colored shoes and purses, and suggest colored pants -- they are in right now, and though it ends up being a large percentage of your body covered in color, being able to keep your neutrals around your face helps mitigate the color fear.

And in general, definitely look at fashion blogs and cute passers-by. I used to have a lot of rules about mixing colors and neutrals and things, but seeing the things I thought wouldn't work on fashion blogs and thinking how nice they looked really helped me get over that. What Would a Nerd Wear especially showcases mixes of neutrals livened by bits of color: for example, this. Really, the reason neutrals are called that is that they go with anything. Bright color is especially well-served by a mix of neutrals to give a rich background for it to pop with.
posted by EmilyFlew at 8:56 AM on March 7, 2012

I wear lots and lots of black, gray, and some white, usually with blue jeans (I'm a mom, it's my uniform). But I am willing to work in two other colors - a very saturated hot pink, and a good deep red. I pick up a couple of t-shirts every season in those colors, and occasionally pop them on, usually under one of my black or gray cardigans. Someone once told me that an outfit needs three components (which may or may not be bunk, but it works for me) - so jeans, a t-shirt, and a cardigan feels more dressed up to me than just jeans and a t-shirt. I've also got a gorgeous old pashmina in a beautiful aqua blue, which pops nicely against my basics.

I also love finding unexpected shoes. I have a slightly different version of these, and get lots of compliments on them. But since they're shoes, they aren't too much color, and it adds a little pop.

So I'd suggest finding just one color you like and feel comfortable wearing; try doing it with cheap t-shirts, so you aren't investing a lot in things you might end up uncomfortable wearing. Just a splash of a color you love can really liven up the standard black/gray/white without being uncomfortable.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 9:05 AM on March 7, 2012

I wear black and grey most every day, and love it. But I feel the occasional craving for color. It was difficult for me, too. What worked for me was finding a range of colors - blues and greens - that I really, really liked. The limited range of colors makes it easy to pick out new things (or avoid nonworking things), and makes obvious complements and contrasts apparent.

I suspect grappling with this on an intellectual/aesthetic level might help, too. Check out Chromophobia.
posted by fake at 9:08 AM on March 7, 2012

I also love neutrals, my closet is full of black.

When I think about my colour choices, a lot of it is on "bottoms" actually.

My most recent dip into colour is a pair of red jeans. LOVE. THEM. They're actually really versatile and not as in your face as a bright shirt or jacket would be. They go great with black or white or black and white tops.

I also recently bought a bright yellow tulip skirt (tulip shaped because it suits my figure), which also goes good with neutrals. I usually wear it with either a black or grey top with black tights and brown shoes.

My other fave bright bottom is a pair of bright blue trousers. They're pretty casual and I wear that with grey hoodies, white tank tops, stripey shirts. Also with brown shoes or silver flats.

If you're not ready to go full on with a primary colour, how about pastel which is going to be big for spring? I can totally imagine the grey top you're wearing right now with a pair of peach or mint jeans. (If I had your legs I would totally be looking for some pale pink jeans right now!)

For your blue dress, have you thought about getting some brown shoes? I have brown brogues with a small heel and they're great for everything.
posted by like_neon at 9:36 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

BREAKING ALL OF YOUR RULES (but also, not): I'm wearing a cobalt blue skirt with black tights, black ballet flats, a black shirt, a peach scarf, and a grey slouchy cardigan. I generally keep ~brights~ limited to accessories and bottom pieces. I also feel "unsafe" in colors (like the all-cobalt dress you mentioned), so I really don't wear them next to my face UNLESS the item is heavily patterned. I actually started out with just a bright scarf and slowly progressed from there. Maybe that would be a good place for you to begin, too. You can take it off if you feel awkward. Bright shoes are also a good 'trial' piece. Maybe some simple red flats?

Your style is really cute, by the way. :)
posted by 200burritos at 9:38 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

The problem I think you're coming up against is that black+bright color is a very strong and statement-y combination. So if you only have black pants, and you want to try a bright pink blouse...yeah, that will feel clownish.

The secret, I think, is knowing what neutrals to pair your colors with. Personally, I absolutely love grey with bright or pastel cool colors (think blues and greens, purples, true red or true pink) and a pale khaki shade with warm colors (yellows, oranges, corals, peach). White is also a fantastic neutral with any color, and helps calm down bright colors, as opposed to intensifying them the way black does. Denim is also a neutral for the purpose of wardrobe selection, and will go with just about anything except sometimes other shades of blue. Deep browns and blacks work better with other deep colors - forest green, burgundy, plum, etc.

In the fall and winter, I wear a lot of deep red, forest green, teal and plum shirts with dark grey or black pants or skirts, or jeans. I also use these colors in dresses, again with grey or black tights and shoes.

Come spring, black is banished, and for neutrals I stick to grey, white and denim. For color, I love light greens such as mint, lime and sage, peach (which incidentally, goes with just about everything), lavender, and bright pink. I like simple patterns like stripes or a basic floral that involve one color and one neutral.

A few purchases that I absolutely couldn't live without include a dark grey pencil skirt, which works with basically every single color I own, winter or summer, a pair of medium grey knee-high boots which I wear all winter, and then a lot in spring when I want to start working in some lighter shades, a pair of grey suede pumps that just look sophisticated with anything, ever, and a beautiful pale mint green handbag that I carry in the spring and summer and somehow matches everything.
posted by psycheslamp at 9:46 AM on March 7, 2012

Lots of good advice above. Brown or metallic or gray pair of shoes would go with that cobalt dress too. I second the advice about brights looking even stronger when paired with black. Muted tones or "dirty" versions of colors might be a good place to go.

Anyway, for your "which colors go together" question, check out the color posts at Academichic. They put color theory to work and even if you don't dig their style, the concrete examples are helpful, imo.
Module 1
Module 2 - this one is neutrals with a "pop" which is what a lot of people are suggesting above
Module 3
Module 4
posted by purple_bird at 9:52 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

When I started transitioning out of all-black and into color (totally Pedro Almodovar's fault -- no joke), I found Academichic really helpful. The site is on hiatus now, but their tutorials are GREAT. They provide a principle, and then illustrate it with links to accessible & chic example outfits. It was so helpful to watch them systematically work through different color combinations; I've often copied their outfits, or used their outfits as a template to build on. Here are their color tutorials:

How to Combine Colors: Complimentary Colors and the Two-Thirds Rule
How to Combine Colors: Neutrals (with a Pop)
How to Combine Colors: Triads and Analogous Colors
How to Combine Colors: Monochrome and Split Complementaries

My other pieces of advice are:
(1) Take some time to play around in the fitting room. Clear an hour or two, resolve not to buy anything, and go to a store like H&M or Old Navy that has lots and lots and lots of basic items in lots and lots of colors. Grab every color, and just go play around in the fitting room, trying different combinations and placements of color.
(2) Take the results of your fitting-room adventures, then buy experimental pieces at the Salvation Army. They often hang items by color anyway, so this is an easy/cheap place to find a color in the specific placement (top, bottom, scarf, etc) that you want it. This is a great way to play with colors for the first time -- if you decide you don't like it, you can chuck it, and you're only out $2.
posted by ourobouros at 9:57 AM on March 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Great minds, purple_bird!
posted by ourobouros at 9:58 AM on March 7, 2012

Within any color trend there's going to be variations on the hue.

So I ask, are the colors you pick the ones that do you most justice?

Because it's easy to throw something on if you know it's the one that makes your eyes flash green or your skin vampire-sparkly or whatever!

++ the above advice on experimentation in low-stakes settings!

Some people swear by that what's your season warm/cool thing, but I'm far more instinctual than that; besides it changes if I've changed my haircolor.

Once you find a color you like, bring samples at subsequent shopping. Because it can an exacting thing — you might find it is a very specific value and hue, not just a whole color family — and fluorescent lighting is wack.

Also consider it may not be a color you crave, but some sort of signature pattern (argyle! leopard! big florals!)

Enjoy your journey!

(p.s. Please don't fear the cobalt dress & black shoes! Connect the one with the other with a black openwork tight — fishnet or lace — and if it's still chilly put another layer of stocking with color — contrast or matchy — under them. Put something black on your upper body — sweater, hat, leather collar, lacy doodad. And sashay — sashay!)
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 10:24 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's tons of great advice here, but I will back up what gauche said above-- most of this is probably mental! Bright colors tend to look best on women with a lot of contrast between skin/hair/eyes, but you have strong, pretty features, and there are many many colors you could pull off easily.

Cobalt and black is fine! Peach and black is fine, I have a beloved outfit in peach and black. I used to feel exactly the way you do, until I realized that I wasn't actually paying much attention to the art of what other women wore, and thus totally psyched myself out over every decision I made. I was pretty anti-fashion, because my style was traditional-- a-line skirts, cardigans, jewel tones, minimizing the waist-- and I still love those things, but opening my mind a little helped me be more creative with outfits. Browse fashion magazines & make notes of women whose style you admire, and if you see an outfit that incorporates things you might already own, try to build a new outfit from there. Having a closet full of neutrals is actually a huge advantage.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes, it's how your style grows!

What color are your eyes? If you have blue or green eyes, you probably look great in blue or green. If you have brown eyes, I bet there are pinks that look great on you. Your coloring is similar to mine, and I think an easy transition would be to try some earth tones, with a twist-- like blue jeans, black tee, brown cardigan, red scarf. Not matchy matchy, not "following the rules" (brown with black), but it's cute & hip & youthful. Scarves scarves scarves.

Finally, having the right shoes is a huge confidence builder. I used to have a ton of trouble building outfits, until I realized that I hated flats. Now I wear ankle boots or knee boots in the winter, and loafers with a slight heel in the summer. Not that you should hate flats, but if you love them, try to find a few pairs in different colors (red, silver, brown).
posted by stoneandstar at 10:29 AM on March 7, 2012

Oh, and true, if you don't like cobalt blue + black, maybe it feels unbalanced? Putting something black up top can help.

Also, if florals don't make you puke, small florals in soft colors go well with light hair/light skin complexions. I had a huge floral stage, and you can downplay them by wearing a solid cardigan/sweater.

Delicate patterns and textures are great for low-contrast complexions like yours (and mine). Since you already have so many basics, try buying maybe a few interesting tops? No one will think you look like a clown, no one ever thinks that.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:33 AM on March 7, 2012

I do own exactly one peach-ish scarf, and it has been worn exactly once, because I just think peach and black look kind of strange. Peach and brown? Better, but here we go again, with the intimidating overhaul of the wardrobe.

You might want to study up on color theory, as a few people said above. You'll always have your own taste, but understanding how colors interact can help you broaden your outlook. I don't particularly care for peach, but I would wear it with black before I wore it with brown. Why? Because black is not a color, it is the absence of color/light, and therefore it goes with everything. It is as truly neutral as white. Brown, on the other hand is a color, and there are all sorts of shades of brown, some which will look lovely with peach, some which will look dingy and washed out, some which will look rich and autumnal, some which will look timid and bland. That's much more complicated and harder to work with than black, and doesn't appeal to my sense of simplicity that blacks/greys/single color color do. Starting with a palette of black/white/grey means you can add any other single color and it won't automatically clash. You don't have to do a huge intimidating overhaul, but you do need to figure out the style of colors you like to wear. Dramatic, neutral, fresh, intense, sophisticated, whatever. Buy some magazines or print out some images you like (it doesn't have to all be clothes) and make some mood boards in different colors expressing different styles. Give yourself challenges of things you would never wear together, like peach and black, just to explore how that might actually be okay. Heck, you can do this easily with google images with a random pair of colors and an object, and instant mood board.

Expanding colors you wear is really a matter of exploring what's possible. My easy color rule is if it goes together in nature, you can make it work as a combination for something. The rule for clothes is to start with what you have, and figure out what one single thing would take an outfit from one point to another. I've never had enough money for a wardrobe overhaul, so I use scarves and jewelry to change things up.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:18 AM on March 7, 2012

A lot of great advice in this thread, but I'd like to add that when it comes to leaving your colour comfort zone for clothing, fit is very important. Once you find something that feels great and flatters your figure, you will want to wear it, even if it's not black, white, or grey. Zara, Topshop, J Crew etc are all very well, but I think it's worth saving up for a classic, killer designer dress or coat that you love seeing yourself in.

I'm honestly just like you (I feel like a fraud wearing colour), but I've recently begun to purchase dresses in deep blues and greens, or dresses overlaid with black lace. One, I had my colours "done", and I know deep jewel-tones flatter my complexion. Two, with dresses, I don't have to worry about coordinating separates. I wear them with black boots/pumps with black tights, black blazers/cardigans and carry a black purse, so I still feel quite secure. It's obvious that I still have a ways to go, but it's a start!
posted by peripathetic at 12:35 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a guy, but I agree with someone up above who suggested brown shoes as a "goes with almost anything" alternative. Eastland camp mocs are a classic casual choice. And they look super cute on women, I might add.
posted by schoolgirl report at 12:38 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you into art at all - specifically paintings/watercolors? If you are, find some that you like and take photographs (if you can) or find replicas online. Which color combinations appeal to you?

Not every color or color combo that you like is going to look good on you. Yellow is my bete noire, sadly for me. As others have suggested upthread, have your colors done or just be prepared to try a lot of different things on at stores. Get the saleperson's opinion or have him/her suggest some colors: being open to someone else's suggestions at the store where both of you can see the results can be very rewarding.

Also, try substituting brown for black, little by slow. That has worked magic for me.
posted by Currer Belfry at 3:21 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

All those women you see who look great in color? Photograph them. If you feel awkward, approach them and say "I love your outfit, mind if I take a picture? It's not for publication - just to inspire me to learn to dress better." Then take the pictures shopping and try to replicate 1 outfit. Repeat. Shop at Goodwill/thrift shops if you want to be able to take more risks. Try buying shirts/tshirts in a variety of colors; when I wear certain colors, people are likely to ask if I got my hair cut, or tell me I look good, so experiment with colors until you find colors you love on you. I like wearing navy instead of my usual black; it's really versatile.

Peagood, that Ted talk was really fun.
posted by theora55 at 4:26 PM on March 7, 2012

I'm trying to learn to wear color, after a lifetime where the only color I wore was forest green. Everything else was chocolate brown, denim, black, or white. I started with a beautiful bright teal eyeliner. I never thought I could pull a color like that off, but after I tried it I was amazed at how good I felt and looked.

Also, do you ever run an errand where you just wear pajamas sometimes? Well, that's a time when you obviously don't care what people think you look like, so try something out then, even if you're not sure whether it works.
posted by Night_owl at 6:00 PM on March 7, 2012

I got my colors done at a class given by my local city arts and recreation department. "Getting your colors done" has come a long way from the 1980's - they don't just say "You're a Summer" and throw a prepackaged set of swatches at you. My colorist matched swatches to my hair, skin and eyes, selected complementary color swatches, and in general put together a personalized palette just for me.

After years of wearing plain neutrals - mostly black and gray - partly because "it was easier" and partly because I have a huge collection of statement jewelry that I like to show off and preferred a plainer background for it - I have discovered the joy of "peacock colors" - turquoise, teal, jade-green, indigo blue. Also, when I thought I didn't look good in brown, I was wrong - I look really wonderful in a brown that matches my eye color (not just any old brown!). Especially since going blonde, I now wear brown a lot because it flatters my brown eyes and neutral blonde hair. There are different shades of the color "brown," just as there are of "blue," "green," etc. My friend with auburn hair and blue-green eyes looks terrific in sky blue. I look much better in a periwinkle or indigo blue. Kelly green doesn't suit me, but jade green does. The trick is finding the right shade of the colors you want to wear.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 4:42 PM on March 8, 2012

I have been thinking about this question as I've bought a few things over the last couple of weeks. I'm a late-adopter/adapter of any trend, but as I'm watching people walking around in, (and as I'm being tempted by) all the brightly-coloured trousers I'm seeing these days, I made an effort to choose pants that were not black or charcoal or dark indigo denim. I found a pair of smoky bluish-gray denim pants yesterday. When I pair them with black, they look brighter! So I realized that I can choose certain colours, wear them with my beloved black and gray, and then they'll look brighter in contrast, without actually being what I consider "clown pants".

I also found two black shirts, but with interestingly shaped open necklines - that show two necklaces I have that have colour in them. Two more black ones in an interesting material that is sheer enough to layer over other coloured things. And one in my usual teal that I like so much I'm going back for more (when I like something, I like to have three in rotation - two so they get less wear, and one more for when those are worn and I can then go shopping in my closet). And it fits so well, I'm getting it in black. And one charcoal gray and white striped shirt. I'm still not doing much colour, but I think I'm doing "lighter" better. I'm going to a clothing swap in two weeks, and I'm giving myself a rule: nothing black can come home with me (unless something colourful and coordinating comes home with it). But thanks for your question - it made me think more about conscious and unconscious choices.
posted by peagood at 6:23 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

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