Changing with the Times
My ex-sister-in-law Laurie pictured herself as a 21st-century Snow White — raven hair, pale skin, red lips. A color professional had advised her to wear cool winter shades with a bluish base (rather than a warm, yellow base), and she loved the look. When her hair started graying, she darkened it — until she saw a picture taken at her son’s college graduation. "I was shocked at how harsh my hair looked," she told me. "I immediately went to my hairdresser and asked for blond highlights — bold ones. Now I’m not sure what colors I should wear. Do I need different clothes and makeup?"
My friend Karen had a hysterectomy that sent her into early menopause. Her skin became dry and, she thought, lost its glow. "I felt I was aging rapidly, and it made me sad," she says. "I started wearing more black, as if I were in mourning. But I’m feeling better about myself now that I’ve let go of the image I had of the younger me." Karen’s husband encouraged her to go gray, and she now considers her hair her most distinctive feature. So she too has to rethink her colors. At some point, we all do.
As we age, our hair may fade or thin or go gray, or we may change the color ourselves. Colors that once flattered our skin tones start to look severe or just wrong. How do we find shades that will look good on us now?
Try on a New Hue
I think a color has to pass two tests: It has to give your face a healthy glow, and it has to make you smile. The only way to find these magic shades is to experiment — to try on colors you’ve never worn before, including those you thought you weren’t "supposed" to wear.
Sometimes it’s a matter of fine-tuning the shades that used to flatter you. Now that Laurie has blond highlights, she might find that warmer reds — Tuscan brick or deep-orange poppy — work better on her than blue-based ones. Karen might find that lilac, pale pink, or plum will complement her gray hair.
Many women I know who wore dark colors now favor beige, but finding the right shade can be tricky. A woman I shop with who has fair hair and pale, slightly ruddy skin couldn’t understand why she wasn’t rushing to wear her beautiful new designer suit. I showed her how that particular beige had a warm, yellow cast that drained her face, while a bone-colored beige gave her complexion a vibrant glow. She got it immediately; we really do know the right shades when we try them on.
What about the clothes we already own that no longer look good on us? Try mixing in other colors and textures to act as a buffer. The easiest fix is wearing creamy or crisp white tops, which light up the face. If you’re drawn to a color that doesn’t flatter you but makes you smile, wear it as an accent. Each season I look forward to seeing which unexpected color my friend Becky will adopt for her signature mules and the sweaters she wraps around her shoulders to jazz up her black and white basics.
Jacqui, a MORE reader, wrote to me that after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she saw a T-shirt that read "Pink is not just a color, it’s an attitude." This has inspired her to wear pink every day — she’s even had her Harley-Davidson painted pink. Clearly, pink brings life to her face, and light to her heart.
What to wear when you love red, but red no longer loves you
We’re not talking traffic-cone orange, but tangerine, brick, coral, or apricot — shades that have the attention-getting impact of red plus the flattering warmth of gold. Here, a pumpkin-hued suit by Max Mara (jacket, $590; skirt, $340) gets toned down with neutral accessories. S’Max Mara cashmere T-shirt ($300). BCBG Max Azria watch ($125). Kate Spade eel-skin clutch ($695). DKNY suede pumps ($159).
What to wear for the lift you used to get from white or yellow
Nude tones work the way the right foundation does, enveloping you in a creamy palette of color. When you’re mixing shades of beige, keep the undertone consistent. Choose either cool tints, such as clay, putty, and taupe, or the warm ones shown here: Ellen Tracy caramel leather blazer ($798) and sandstone wool skirt ($298). Liz Claiborne flax-hued turtleneck ($49). Constanca Basto buff suede boots ($495).
What to wear to counteract sallow skin
Take some purple sweaters into a fitting room and see what happens when you frame your face in amethyst, plum, or grape. Purples are easy to mix — red-toned shades work well with blue-toned ones; this look combines both. Tracy Reese violet wool sweater ($425). Whim mauve cashmere crewneck ($187). Coldwater Creek muted fuchsia tweed trousers ($64). Boss Black purple suede/leather pumps ($395).
Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2006.