Is Black and White Flattering on You?

January 2, 2015

It seems that nearly every season black and white, despite the fact that it is one of the hardest contrast levels to pull off successfully, is touted as the go-to color combination.

And, each year I sigh in resignation and shake my head.

The truth is that it is so easy to be completely overpowered by the strength and starkness of these two opposing colors that chances are good it is not your best option.

Yes, you heard me correctly. As classic as it might seem, black and white is actually one of the hardest color combinations to pull off.

Surprised?

I thought so. So, let’s explore this some more.

Dictionary.com defines contrast as, “the opposition or juxtaposition of different forms, lines, or colors in a work of art to intensify each element’s properties and produce a more dynamic expressiveness.”

Google defines it as, “the state of being strikingly different from something else.”

Notice the words ‘dynamic expressiveness’ and ‘strikingly different.’ This describes the juxtaposition of black and white perfectly. It is anything but subtle!

How do you decide if black and white is right for you and if not how much contrast level you can wear?

By examining your natural contrast level.

Your most flattering contrast level is determined by the color of your skin, hair and eyes including the level of brightness of the whites of your eyes and teeth (especially for people with dark skin). This is how you determine what level of contrast will look best on you and establish whether black and white is a combination that makes you shine.

Before we get into how to determine your personal contrast levels, let me show you some examples of low, medium and high contrast:

This scarf is low contrast—the difference in the colors is soft:

But, low contrast does not have to mean light. This dark red with a slightly lighter red is also low contrast:

redscarf

Here is an example of medium contrast – none of the colors is extreme on the light-dark – they straddle the middle ranges:

animalprintscarf

Even though this scarf is brighter it is still medium contrast—there are no really light or really dark colors in it and the brightness is tempered by the fabric:

flannelprintscarf

High contrast includes the extremes of light and dark or bright and muted colors:

redbluescarf

The contrast of the brightness of the colors and the fact that they are so far from each other on the rainbow makes this scarf high contrast (if you replace the blue with orange it would still be bright but not as high contrast):

redbluescarf

Your Personal Contrast Level

In order to help you assess your personal contrast level, let me give you some examples using light, medium and dark skin as examples.

Light

This is Jan. Notice that her skin, hair and eye colors are all light. Then notice the top she is wearing in this picture. Not only are the colors too cool for her, but they are shockingly bright with high contrast – soft pinks combined with big splotches of blue. All you notice is the top. Not Jan.

janblueflowers

Instead, when she is in low contrast colors like this top, you notice her supported by soft, beautiful colors. (Even the slightly brighter tones are softened by the fabric.)

janblueflowers

Medium

This is Meryl. She has dark hair and eyes and medium skin so she can wear medium contrast best. Stark black and white overpower her here:

janblueflowers

While she can wear black well (unlike Jan who cannot), it is best if she combines it with a color to create medium contrast like this:

janblueflowers

There are so many combinations of hair, skin and eye color that I can’t go into all of them here. But, we have looked at someone with light skin, medium skin and now let’s explore someone with darker skin.

Dark

This is Jackie. As you can see, she has dark hair, medium dark skin and dark eyes. Her contrast level is low to medium. But, the whiteness of her teeth juxtaposed to her skin and hair allows her to wear higher contrast than you would at first expect.

When she is wearing this low contrast top, she disappears:

But, when you add some pizzazz of black, white and red like this top, she sparkles:

janblueflowers

What is YOUR contrast level?

Hair: ___ light ___ medium ___ dark

Skin: ___ light ___ medium ___ dark

Eyes: ___ light ___ medium ___ dark

Knowing this will help you determine the best color contrast level for you.

Of course, when you are shopping online, it is interesting to note how the retailers dress the models. In general, retailers do not use contrast levels that are the most flattering on the models. Their goal is to sell the dress and have the dress be most prominent so you will want to buy it rather than have you admiring the model. The objective of the model is to show off the beauty of the dress not her personal beauty. So, in most cases the models will be in the wrong contrast level for them. Or, in the case of Bloomingdale’s, they only show the model from the neck down so the dress is all you see.

For example, this blonde with light hair, skin and eyes is shown in the highest contrast of black and white. It totally overpowers her.

janblueflowers

However, this model, who has light skin and dark hair and eyes, looks great in black and white. (You have no idea how hard it was to find this picture!)

janblueflowers

Like wearing your most flattering colors, which you hear me talk about constantly, the level of color contrast is one more important consideration when creating a wardrobe that makes you shine.

Of course, celebrities tend to keep changing their hair color, so we have to take that into consideration, but here are some celebrities whose contrast level is low: Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Aniston, Nicole Kidman, Taylor Swift, Whoopi Goldberg and Beyonce.

Celebrities with medium contrast: Rihanna, Eva Mendes, Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Alba, Emily Deschanel and Carol Burnett.

High Contrast Celebrities: Katy Perry, Christina Ricci and Anne Hathaway.

Where do you fall in the spectrum?

Now that you have assessed your general contrast level and have explored the very basics of contrast, take a look in your closet. What do you see? Is there an item or two that is too high or low contrast for you? If it is something you do not wear much, perhaps this is the reason you avoid it—you instinctively know it doesn’t work and do not feel fabulous wearing it.

Remember, evaluating your contrast level is just one step in creating a wardrobe you love and it is not as cut and dried as it sounds. There is wiggle room in there. For instance, when you first look at Gwen Stefani, you notice her light hair and light skin. But, peer into her eyes for half a second and you notice that they are very dark. Because of this she actually is high contrast.

Exploring your natural contrast level and applying it to your wardrobe is a great place to start. See what comes up for you and how it affects your experience of getting dressed tomorrow morning or how you perceive clothing differently the next time you shop.

  • Mary Fitzgerald

    Ginger, this was such a great post! I learned so much about why some tops/accessories “work” for me and others “work against me”!

    • Thanks, Mary! So glad you found it helpful :-)

  • I always thought black and white was such a classic look, now I know why it doesn’t work for me! Thanks I’m learning so much.

    • I’m SO glad. Thank you for letting me know!

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