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Style inspiration: bright colors for dull days

January 21, 2011

Having figured out what clothes I don’t like, it’s time to figure out what I do like. And near the top of the list must be bright colors.

We’ve entered the most miserable time of the London year — January, February, March. The gray, wan months, when there’s nothing left of Christmas but the credit card bills and nothing to look forward to but SAD, vitamin D deficiency and the distant, dubious prospect of summer. Every other person has a toxic cough. Every third person has a face like a slapped arse. And day follows dark gray day.

The confusing thing is that clothing manufacturers’ color palettes tend to be equally dark and subdued in winter, when what this season really needs is color. Thanks to my old pal GK Chesterton, I’ve come to see gray days as an opportunity to shine.

The enemies of grey…are fond of bringing forward the argument that colours suffer in grey weather, and that strong sunlight is necessary to all the hues of heaven and earth. … It is true that sun is needed to burnish and bring into bloom the tertiary and dubious colours: the colour of peat, pea-soup, Impressionist sketches, brown velvet coats, olives, grey and blue slates, the complexions of vegetarians, the tinge of volcanic rock, chocolate, cocoa, mud, soot, slime, old boots; the delicate shades of these do need the sunlight to bring out the faint beauty that often clings to them. But if you have a healthy negro taste in colour, if you choke your garden with poppies and geraniums, if you paint your house sky-blue and scarlet, if you wear, let us say, a golden top-hat and a crimson frock-coat, you will not only be visible on the greyest day, but you will notice that your costume and environment produce a certain singular effect. You will find, I mean, that rich colours actually look more luminous on a grey day, because they are seen against a sombre background and seem to be burning with a lustre of their own. Against a dark sky all flowers look like fireworks. There is something strange about them, at once vivid and secret, like flowers traced in fire in the phantasmal garden of a witch. A bright blue sky is necessarily the highlight of the picture; and its brightness kills all the bright blue flowers. But on a grey day the larkspur looks like fallen heaven; the red daisies are really the red lost eyes of day; and the sunflower is the vice-regent of the sun.

GK Chesterton, “The Glory of Grey”

Inspiration #1: Holi

In what is definitely one of the awesomest ideas for a holiday ever, Holi is a Hindu festival held at the end of winter where people light bonfires and fling colored powder and water all over each other. Just looking at the photos makes me happy.

Photo by Matthieu Aubry

Photo by wanderinghome

Inspiration #2: The Caribbean


Photo by markgreat

I went on a lot of Caribbean holidays and cruises with my parents when I was young. Caribbean tourism is pretty squicky in a lot of ways that made me uncomfortable even at that tender age, but what I did cherish were the bright colors — houses, birds, fishing boats, clothing.


Photo by notnA

Inspiration #3: British seaside towns

Photo by steffan macmillan

What better illustration of the power of color under dark skies than the classic British beach house?

Terrace houses in Brighton, painting by Ian Harrison

Beach huts in Whitby, North Yorkshire

The problem with bright colors is that because the delight lies in a multiplicity of tones, it’s difficult to replicate the joy by picking just one color. At least, I find it difficult.

Decisions, decisions

What are your color inspirations?

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2012 9:10 pm

    such beautiful pics. Congratulations! bI love rose, pink and red.

  2. February 20, 2011 3:54 am

    I love the colors and patterns of Maui. The pops of red and yellow are such a welcome surprise with all of the blues and greens.

  3. Ian Harrison permalink
    February 18, 2011 9:53 pm

    Hi Susannah

    I’m glad to see you liked my painting! I love the photo’s of the Caribbean – great colour and feeling!


  4. Marie-Christine permalink
    February 15, 2011 12:21 pm

    If you’re in the UK, you ought be able to get yourself to a damned good Holi celebration.
    One of my color inspirations is Scandinavian winters.. these people know how to make the most of the weakest ray of sunshine! You’ve got your retina-searing yellows, your flaming oranges, you pure-acid chartreuse, everything together! The warmest sweaters visually as well as physically.

  5. Ann permalink
    January 28, 2011 3:37 pm

    I’m curious, what does squicky mean?? Thanks!

  6. January 26, 2011 4:52 pm

    I love colour. And I wear it mostly in it’s really saturated form. I also like wearing black, but at this time of the year it’s nothing that ups my mood like my deep red coat or bright blue dress.

  7. January 26, 2011 12:20 pm

    Come to visit Brighton!!!! That’s my answer xxx

  8. January 24, 2011 5:20 am

    Less economically developed countries seem to use much more colour – Mexico, India, Morocco, Peru, etc. As we become more ‘first world’ we tend to start wearing navy and grey and (my personal horror) beige. When I finally broke away from gothdom and started wearing colours, I was amazed at how much they lifted my mood. I think India has to be the pinnacle as far as use of bright colours goes, but I also like those super vibrant Peruvian cloths, the ones that are so bright pink they are almost red, and also those displays of butterflies at the natural history museum.

  9. January 22, 2011 5:10 pm

    Check out this kids’ eye view of Holi, written by my friends’ daughter.

    Getting the color out of their clothes after the festival was a nightmare though. ;-)

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 23, 2011 7:42 pm

      The girl’s expression is great!

      I wouldn’t dare go to Holi in any clothes I couldn’t write off completely — well done heroic mom for tackling the laundry!

  10. Geogrrl permalink
    January 22, 2011 5:15 am

    The colours that make me happiest and in which I look best are turquoise and sky blue. Pastels wash me out and I avoid them. Next to those, scarlet or blood red and jade. I also wear bright white well.

    When it comes to greys, I like charcoal over something like a dove grey. It seems to set off my brighter-coloured clothing better than black, but isn’t as severe and (shall I say it?) dull. I like a dark walnut brown for the same reason.

    I rarely wear yellow and orange. Not that I don’t like them–I love them–but I can only wear shades like pure tangerine or lemon. And those shades are difficult to find.

  11. January 22, 2011 1:41 am

    I love colour at all times and the only colour I avoid is grey for there is no shade of grey that suits me a all. I think it is particularly important to wear colour in the winter otherwise my mood just gets greyer and greyer until it reaches full on black!! On a more cheerful note I know you have finished FOTR but there is a little series on iplayer called Land Girls its a day time programme and is a bit soap-like but it has lovely examples of fashion from the working class land girls to the land owning Lady Helen and her sister Caroline. Worth a watch definitely.

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 23, 2011 7:46 pm

      Ooh, I will look out for Land Girls — the recent movie was dire, so hopefully this will tell the land girls’ story as well as it deserves to be told.

  12. Linnet permalink
    January 22, 2011 12:10 am

    Check out this website :
    So many inspiring pictures, and more importantly, palettes. I’m crap at matching colours so this kind of thing is really helpful.

    Also, you probably know that Colette Patterns is organising a Palette Challenge for Spring. I’m really looking forward to seeing the results!

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 23, 2011 7:47 pm

      Oh, oh, oh, Color Collective is EXACTLY what I need. I love the kind of punchy color combinations they do on Academichic but am hopeless at coming up with them myself. This is great for inspiration, thanks for the link!

  13. January 21, 2011 10:55 pm

    Colour inspirations when it’s grim and dull? I’m a sad individual who spends most of my time wearing black or navy or grey anyhow. If none of those are present, it’ll be burgundy or deep purple, so my colour inspirations are quite easy.

    I am however currently sewing really really bright colours, red, yellow, pink, really really bright blue, for other people. I think most of my choices there are my daughter’s paintings (no, really) because she loads the paper with as many bright colours as possible (she is not quite 6), and then adds glitter and sparkly sticky gem things… and they’re so bright, and cheerful, and completely a cure for the gloomy days:)

  14. January 21, 2011 9:58 pm

    I like the super-saturated colors in Morocco. I wrote a post about them a while ago, but I can’t find it. I think the trick with bright colors is to stick to tones that flatter you. Like… The bright colors in Morocco have a sort of cool undertone. Even the orange colors used mostly had a sort of brilliant sorbet color rather than pumpkin or traffic cone. Not that I’d ever be able to get away with orange of any hue….

    You know what’s great about those dark, depressing days? The precursor to spring… several weeks in advance the flower sellers explode into daffodils… Once I rounded a corner at dusk (I mean, mid-afternoon) to see a stall covered in bright yellow flowers, the most color I’d seen in months. And it was snowing. Then a few weeks later, it was spring. I’ll never forget that euphoria.

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 23, 2011 7:50 pm

      Spring in the UK kind of creeps up on you, with a few steps forward and then some coy steps back. But I’m already keeping an eye out for snowdrops. Then it will be crocus time. And before you know it, daffs and tulips!

      And that is an interesting observation about the colors in Morocco — you’re totally right, there is a slight milkiness to the colors (I’m thinking of the babouche shops) that prevents them from being in-your-face bright.

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