When you visit another organisation, what are the first things you notice? One of your initial observations is likely to be the general ‘feel’ of the environment and this will include the colour scheme, even if you are not aware you are noticing it. You may not realise that the colours used are giving strong messages but they are – some colour schemes shout trendy, imaginative, forward-thinking and others give quite the opposite impression – dull, unimaginative, stuck in a time-warp or just plain run-down. Your feelings will be greatly influenced by the subliminal messages you absorb within a few minutes of arrival.
If colour contributes strongly to the impression you form of an organisation, so too will it contribute to the impression you form of an individual, or that others form of you. The colours you, and others, choose to wear will speak volumes about you – your ability to decide what’s appropriate; your creativity; your sense of style and ability to co-ordinate; your sense of what’s right for each situation.
Scientific studies show that blood pressure can alter in response to colour and appetite can also be affected! Many people are familiar with the effect that music can have on mood and colour can have a similar influence – it creates both a physiological and emotional response. It follows that individuals will be affected by the colours around them and the colours they, and others, wear.
Every morning you decide what to wear to work – which shirt, which tie, which suit, which top – decisions, decisions! How do you make those decisions? In order to ensure that colour works for you in the workplace (and, for that matter, out of it) you need to consider two things. Firstly, what colours work for your individual colouring and secondly, what is appropriate or inappropriate for the environment and role you are going to be in.
By recognising the characteristics that make up your own colour pattern and applying them to your clothing choices, you will achieve the right balance with your colouring so that attention is drawn to you and not your clothes. Whilst some colours will overwhelm you, you’ll overpower others, and the key is to find colours that work with your colouring to flatter and enhance – ensuring you look your healthiest best. Take a bit of time also to think about the psychology of colour and the messages associated with each before you make your choices. That way, you can be sure that your brand values and messages, and those of your organisation, are being echoed by your sartorial decisions.
Colours and their common messages
Blue is a popular colour for a working wardrobe, suggesting professionalism, intelligence, trustworthiness and reliability. However, blue can also seem cold, aloof and conservative – so too much blue might not be right if you are working for an energetic and creative young company.
Purple is a very popular alternative, in every shade from deep to palest lilac – and it works for both sexes. Throughout history, purple was the most expensive colour to produce so was always reserved for royalty and the clergy. Signalling creativity, innovation, confidence and success, it can work well for workplace attire.
Black on its own can be sophisticated and assertive but it can also seem intimidating and even menacing. Often chosen by those in media, fashion and design, its connotations can be different in these industries – with an intimation of understated modernity and urban cool. In other industries, however, it could be perceived as too austere if you want to come across as warm and friendly, especially if worn alone.
Stark black and white contrasts usually signal authority and power which can be positive but which can also intimidate, so decide just how authoritative you want to appear. Think of judges, the police and security guards – they would have a much harder time wearing beige! White on its own signals purity, empathy and approachability but, once again, can be stark and severe. Grey can be cool but be careful, it needs to be used stylishly and with attention to quality, otherwise it can seem dull and lacking in energy.
Choosing red needs care – it can appear powerful, dynamic and assertive but, like black and white, can also seem aggressive and demanding. Red works best as an accent to focus attention – that’s why speakers often wear red ties as it draws attention to the mouth and concentrates attention on the speech.
When calm, balance, harmony and empathy are the messages you want to project, choosing green will help you to create the right atmosphere. It is one of the most restful colours to look at but needs to be used in a dynamic way and accessorised well to avoid looking dull and bland.
So what of beige and brown – aren’t neutrals the most popular 21st century scheme for interiors? Well, yes, used in a modern, sleek and creative way and with their associations with the earth and nature, they can convey both seriousness and respectability with creativity and innovation. They are also associated with empathy and supportiveness. Just make sure they are used in a high quality, sophisticated way to avoid looking dreary.
What to wear when
Apart from the common messages that certain colours signal, your choices should include some thought for what you’ll be doing – what will be most appropriate for the day’s activities? For formal work occasions, such as client presentations, choose a darker suit or jacket and combine it with a light or bright top or shirt, in order to create contrast. This will give you a stronger, more authoritative appearance and will help you feel confident. If you have a difficult meeting with a colleague and wish to appear approachable and non-threatening, choose softer contrasts and use more colour. A lighter suit or jacket with a more colourful shirt or top would work well. The colours you choose within the workplace should also fit the nature of your message. If you need to communicate difficult news, wear suitably sober clothing to echo your message. Likewise, an upbeat report on an award won or outstanding results can be communicated wearing something similarly bright, upbeat and energetic.
Whatever colours you choose, a professional working wardrobe for both formal and business casual looks should consist of ‘structured’ items, ideally in plain, closely woven fabrics. Your own colouring should be part of your decision and the colour you choose to wear should be selected in the depth, tone and clarity that suits your individual colouring. If this sounds like double-dutch, find an expert to help you understand what works and why. You can make a start by thinking of an item in your wardrobe that you love and wear a lot and another that you don’t like and rarely wear. It’s quite likely that the favourite item is in a colour that’s good for you and that the rarely worn one isn’t – although there could be another reason such as the style or fit, of course.
Your clothes, and the colours you choose to wear, should help you in your daily task of creating rapport, influencing others and ensuring you create the right impression. Never underestimate the power of appearances and especially of first impressions – that smart, sleek coffee and cream head office is a world away from the magnolia and beige one in the same street.
Lyn Bromley MFIPI, ACMA – Managing Director, First Impressions
Lyn Bromley is Managing Director of First Impressions Training Ltd and a Master of The Federation of Image Professionals International. (FIPI) She is also Membership Director of FIPI and a leader of Achiever’s Academy for Women.
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