For decades I’ve held the belief that I had a warm undertone. I always classified myself as an Autumn, and a couple of decades ago, when the twelve season palette was released, I jumped on the color-scheme wagon and plotted my way to a Soft Autumn palette. For over two decades now I’ve been shopping with my Soft Autumn palette in hand, carefully choosing colors within that color scheme. This allowed me to avoid many colors that I would have otherwise been attracted to, partly due to trends, partly due to my own moods and inclinations. I’ve had a pretty consistently muted wardrobe for this entire time, choosing louder colors only for occasional accents here and there. I’ve mentioned before, when discussing Shukr, minimalism, and other fashion-related issues, that I don’t fit neatly into any body-shape category that has been provided by fashion moguls so far, and this by and large saved me from religiously following any of their dictates (that and the fact that I’m in love with my own personal style). I still maintain these notions, as I work towards further simplifying my wardrobe, and living a more meaningful life guided by the virtues of minimalism. However, some new revelations just hit me like a ton of bricks only recently, and it was such a big revelation to me, that I think I should share it with you.
- There’s no such thing as a Neutral undertone OR twelve seasons
- Kibbe’s Metamorphosis fashion lines guidelines: trying to flatten or compensate for lack of curves does less for your look than letting your body inspire your lines.
You might be aware of these fashion discourses, and if you are, let me stop you here, as you won’t find anything revelatory below. If not, then keep reading, and find out what I’ve just recently learned about colors and shapes, and how they matter more than body types and seasons.
1) Neutral Undertone is a Misunderstanding: a Myth
Why the neutral tone doesn’t exist: well, the answer is quite simple, and its logistics will speak for themselves. There are three primary colors: Blue, yellow, and red. Blue is a cool color, its opposite on the color wheel is yellow, which makes it a warm color, in the middle of these two polar opposites sits red. If you move slightly to the right of red you get closer to yellow, moving to coral, then orange, and eventually to pure yellow. If you move slightly to the left, you get closer to blue, making the shade moving from red to pink, to purple, and eventually to pure blue. Other than pure, unadulterated red, there are no gradations, therefore all colors fall somewhere between blue and red, or between red and yellow. There’s nothing in-between. A perfect combination of blue and yellow gives you green, which alongside red, may be the only color that both cool-toned and warm-toned people can wear confidently.
This isn’t to say that you can’t wear whatever color suits your fancy, what I’m talking about here is what will bring out the natural radiance of your skin tone, as opposed to working against it. You can counteract this effect through make-up and other color tricks such as keeping the “offending” color away from your face, or letting it peek through a more suitable color in accents.
Black and white are suitable for both warm and cool, but more muted colorations (who would be overwhelmed by strong colors) should be better complemented by shades of grey. Charcoal is a great neutral for everyone. More muted gradations of pure colors suit people with mild colorations. These muted gradations are obtained by mixing some grey with the pure, clear color combination (say dusty rose, or imagine any bright color covered with fine grey lace or a thin layer of dust).
How do you find out if you’re cool or warm toned?
Many people suggest looking at the inside of your wrist and determining whether your veins look greenish or blueish. Greenish would entail a warm undertone (blue being diverted by the yellow tinge in your skin to produce green), and blue/purplish would entail a cool undertone (the red/blue within the veins coming through unabated in your cool tinged skin). However, this method doesn’t always work, and the answer isn’t as readily available through this route. The answer may be found, with a bit of assistance from objective observers and a few tries (depending on lighting/weather/your own health disposition – are you facing natural light; is it cloudy/getting dark; are you ill, tired, flushed, etc.).
If you can pick a day when the sun is out, the skies are clear, you are healthy and got enough sleep and food, have no make-up on, and your friend/family member is willing to give you some hard honest feedback for a few minutes, then set yourself up. Noon time in full indirect sunlight would be ideal. Stand or sit in front of a window (not in direct sunlight, but with clear natural lighting indirectly reaching your face), tie your hair back and wear a neutral (white/black/grey) scarf over it (especially if you dye it), stand against a plain backdrop (a white wall, preferably, if you don’t have one, hang a white sheet or place some sort of white screen behind you to block any other color interference), and place a yellow piece of cloth directly under your face (around your neck, or under your chin). If you don’t own a yellow item of clothing, use a yellow cardboard, which you can purchase at any office supplies store. To ease your task, you could get a large rectangle and cut out the shape of your face, so you can peek through it, thus avoiding the headscarf and backdrop altogether. Ask your buddy if your blemishes and lines show more, do you look sickly, tired, flushed? Does it look like you have big dark circles under your eyes (as opposed to without the yellow)? Then give yourself a rest for a few seconds by removing the yellow and concentrating on the white, or closing your eyes, and then place a blue piece of cloth or cardboard under your chin, or around your neck, and ask the same questions. It should be clear that there’s a difference between the way you looked with blue and the way you looked with yellow.If you don’t have anyone to ask, take a selfie and take a look at them once you’re done, in the same lighting. Make sure to take all your pictures at about the same time of day (say 12:00-12:30 pm).
If you look horrible with both, it could be that you chose colors that are too loud for you to begin with, if so, choose a more muted yellow (ie: not pure color, but toned down with a slight mixture of grey), and a less bright blue (not darkened with black, or lightened with white, but muted with light or dark grey), and repeat the process. This is another dimension of color-coding, some of us look fabulously within ourselves with bright colors (pink, turquoise, emerald green, orange, or yellow), but some of us have complexions that are easily overrun by such brightness, making the color speak louder than our bodies. If the color seems to be wearing you, instead of the other way around, then you definitely have a muted coloration to your skin, which would be better complemented by muted, softer, less aggressive versions of your palette. Of course, if you want your clothes to do the talking, then now you know how to do it!
If you looked more radiant and healthier with blue hues; you have a cool undertone. If you fared better with the yellow hues; you’re warm undertoned. At this point you should have determined two major aspects of figuring out your color palette: a) whether you have a warm or cool undertone, and b) whether you can handle bright colors or should opt for more muted versions in your palette. If you’re cool, then all colors between red and blue will suit you, being careful to opt for the softer ones if you’re muted, and stronger ones if you’re bright (if your skin color composition can handle the brightness of the colors you wear). You’ll also be able to wear greens with blue in them (acqua, variations of turquoise, blue-green, and all the gradations in-between), always keeping brightness and mutedness in mind.
If you looked healthier and your complexion benefited from warmer colors, then you can confidently don the colors comprised between red and yellow and between pure green (50% blue and 50% yellow) and yellow, with the appropriate considerations of loudness (brightness) and calmness (muted) within these gradations, according to your skin specs that your color testing just demonstrated.
Bright complexions, whether warm or cool, should feel great in pure black and white, whereas more muted skin tones might benefit from gradations of deep brown, navy blue, charcoal grey, and ivory white. There are theories out there stating that both black and white are cool colors, but I tend to disagree. If you can handle bright colors, you should be able to handle white, if you are warm and bright, you should be able to handle black, but again, I suggest you check what works for you and your personality. I personally stay away from both colors around my face, because they drag me down: I am warm/muted. I prefer charcoal grey, dark brown, and ivory white, and they seem to get along with me quite well.
Many colorists will, at this point, go one step further, and recommend further compartmentalization of colors according to the predominant color dominance present in your eyes/hair/skin. This is where the twelve seasons come into existence, and they are frankly more confusing and limiting than most of us desire. Basically, it further divides the four seasons obtained by the cool/warm and bright/muted combinations (4), into soft, deep, and pure. Soft is meant for lighter colorations and lower contrasts, deep for darker colorations with little contrast, and pure with medium colorations/contrasts. I am not particularly fond of this further breakdown, because it does become more limiting, and sometimes can be quite difficult to determine. It frankly becomes quite subjective at this point. I think the biggest issue here, is that in order to delineate clear-cut differences and still allow some flexibility, many colorists have added colors from the opposite side of the palette (cool colors for warm palettes, and vice versa, basically undermining the entire process). Essentially, the possible combinations, from a purely color-coding perspective, are: cool/bright (summer); cool/muted (winter); warm/bright (spring); warm/muted (fall). Making the seasons a total of four.
I personally don’t believe in choosing gold over silver and vice versa, much jewelry is already combined. Many cultural pieces are made out of silver rather than gold, or 24 karat gold (which is very bright) and the price difference can mean a lot to many people. So there definitely are much more pressing considerations than mere undertone when choosing jewelry. I generally prefer to stick to one or the other, but I do wear both, just not at the same time (unless crafted this way)!
2) The Kibbe method of styling
As mentioned above, the most wide-spread method used to establish what lines to wear for your body-type have been described through similarities to geometrical shapes and visual queues: hourglass, skittle, pear, column, rectangle, carrot, square, apple, triangle, inverted triangle, and so on and so forth. What these criteria normally consider are the bust, waist, and hip ratios and proportions to each other, leaving the rest of the body out of the analysis altogether. Thankfully I had come across a seamstress’ book that talked about limb length and proportions beyond those three, so I didn’t feel I was lost in the limited shuffle of options allowed for in these categorizations. What I hadn’t come across before, and makes a whole lot more sense to me now, after wondering about this for some time, is the softness of curves versus the angularity. The major confusion stems from the idea that if you’re curvy you want to minimize those curves and thus you should apply vertical principals in those areas, and if you’re demarcated by the absence of strong curves, then you might want to invent them by layering horizontal lines where you want to add volume. The essential concept revolves around correcting extremes in order to obtain a finer balance: a classic look. Unfortunately, this sometimes works against you, as clothes aren’t constructed for your particular body, and seeking out those lines will invariably cause issues with fit, making you look frumpy, bony, bigger, or shorter.
Kibbe (a stylist to the stars back in the 1980’s) came up with a method, which he outlined in his book Metamorphosis, wherein he takes all these aspects (the three measurements mentioned at the start, the length of limbs mentioned by seamstresses, and the softness, which was missing from all the above), plus the facial features that complement your body’s shape and obviously contribute to making your look work for or against you.
Most fashionistas treat the head and the body completely separately, as though we carried our top portion as an accessory to our bodies, and not as part and parcel of it. It’s quite curious, and although I had wondered about this numerous times, I just chucked it off to combinations and ensembles that could be made to cooperate somehow. Kibbe doesn’t work on this plane, he views the two as inseparable, and he analyses them together, through a series of questions that cover all aspects: from the bone structure, to the type of curves in both body and face. If you’re interested in knowing more about this, I highly recommend watching Arty’s youtube videos on the topic, where she also includes the questions to ask yourself, and visual examples of people to help you answer and compare yourself to as a reference point. She goes into quite a bit of detail, and even covers make-up tricks and accessories for each body type. I don’t agree with everything she says, but she does provide an enormous amount of information, so you may benefit from viewing her perspectives, and then using what you most agree with, while leaving the rest to the wayside.
Obviously, none of this is going to benefit you a tremendous much if you don’t look anywhere near the examples given, but then you can still use the wording of the questions as your guide, and take it in stride. I’ve searched all over the net for other interpretations, and have found a few discrepancies and variations, even from Kibbe’s own suggestions, so don’t despair if you don’t find yourself agreeing with everything. Go with the general concepts, and trust your instincts, they’re usually right! We are all instinctively attracted to things that make us feel comfortable and at ease, and this normally means a good fit, and positive reinforcement from both wear/style and outsider feedback. The result is a combination of your answers, and what you lean most towards, it’s not meant to be precise, it’s a guide to complementing your style, and nature. It is meant to inspire you to new heights and possibilities within fashion that you may not have considered before.
This is actually a very helpful tool, as it answered some questions in my mind that have been bothering me for some time, like: if Oprah is an hourglass, why does she look so good in crisp, straight clothes? Kibbe answers this by placing her on the dramatic spectrum, with softness (ying) due to her curves/flesh, coupled with sharpness (yang) based on the length of her limbs, and the angularity of her shoulders and facial bones.
On the other hand, you have very tall, limber women who look awkward in similar clothing, but absolutely gorgeous is thin fabrics, form-fitting gowns, frills and delicate detailing. One such example is Charlize Theron. Although one might be tempted to say she has a rather boyish figure, being tall, slim, with very long limbs, the delicate curves she does have, paired with her ingenue facial features wrap her up in Romantic clothing.
The Kibbe Body Types
The Romantic style features curves, delicate, sumptuous detailing, and everything one normally associates with femininity. This category being the most extreme form of ying, has only two offshoots: the pure Romantic, and the theatrical Romantic (ying curvature coupled with some sharpness in bone structure). The prototypical example of a Romantic is Marylin Monroe, whereas a more modern example of a Theatrical Romantic would be Salma Hayek.
On the opposite side of the spectrum we have the yang dominant Dramatic style, which is marked by severity, sharpness, sleekness, strong angularity, or what would often be associated with masculinity. This extreme is subdivided into pure dramatic and soft dramatic, which includes some ying curvatures. An example of a dramatic would be such a timeless beauty as Cindy Crawford. Due to the severity of their lines they look great in well structured clothing, blunt color blocks, geometric shapes, and other lines that go along with their muscular and bone structure. Oprah and Sofia Loren are prime examples of Soft Dramatics.
In-between these two extremes you have combinations and blends of sharpness (yang) and sumptuousness (ying): the Naturals (a more subtly curved sharpness); the Gamines (a juxtaposition of ying curves and fleshiness with yang sharp angularity) which is a beautiful play of opposites; and the Classics, which are perfectly balanced between ying and yang (a classic example would be Grace Kelly). Each of these three groups are further subdivided into three categories (Pure, Soft, and Flamboyant/Dramatic). In total, you end up with 13 body types, each with its own blend or combination of ying and yang.
In the Natural (a bit lighter and less blunt than a Soft Dramatic), with its subcategories, Flamboyant Natural (strong naturals with blunt edges) such as Cameron Diaz, and at its other end, Soft Natural (a softer version of the angular Natural), such as Sandra Bullock. This category of body types looks well in unstructured clothing, baggy styles such as Nadinoo, these are the most feminine/sensual looking of the “boyish” figures. Think of hippie styles (hair in particular), straight tunics, oversized sweaters, straight/boyfriend jeans.
Among the Gamines you will find many celebrities, characterized by great combinations of contrasts: feminine curves, or small dainty figures, with sharp angular bone structures. A typical Gamine would be Winona Ryder, or Kelly Osborne. They look their best in small cutsie clothes that cut up their figure like their features are divided up across their bodies. Their constitution makes them look eternally younger than their age, and some would even go as far as to consider them perennial teenagers.
Classics aren’t mosaics, as Gamines are, they are perfect blends, balanced ying/yang countenances. If you don’t know which type you fit into, the safest type of clothing (which most clothing companies attempt to emulate, as this remains the ideal body shape to which many women aspire) is the one suitable for Classics. The name itself states its audience, and aims. It’s timeless pieces blended between soft materials and finely tailored cuts. Classics are symmetrical and lack remarkable features, which in and of itself is remarkable.
How do you find your Kibbe Style?
You can purchase the Metamorphosis book online, which is out of print, and will cost you an arm and a leg, or you can google Kibbe Test and get it for free on a number of blogs, on Reddit, or even YouTube. Much has been said and written about this test, especially in terms of the difficulty in finding your exact Kibbe type. Like all methods before and since it, keep in mind that although it’s quite exhaustive, it isn’t carved in stone. These are always just guidelines, tried and tested, for sure, but guidelines nonetheless. If your style screams something different, all the power to you, go ahead and express your inner ego any way you like! These recommendations are only meant to help you decide what suits your constitution and complements it, rather than clashing with it and speaking for you (unless that’s what you’re aiming for).
I hope you’ve enjoyed this overview, and that you’ll give Kibbe a chance. I for one am somewhat relieved to know why I don’t look my best in sharp designs, and will embrace the occasional flourish, although I don’t think I’ll ever embrace full out Romanticism! And I finally have an answer for why I look larger than life or shorter than I am when I wear shapeless, stiff clothes. I’ll write more about respecting hijab within your body type another time, for now, enjoy taking the tests and figuring out what you can finally say goodbye to in your wardrobe!