Find Your Undertone

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 fabric swatches 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, I just came across this really simple, and matter of fact explanation of why there’s no such thing as a Neutral undertone OR twelve seasons! This youtuber
breaks it down for you very clearly, and follows her own color scheme. She also does style consults, and is well versed in Kibbe, so I do believe she’s worth a visit.

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). Merriam and I differ on this one, she describes both white and black as cool colors, I simply see them as bright/strong. I personally find that if you’re mousy/muted, then grey should suit you just fine as a neutral, since every single color in your palette is “tainted” with a grey hue rather than pure white or black. That’s my rationale, anyhow.

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.

color wheel1

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)!

I hope you’ll give testing your undertone a try, and check out some of the references I dropped here. You’ll be surprised to learn how many items in your closet are doing you a disservice, and if you’re looking to downgrade your wardrobe to a more capsule-like size, this is sure to eliminate a lot of the guesswork! Just have fun with it, you may decide to have a clothes swapping event, where you switch your wrong undertone clothes with someone with the right one, and vice versa! It’ll be exciting, and rewarding at the same time! Like anything else in fashion, it’s meant to make your life easier, so enjoy it, and make the best of it!

5 thoughts on “Find Your Undertone

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