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"Wow,” my colleague uttered, as I arrived at the office one morning. He was looking at my outfit – a black leather skirt, black Dr Martens with black socks and a white shirt. I thought he was impressed. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, trying not to laugh. “But that’s a bit bright for you.” It was a friendly dig in the ribs about my consistent, but slightly morose wardrobe. Most days, I wear a creative mix of black, black leather, or a combination of the two almost exclusively, especially at work. I own myriad black dresses, trousers, skirts and T-shirts. Occasionally, on more adventurous days I go for (wait for it) navy or… grey.
Dreaming in colour
Secretly, I do own colour. Sporadically I buy a dress or a blouse I’ve fallen for: there’s the red handmade dress I bought before a date from my favourite vintage haunt in Greenwich. The secondhand orange cashmere sweater that’s so soft I swore I wouldn’t be able to take it off and a pink shirt from Kenya. I have a pair of blue flares to my name and a psychedelic skirt I just thought was cool.
I buy them when I’m on the cusp of change – a new house or job, and a new start; a physical manifestation of the optimistic future I crave. And I love them all. I just have trouble actually wearing them. Because colour makes you stand out. And being six foot tall I feel like I do enough of that already.
As a teen I caught myself hunching my shoulders over, trying to shrink myself to deflect the attention my height commands. Soon enough, my clothes began to reflect that. On the plus side – practically speaking – wearing black most of the time makes for an easy life. I can’t remember the last time I had to divide my washing into separate loads, and getting ready in a morning is so simple it facilitates my lazy nature. I rarely waste time trying to piece together an outfit (black with black or… black?) and shopping is easy when you narrow down the perimeters so severely.
A brighter outlook
It’s not lost on me that black has aural and societal connotations with the word ‘bleak’. At work, where I’m fortunate enough to be able to wear more or less what I feel like (within reason), it doesn’t really scream enthusiasm. It’s not a happy look. It’s not fun. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, as I was scrolling through the Pinterest app as I prepared for a shopping trip that I realised just what a rut I was in – and that, finally (terrifyingly), I actually wanted to break out of it.
I came across a pin I loved – a gang of stylish girls in the Sixties, wearing eye-popping yellow clashed with green, pink and orange and oozing confidence – and immediately found myself searching for more colourful outfit ideas. I saved more ideas I loved and started stalking my favourite fashion bloggers and journalists, like Stella Katterman of stellaswardrobe.com, whose effortlessly chic look is often bursting with colour without being garish. I read research which said wearing certain colours can change your psyche and give off certain impressions in the workplace (blue, for example, is said to convey confidence and energy).
Start small, I thought. I saved items I could work into my existing wardrobe – a subtle rush of colour with a bright handbag or a clashing patterned shirt paired with easy, comfortable black skirts. As I scrolled through more pinned ideas, finding new style icons – check out Electric Love Company for endless Sixties and Seventies inspiration – I found I was becoming willingly bolder and, with my board open for inspiration, began shopping.
I found that a dramatic change in style is not for the faint-hearted. Some outfits, predictably, didn’t work. I felt too ‘corporate’ in a berry blouse and cropped flares, and came to the sad realisation that wearing colour meant my statement lipstick – another proverbial comfort blanket – had to be diminished to a more neutral tone.
Colleagues said I looked warmer, friendlier and said that I suited my new look
But I didn’t waver. And using the Pinterest app on my phone while I was out shopping showed me I was on the right track. I found a beautiful patterned skirt that was just the right length, and felt instantly more fun. A heavy blue shirt set it off perfectly. And I didn’t feel uncomfortable. That’s not to say it was plain sailing. On the Tube I felt like the strangers next to me were staring, even with a black leather jacket over the top, and when I bumped into a friend, I blurted out that I was “experimenting” in unnecessary defence of my bright outfit. But when I arrived at the office my nerves dissipated. Colleagues commented that I I suited my new look. Moreover, I felt more “together” on account of the added effort I’d put into my outfit and, as a result, more confident pitching ideas and interviewing.
I looked more fun, but also more professional. Did it last? Well, old habits die hard – a total change is daunting. But I quickly learned to mix and match – a little of the old style with the new. I used to think that colour wasn’t me. It turns out I just needed to make it work my way. I’m no longer reluctant to experiment. When I see a colourful style idea I like I save it to my board and work out how I could wear it. I might have one foot firmly in my gloomy comfort zone but, little by little, I’m finding my way out.