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A 'Color Me Beautiful' Life

Revisiting the '80s color bible to find out if winters can ever be springs.

I am a winter. I have always been a winter. Winters have dark hair and dark eyes and, more often than not, are "Oriental" — like me. The colors I look best in are strong and bright and vivid. My skin is olive, but its undertones are cool, a fact I learned by holding a piece of stark white paper against my skin. I tan easily in the summer and fade to a sallow yellow in the winter. I am lucky; I can wear white and black with ease, but should steer clear of pastels. Mustard yellow and olive green, two colors that have preoccupied me at various stages in my life, are two colors I cannot pull off. There’s no reason I should try. I know all of this because of Color Me Beautiful.


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Carole Jackson took a few painting classes and brushed up on color theory, then wrote Color Me Beautiful as an attempt to harness her newfound knowledge — and prevent legions of women from wearing colors that don’t work. First published in 1981, the book gave women across America the confidence they needed to look in the mirror and whisper to themselves, "I’m a spring." The title spawned a empire that still employs consultants who will gladly give you a color assessment, then send you on your way with makeup and a swatch fan for your shopping and living convenience — a confidence boost for $60.

The method is simple. Look in the mirror and figure out what colors look best on you. Once you match these colors to a "season", your entire life will fall into place. If you’ve spent your entire life strongly attached to emerald green, stockpiling sweaters and scarves and sundresses that you wear to death, you’re already halfway there. Emerald green is your color. You are a winter. Arm yourself with this knowledge, carry your swatches close to your heart, and shop with the newfound freedom of knowing what you should wear to make you look and feel your best. The book itself is part self-help — think Kathy Bates wrapping herself in Saran wrap and greeting her husband at the door in Fried Green Tomatoes — tempered with a heavy dose of actual usable information.

It’s not rocket science. It’s simple color theory, packaged neatly for the masses and presented as a holistic solution on how to live your best life. Your season informs everything about you, from the style of clothes you wear to the kind of flowers you choose to decorate your house with. There are checklists and charts to pin to the inside of your closet as you clean out everything that doesn’t work, like an early KonMari for the shoulder-pads-and-running-shoe set. Once you follow Jackson’s rules, everything you own will eventually bring you joy.

The book gave women across America the confidence they needed to look in the mirror and whisper to themselves, "I’m a spring."

I’m not sure how the book ended up in my hands as a child. I have a vague memory of pulling it off the shelf of the shared library at my grandma’s apartment complex and taking it home, excited and eager to jumpstart my life as a career woman at the age of 12.

Paging through the book made me realize just how much I’d internalized its rules. "If your face is round or square," Jackson writes, "you should minimize the sides." This is the reason I dedicated myself to the preservation of "face-framing" layers with every haircut, as if the wisps of hair angled towards my cheeks would erase the boundaries of my moon face. This is the book that taught me that my eyes were deep-set. Her instructions on testing foundation by putting a "thick blob" on the back of your hand is the reason I still do this with any foundation or BB cream before I apply it to my face. As a stout and short child and a taller and still stout adult, I pause every time I cuff my pants, knowing that with each fold of the fabric, I’m shaving inches off my legs.

Color Me Beautiful asks you to take long, hard look at yourself in the mirror and be honest about what you see. Carole Jackson wants you to dress and look and feel your best, which is what we all want, at the end of the day. Getting dressed in the morning, putting on some lipstick and leaving the house sometimes feels like the biggest challenge and greatest victory of the day. What you decide to put on your body and present to the world every time you leave your house is one of your most powerful messages. I stand with Carole. I want to look my absolute best, every single day.

I’m pretty sure I’m a winter, as per my childhood readings of Color Me Beautiful, but my judgement back then most likely wasn’t the best. So, armed with some lipstick and my wardrobe, I take a trip around the color wheel, and let Carole be my guide.

Autumn

Autumns are redheads or ash blondes, with clear, white skin like fine card stock. The models in the book are freckled of face and chestnut of hair, like human Irish setters. Maura, a fetching auburn-haired beauty, wears a rust turtleneck under an open white button down, and her blush rides far too high on her cheeks for my liking. She looks like she knows how to throw a pot and shuck an oyster. She is most likely very comfortable astride a horse, cantering through the open fields. She summers on the Cape and winters in Vermont. Her colors are a strange, muddled mix of every shade of orange, brown, and the kind of '70s terracottas and avocados that are in right now. There is no way in hell I’m an autumn.

Image: Shaina Travis

I cling to this scarf because I have told myself for years that it’s a fun "pop" of color, but once I see it against my skin paired with this red-orange lipstick that I bought once and never wear, I can see that I should dispose of the scarf immediately. The lipstick is okay, but only because I’m tan. In the darkest of winter, this would be sallow-city. Hard pass.

Spring

Spring is Autumn’s less-muddy, lighter, more delicate cousin. Every single model on this page is white and every single model’s complexion is described as "ivory" or "peaches and cream." Springs, as far as I can tell, are meant to dress like adult Easter eggs, or French macarons. Springs can wear camel, a color that I flirted with briefly in high school, doggedly wearing camel colored cable knit sweaters that I thought were ineffably sophisticated. The pastels of spring — apricot, periwinkle, pastel pink — make me look sallow. No one wants to look sallow.

Image: Shaina Travis

Since I have effectively scrubbed my wardrobe clean of these colors long ago, I manage to scrounge up an peachy-pink shirt that I wear sometimes and a pale peach lipstick that fulfills my fantasies of looking like a teenage dirtbag stealing her grandma’s Virginia Slims from her pocketbook and letting the screen door slam on her way out. I am sad to report that both shirt and lipstick washed me out. I knew this would happen, but I had to try.

Summer

If you’re a summer, your skin possesses the cool undertones of winter, but you’re blonde. Or a dishwater brunette. Your skin is still white, but rosy this time around. Your eyes are blue. The models on this page look anodyne and kind. Terri grins at me in a pink blouse, while Katie oozes a quiet sensuality that is a stark contrast with her suburban real estate agent blouse and blazer. The colors of summer are brighter than Spring and Autumn. There are six shades of purple, from a sickly lavender to 2014’s horrid Pantone Color Of The Year, "Radiant Orchid."

Image: Shaina Travis

This dress fits the way I like dresses to fit — sheath-like, clingy, hitting at the mid calf — but is a color that I find so troublesome that I barely wear it. That’s because it’s not in my season, as evidenced by this photo. The lip color I find is best described as "rose," a medium pink that makes my teeth look yellow and my skin look weird. I am beginning to believe that Carole was right.

Winter

If you look like Snow White, you’re a winter. If your hair is grey prematurely, you’re probably a winter too. If you’re black or Asian, olive-skinned or "raven-haired", you are definitely a winter. If you’re a winter, you’re probably not white. Winters do not wear orange, but they can wear pure white and pure black. Winters wear neons and pastels that are shot through with white, like "icy pink" and "icy aqua", two colors that bring to mind Lacoste polos worn on top of each other, with the collars popped. It becomes clear to me that I learned the word "sallow" by reading this section with the devotion some dedicate to a religious text. Winters are the catch-all of the seasons, a category of leftovers. If you look a certain way that doesn’t map neatly onto the scale of various shades of white, surprise: you’re a winter. Take this neon pink caftan and join your sisters.

Image: Shaina Travis

This dress makes me happy, partly because it is a shapeless sack and partly because this green is a color that I love. I wear this bright fuchsia lipstick when I’m too lazy to do anything else to my face. I think it makes me look alive and vibrant and also like I’m wearing mascara and have filled in my brows. I have owned a bathing suit — the most stressful item of clothing to date —that contains every single shade in the winter palette. I am a winter. Carole was right.


Holding onto preconceived notions of yourself and the way that you look and never giving them the space to change is a strange thing. I’ve carried the truths of Carole Jackson with me for as long as I can remember, but I’ve spent large chunks of my life trying new things that didn’t quite work. To always wear the same things — a black dress, a white shirt, a tropical print tee that goes with everything — feels limiting in a way, because fashion is meant for exploration. We change our looks with our moods. To firmly check off a box that places you, unwavering and sure, in a strict category feels limiting. But really, it’s not: the colors just work. It’s what you do with them that counts.

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