How To Wear Colour

Think you can't pull off bright colours? Think again

MOST POPULAR

ELLE Content Editor Leisa Millar was afraid to stand out at work. So, with colour everywhere, we set her a bold fashion challenge for the March 2014 issue. And she found out that everyone can do it. Not convinced? Read on, then buy the April 2015 issue of ELLE for more tips on how to wear colour.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Image: Leisa Millar, née Barnett, ELLE's Content Editor | Victoria Adamson

I am walking down the street in the middle of the day and, when I come up out of my body to look at me, it’s like I’m moving in slo-mo. I am on fire. The heads of passers-by crane to get a look at me. ‘Who’s that girl?’ runs the whisper. My punchy yellow Roksanda skirt is skittish around my legs. My Joseph jumper is unapologetically green. In a film, this is the bit where I’d toss my head, and my hair would swoosh about my shoulders, all buoyant. Only, in the real world, I haven’t washed my hair. Well, one thing at a time. And actually, no one is looking at me anyway. What did I expect? I have been challenged to give up my beloved, anonymous wardrobe – my safe go-to black trousers, my navy coat – for the challenge of colour. (I blame Miuccia Prada, but, frankly, she’s the tip of the iceberg this season.) For seven days, not an inky knit nor an ebony wool trouser shall touch my body, so help me God. I am stepping into glorious technicolour. I am playing s/s 2014 to win.

MOST POPULAR

It’s a challenge I relish. I love a challenge. When I was 21, I moved to Japan straight out of university. Growing up in the North East, brought up by a hard-working mum after my dad died young, making a life for myself – alone – in Asia should have been daunting. I didn’t know anyone there. I didn’t know the language. I didn’t, in retrospect, know anything about the world. I just wanted to go.

I’d always loved learning languages, but people around me were sceptical. I remember daydreaming out loud as a teenager about moving to Paris, and my then-stepfather laughing. It didn’t crush the old colourful me; it made me defiant. Japan trumped France and, when I learned that I could work teaching English, and be paid to do the travelling I desperately wanted but couldn’t afford, I jumped at it. I wasn’t a colour-phobe in those days. Quite the opposite. There’s a picture of me in a multicoloured skirt and a turquoise jumper, kawaii – or ‘cute’, as my students might have told me – as you please.

What is it about the intervening years that’s changed things? Like most women my age, I now have a career I work hard at and am desperately proud of. But I am in equal part terrified that someone might one day say, ‘Oh, sorry, we made a mistake.’ So I keep my head down and get on. That’s my stoic, working-class upbringing for you: You don’t brag; you don’t make a fuss; you don’t take; you wait till you’re offered. You are, above all things, grateful.

I’ve always felt it served me well – I got this far, didn’t I? But at what cost? Japan led me to a husband, then London, and said career was just getting going when it all started to fall apart, and I had a choice to make: my job or my marriage. I chose my marriage. It was the wrong decision.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Coming back to London, just weeks later, was humiliating. I felt like I’d burned my bridges; that I’d had my shot and blown it. I was too embarrassed to look up old contacts; to start networking again and shooting for jobs suitable for my experience. I was punishing myself. I was determined to start from the bottom, to not make a fuss. To do it right this time; to clean the horror of what went before away.

Only of course, it doesn’t work like that. I ran into people I used to know and was too embarrassed to remind them that we used to work together. I’d go home and cry, frustrated with myself for not being braver; for not being able to say, ‘I made a mistake. So what?’ It was around this time, I suppose, that what I wore started to get put on mute, too. But it wasn’t a bad time – it was probably the most valuable time of my life. I put myself into therapy. I started a life with my now-fiancé. I got freelance writing jobs. I found perspective. I had moments where I felt happy. Like my confidence, though, my wardrobe never did quite recover.

Fast forward five years, and kowtowing to the imposter syndrome, in my anonymous navy-black, has become second nature. Somehow, though, I have found my way to ELLE. And my editor Lorraine’s not having any of it. At our Christmas party, she presents each of the team with a diary emblazoned with a nickname. Mine is ‘Bossy Barnett’. ‘Channel me!’ is her war cry when it comes to getting my job done. She sets me a challenge: to spend a week wearing colour. The subtext is obvious: I need to be braver. But I no longer relish a challenge; I have too much to lose. With great assertiveness comes great responsibility, and I can’t take another failure. Or can I?

I ease myself in gently with ‘blue Monday’. It’s Acne leather trousers in royal blue with a white Joseph shirt and a Designers Remix jacket in powder blue. For good measure, I add pink lipstick. Hell, if I’m wearing colour, I might as well go for it. I feel exposed; like I haven’t put ‘me’ on. I brace myself to leave my flat in my weird, flashy nakedness, but… nothing. No one looks at me. I get into the office, and a few people comment on the fact I’m wearing lipstick, and that they like my jacket. No one utters the c-word. It’s like they haven’t even noticed.

It’s a recurring theme. By Thursday I am so bold as to take a banana yellow Karl Lagerfeld leather jacket for a spin on the Tube. I scan the carriage, eager to catch someone’s eye, to gauge their reaction. But no one has noticed me. Everyone is wearing some kind of variation on black, blue or brown, apart from one girl who is in a cobalt coat and matching beanie. She hasn’t noticed me, either. Still, I keep watch on her out of the corner of my eye, like she’s some kind of ally.

It’s a curious thing. Apparently, the world is nonplussed by what I’m wearing. Is my choice of clothes inextricably linked with my personality? Yes, but these people don’t know me, and they don’t care. It’s weirdly liberating. Colour becomes my new Japanese: a code to be cracked. It quickly becomes apparent that, regardless of what colour they are, your staples are your staples. A pair of orange Kurt Geiger heels almost instantly become my go-to footwear. I find myself considering buying the printed Monki jumper, and ‘accidentally’ stashing those Acne trousers at home.

I’m also surprised to learn that it’s cut and shape over colour that affect how comfortable I feel in what I’m wearing. One night, I go to a fashion party that a friend is hosting. She is wearing a black dress and trainers. She looks amazing – comfortable, confident. I am wearing an orange jumper and a patterned pencil skirt by Bimba & Lola, beautiful but for the fact that it’s clingy, and slits way too way high up each side. I faff about with it endlessly. I can’t relax – so much so that the outrageousness of the orange jumper is forgotten. At least that’s roomy, and warm.

Can it really be as simple as falling in love with a piece of clothing but making the conscious decision to reach for it in hot pink over slate? Maybe. A colleague points out that the quality of the fabric is much more apparent in a lighter shade. Black hides a multitude of sins, including its own.

There’s the crux of it. I’ve been hiding. Wearing colour is no biggie, ultimately, but you will stand out in a crowd. I don’t like to shout. But I’m conscious of it now, and I need to kill the urge to blend in. It’s time to step out of my own shadow.

Read Next: