When it comes to color, most people fall into one of two camps; those who use their clothing to express themselves, and those who couldn’t care less.
Whether or not you are consciously aware of how color impacts your decision-making, self confidence, or impressions of others, however, is irrelevant. At the end of the day your color choices matter, especially when it comes to dressing appropriately for significant, high-pressure situations in the workplace.
“I feel that color can have a huge impact on the outcome of every business situation,” says David Zyla, an Emmy award-winning stylist and best-selling author of Color Your Style: How to Wear Your True Colors. “Even the person that says ‘I’m not into fashion, I don’t care what I wear,’ even they make choices based on color.”
Zyla explains that whether consciously or not, everyone has a preferred color, certain outfits that they feel best matches certain occasions, and at least a basic sense of what looks good on them, based on a lifetime of comments and compliments from others.
When it comes to finding the colors that suit us best, however, Zyla believes we should start by looking inward. “Each person is the subject of a great portrait, and we’ve been painted already,” he says. “We have certain colors in our eyes, hair, and skin, and if we pull those colors out and think of it as our background, then clothing, accessories and makeup are just there to illuminate what’s there already.”
Presenting and public speaking
When it comes to dressing for a public speaking event, for example, or delivering any workplace presentation, Zyla recommends seeking your “power color,” like a blue, green, or purple.
“Everyone has a personal version of this color and it’s pretty simple to find individually,” he says. “It’s the dominant vein color in your wrist—it could be turquoise, it could be blue violet, it could be emerald green—and that is the color that says ‘look at me, listen to me, I’m worth hearing out.'”
Working in groups
When it comes to collaborative activities, however, Zyla recommends staying away from power colors, or anything that stands out too heavily from the crowd.
“If you want to appear trustworthy in a meeting, wearing a color that reflects the darkest color in your eye does that, because it illuminates the eyes, which are the window to the soul,” he says. “It’s very open, very honest, very collaborative; it says to your group, ‘I’m part of this give-and-take, we’re a team'”
“If you become too colorful you distract from the work you’re doing,” adds Leatrice Eiseman, the director of the Eiseman Center for Color Information & Training and executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. “If you’re going to be wearing too many busy colors, the eye is going to be drawn to that outfit, rather than the job at hand.”
When it comes to dressing for a job interview, Eiseman believes color choices should be a function of the job and industry itself. Darker power colors like navy, black, and charcoal convey a sense of seriousness and trustworthiness, and are best suited for roles and industries that value consistency and reliability. “But pair it with something that will make you more memorable,” advises Eiseman, adding that it’s hard to stand out when you dress like every other applicant.
She suggests wearing “the power colors with something that will catch their attention; for a guy maybe a tie, for a woman it can be a piece of jewelery or an accessory that will stand out against that black, charcoal, navy, gray or beige.”
Other industries, however, might value a deeper expression of personality and individuality, particularly in more creative fields.
“If you’re applying for a role at a cosmetic company or a design firm that is known for doing quirky, contemporary designs you don’t want to just fall back on some rule of thumb that you should always wear black or gray or charcoal,” says Eiseman. “What you have to think of is the industry and their expectations and what you want to get across to them.”
Though similar to job interviews, dressing for a performance review is somewhat distinct, as there’s already a sense of familiarity with the other party. At the same time you can’t get too comfortable, as it could suggest you’re not taking the interaction seriously enough.
“It’s important to remember that although you’re familiar with the business and how it works, a performance review is still a formal occasion,” explains Nicole Cavin, the digital marketing assistant for U.K.-based retail giant Quiz Clothing. Cavin says that while there are plenty of options, you can’t go wrong with white, a tone that conveys a clean slate and an empty canvas with limitless possibilities.
“This tone is perceived to be the least arrogant color and makes you look optimistic about your future, which is a positive when discussing the next steps of your career,” she says.
Confidence always comes first
No matter the situation, however, what’s most important is that the clothes you wear make you feel confident.
“When it comes to what you wear, you should strive to feel comfortable first,” says Cavin. “Feeling uncomfortable projects a bad energy and it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll not be presenting the best version of you, and the people around you will notice.”
Eiseman agrees, adding that feeling confident and positive in your own clothes should trump all other trends and expectations. “That’s always got to be part of the equation,” she says. “Never force yourself to wear a color just because it’s a trend color or someone advised you to wear it; wearing something that you feel good in is the most important.”