Using the Power of Colour to Shape the Narrative

The little black dress may be a standard sartorial choice, but there’s a reason women in power turn to colour, whether blocking, clashing or tonal, to send a stong message.

Article by Kara Byers

Photography by Cotton Bro.

On the day of the US presidential inauguration earlier this year, Vice-president Kamala Harris, former first ladies Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, and Senator Elizabeth Warren all chose to wear purple, a colour that signalled a clear message: we’re in this together.

For anyone who missed it, purple is often used to represent bipartisanship because it’s a mix of blue, signifying the Democratic party, and Republican red. Purple also has historic ties to the suffragette movement. These women — Harris, Obama and Clinton, in particular — are no strangers to using colour to convey a message and control a narrative. To make her election victory speech, Harris wore all white, from her suit to her pussy-bow blouse and pearls. The colour has been taken to signify resistance to gender inequality and, many commentators said, the style of blouse was a reclamation statement, a nod to overpowering Trump and his talk of grabbing women by the genitals.

For her final speech as FLOTUS, Obama chose to wear bright red, a nod to the incoming Republican administration and a full-circle moment to some of her first appearances as first lady. She’d worn another vibrant red in 2011, during the White House state dinner with leaders of China (the national colour) and again at the second inaugural ball in 2013 (again acknowledging the opposing party). And Clinton, the master of colour dressing to create and control narratives; during her first election campaign she wore a kaleidoscope of coloured trouser suits that became so famous they sparked memes, but in her second she chose more muted tones, sending a clear statement of “Don’t look at what I’m wearing, listen to what I have to say”.

That doesn’t mean that only those with a political message can wield colour to beaconise what they stand for. According to Melbourne-based personal stylist Lucy Owens, who specialises in empowering people through fashion, wearing colour can have a radical effect on an individual’s personal brand and the message they convey. “Just think of the following brands — Tiffany & Co., Starbucks, Mercedes-Benz, Cadbury — and I’m sure a colour immediately comes to mind for each one,” she says. “Even though it may be unconscious, social psychologists recognise that colour is the first thing we notice on other people and it has an immediate and powerful impact.”

She adds, wearing and using colour consciously in your outfits can naturally elevate your self-confidence and your influence, not to mention making you appear “more attractive, powerful and youthful”. With the right choice of colour, you command a room. “Colour can and should be used not just to create a pleasing appearance but to positively influence and impact those around you,” she says. “We see colour first — just imagine two women enter a room, one in a red dress, the other in black. Who do you notice first? Colour has a powerful and lasting effect.”

Photography by Cotton Bro.

Visualise the streets of Melbourne and the streets of Mumbai, for example. The former is known for its large swathes of people clad in black, while the latter is filled with women adorned in saris in every colour. We hold different opinions of each city, not least because of the colour associations we subconsciously make.

You can use colour to help you stand out in a crowd, create a lasting and memorable impression and, above all, have an overall vitality and vibrance in the way you look,” Owens says. However, colour neophytes need to tread carefully to ensure their outfit efforts don’t detract from the message they want to convey. An easy feat, achieved with a little shopping and a lot of shade awareness, Owens assures.

“While there are some general associations and messages conveyed with colours, the particular hue or shade you choose is significant,” she says. “Take green, for example. It’s the colour of growth, abundance and vitality. A bright lime green suggests playfulness and youthfulness and can help to clear negative thoughts. On the other hand, the darker shades of green can make you seem distant and can signify greed and materialism.”

In the Western world, according to Owens, certain colours in their purest hue are accepted as evoking basic psychological reactions. Red symbolises energy, passion, action; blue conveys trust, reliability, stability; orange communicates happiness, courage, friendliness; yellow suggests optimism, energy, innovation; pink means compassion, hope, kindness; purple is regal, creative and spiritual; while white signifies purity, light, innocence.

“When you understand what colours you look best in, as well as the way different colours are perceived, you have a power palette you can mix and play with,” Owens says. “In general, darker colours — in particular, high-contrast outfits — are more authoritative and powerful. Although beware this look, as it can be bold and intimidating. Lighter, muted colours will appear much gentler and more passive, especially where there is little to no contrast.”

Harris knew what she wore on the day of the inauguration and on the night she and Biden claimed election victory would send out as much of a message about their politics, intent and position as anything they said. But non-politicos can also harness the power of colour to command a room, a narrative and a place at the table. As Owens puts it, “When you know what impression you desire to leave, colour is one of the easiest ways to help you achieve it.”