Which colours make you look your most attractive?

I’ve never had much interest in fashion, but I’ve often wondered why every season designers pass down new proclamations about which colours are now in style. For example, the recent Pantone Fashion Color Report for Fall 2014 confirms that no fashionista worth her salt will be seen in anything other than Radiant Orchid, Sangria, or Mauve Mist. If you’ve got no idea what any of those terms mean, I can assure you — you’re not alone.

The reason I get confused is because, surely if a colour looks good then that’s that. Why do we need to change it? The scientist in me wants us to decide which is the best colour, once and for all, and then stick with it!

Fortunately, my sanity has been saved by Craig Roberts of the University of Liverpool, who recently published a paper in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. He took photographs of ten men and ten women wearing t-shirts of six different colors: red, black, blue, green, yellow and white. Every person wore every one of the six shirts, which meant that there were six photographs per person. Each image was rated for attractiveness by 30 opposite-sex raters. Even though the people wearing the shirts were the same, the highest ratings of attractiveness were given to those in red or black.

In an interesting twist, Roberts then showed the images to a new set of raters, and this time he obscured the clothing so that only the face was visible. He found that people were still more attractive when they wore red than when they wore the other 5 colours, even though the clothing colour itself was no longer visible.

Why might this be? One explanation is that red is a signal of superiority, used throughout nature to indicate dominance. In fact, previous research has shown that sports teams and athletes who wear red perform disproportionately better than teams who wear other colours. This might inspire confidence in wearers of red, which in turn subtly alters their facial expressions and makes them more attractive.

Roberts’ paper is open access, which means you can read it online for free. You can find the link below. If you’re convinced by its arguments you might want to ditch your amparo blue dresses and eucalyptus tops and buy a whole new wardrobe in red. Or, as Pantone might put it, Aurora Red.

Roberts, S. C., Owen, R. C., & Havlíček, J. (2010). Distinguishing between perceiver and wearer effects in clothing color-associated attributions. Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 350–364. Read paper

The content of this post first appeared in the August 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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