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What Is Color Analysis—the Newest Way to Figure Out Your Ideal Palette?

I want to be a Moonlit Winter! It makes me think of crunchy snowdrifts and hot toddies and burnished rosy cheeks and cherry red lips. Alas, this is not to be. Jeannie Stith, the founder and CEO of Color Guru, tells me that I am only half right—due to unsuspected greenish tints in my eyes and a yellow undertone lurking in my otherwise ghostly face, I am actually a Vivid Winter. Which means that, in addition to my usual funereal-gray-and-black palette, I can allegedly add chartreuse, shamrock green, and one specific shade of lemon yellow to my repertoire. This comes as quite a shock to me, since a lifetime of shopping has perhaps once or twice found me attempting to don chartreuse or shamrock and then running screaming back to 50 shades of gray.

I am having my “colors” done by Stith because, as it turns out, color theory is suddenly back, mesmerizing a whole generation of rabidly enthusiastic TikTokers—people far too young to remember the previous incarnation of this craze. The appeal remains the same—carefully analyze your skin tone, hair, and eye color, figure out what your “season” is, and pretty soon you will be able to rush out and buy the perfect makeup, and also build a capsule wardrobe composed entirely of things that will actually look good on you, as opposed to the heap of rejects that are currently overflowing your closet.

If you are of a certain age and have a long memory, you may recall that back in the 1980s, a book called Color Me Beautiful was a hit with women all over America, eager to find out their respective seasons. A perusal of the book now provides a harrowing time capsule with unintentionally hilarious anecdotes of autumn moms forcing summer daughters into fall colors; allegedly real-life tales of women like Kathy, who lost 30 pounds in 12 weeks—yikes!—had her colors done, and became a therapist. And there are even celebrity shout-outs to people like Farrah Fawcett, a summer; Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor, both springs; and Diana Ross, a winter.

If the advice here regarding how to build your wardrobe has thankfully been consigned to the dustbin of history—pantyhose!—the essential questions the book seeks to answer—the simple and heartfelt, “Why do I feel like crying when I am confronted with 30,000 shades of lipstick and eye shadow?” and “What colors actually look good on me?”—ring as true today as they did four decades ago.

Only now, we have the ability to share our faces and our potential ensembles with untold thousands of people over sites like Instagram. Just search TikTok for “color theory” and you will find multitudes eagerly sharing their adventures, a phenomenon our predecessors over at Color Me Beautiful could never have imagined. Contemporary DIY instructions on how to discern your colors are everywhere on the internet, but they are not for the faint of heart. One particularly terrifying site gives stern edicts on lighting and camera exposures, offers dictates on how to discover your skin undertones, and teaches you how to drape what seems like thousands of different colored remnants on your shoulders while you take an endless stream of selfies.

Daunted and frankly exhausted by the mere prospect of this project, I am beyond grateful when I find Color Guru, which offers to do the hard work for me. The site only requires that you send over at least seven photos—including one sans makeup, which I assented to in the name of scientific research for this article and which is still giving me nightmares—and a few days later they will send you your 15-page custom “Color Radiance Report.”

The site counsels upward of 800 devotees a month, and for VIP clients, Stith herself—a Calm Summer, if you are wondering—will do an analy­sis over Zoom, which is how I find myself hunched over my laptop as she explains to me that “there used to be only four categories, one for each season, but as soon as you start looking at people and their coloring you see this wide variety.”

We scroll through pics of my hideously unmade-up face surrounded by color wheels: “Your skin tone leans cool, so cool colors will look better on you. This gold is making your skin orangey, the silver is brightening you!” And as for muted shades, “It looks like there’s dust on your face!” I am contemplating my dusty visage as Stith promises to send me my personalized digital color card and a laminated version to arrive shortly in the mail. “We’ve sent color cards to 28 countries—­we have a huge following in Canada, the UK, Australia, and Scandinavia.”

This color theory renaissance is indeed an international phenomenon, sweeping the Far East in particular. Elise Hu, the author of Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital, tells me she believes that “color theory in Korea benefits from the conflation of old and new, ancient and current, that works so well in selling K-beauty trends generally…. It’s based on the five main colors you see in traditional Korean costuming—on one hand you have these symbolic colors passed down from many generations, on the other you have high-tech diagnostic devices that analyze your colors…projecting an aura of what’s new and next.” Among these diagnostic devices, she informs me, are mall kiosks where you can input information about your skin, hair, and eyes, and get an instant readout on whether you are a Warm Summer or a Cool Winter.

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