Over The Rainbow: Can Colourful Clothes Really Make You Happy?

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Over The Rainbow: Can Colourful Clothes Really Make You Happy?

Words by Mr Jim Merrett | Photography by Mr Daniel Benson | Styling by Ms Otter Hatchett

1 July 2022

I am very tired. (Although hopefully, thanks to extensive retouching, you can’t tell.) I’m a 43-year-old father of two and, every morning, without fail, at least one of them will wake me up before my alarm goes off. Whenever I read an article explaining how important sleep is to my mental health – here on MR PORTER, we’ve published a few – I think: the person that wrote this doesn’t have young children. These days, it’s probably easier to point to where on my body it doesn’t ache. And while I’d like to think I’m not exactly grumpy, I can be irritable. Short-tempered, certainly. Prickly, perhaps.

I barely have the bandwidth to juggle my work and home lives, let alone think about the clothes I wear, which could explain why my wardrobe leans heavily into the essentials. Classic pieces, such as casual shirts, polos and chinos, mostly in predictable shades of black, grey and dark blue. Maybe, if there are no kids or condiments nearby, I’ll stretch to a white T-shirt.

I need stuff that works as a unit with little effort or consideration on my part. It can’t rely on one key item to tie it all together because that item is typically at the bottom of the laundry basket (my clothes are lowest priority). Character is something that is relegated to my sock drawer.

But maybe I’m going about this all wrong. When it comes to the SS22 fashion collections, brash, bright colours are big news. On TikTok, this trend for clashing tones and patterns has a name, “dopamine dressing”. (TikTokker Ms Mandy Lee calls it a “celebration of joy”.) If the kids – not my kids – are right, by ditching the blacks and navy blues for tie-dyes and neon, I won’t just be all the rage, but I might even subdue my own rage, too.

This theory is not without scientific backing. According to Ms Shakaila Forbes-Bell, a fashion psychologist and the author of Big Dress Energy, there is evidence to suggest that a big fit can also lift your mood. “Researchers discovered that the symbolic meanings we attach to clothing have the power to change the way we think and behave,” she says. “Survey data shows that we tend to associate bright colours with positive emotions, so when we wear these colours we embody these emotions, which subsequently makes us feel better.”

But it’s more than an association; the wavelength of certain colours have a proven physiological effect. “Long-wavelength colours like red, orange and yellow activate the sympathetic neurons in our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which causes us to feel aroused, passionate, sociable and extroverted,” Forbes-Bell says. “Conversely, short-wavelength colours like purple and blue activate the parasympathetic neurons, which makes us feel docile and calm. These physiological responses are often universal, but language and cultural associations can shape your experience.”

So, it’s officially a vibe, but how to wear it? “It’s about being instinctual and tapping into what colours/prints/shapes you’re drawn to,” encourages Ms Lauren Cochrane, senior fashion writer at The Guardian. She suggests “channelling your inner toddler” (in truth, I’ve barely got to grips with my outer one).

Cochrane points me to a recent interview with Mr Pete Davidson that appeared in GQ. “My motto is just to wear whatever makes you feel good,” said the poster boy for this chaotic, colourful mash-up of clothing. “I don’t overthink things,” he added. “I’ve always been someone who prefers to chuck on clothes and go about my day.” (This last comment brings to mind that famous Sir Hardy Amies quote about style, although it’s certainly not what Sir Hardy had in mind when he said it.)

“Psychologists say it’s a personal thing, rather than a formula. Comfort is also part of kidcore, so an easy shape such as a hoodie in a bold colour is maybe an entry-level option”

Given that I’ve already spoken to two experts before landing on Davidson, we’re already well past not overthinking things. However, I still feel the need for more support, from someone who has worn bright colours professionally, and thankfully – in my capacity as a parent – I know just the guy.

“As a general styling tip, anything more than different three colours in one outfit is too much,” says Mr Ryan Russell. “Especially if they are bright, bold colours.”

Now an actor playing Michael Bailey in long-running British soap opera Coronation Street (a character often seen in a cheery yellow jacket), in a previous television life, Russell was a presenter on BBC children’s channel CBeebies, and as such a regular fixture in our house. He’s worn more bright pigments that most – although not green, which he says plays havoc with the chroma key.

“If I had more the one tone throughout my outfit, which was often the case in CBeebies, I generally stuck to the rule of having a lighter colour on top and a darker colour for the bottom, followed by white/off-white trainers,” he says. “I think this gives the best balance to an outfit. I’d try to avoid wearing anything black while wearing bright colours – it’s too contrasting.” He adds that this might be a personal preference.

But where I’m going, there are no rules. Cochrane assures me that rather than considering what works together, it’s about focusing on the colours and patterns that make me happy.

“Psychologists say it’s a personal thing, rather than a formula,” she says. “Comfort is also part of kidcore [another branch of this self-centred trend], so an easy shape such as a hoodie in a bold colour is maybe an entry-level option. I guess to dip a toe in, a way to do it would be to have one piece with a vibrant print or a specific colour clash and go with that rather than going full Davidson.”

It was with the aid of MR PORTER’s dedicated team of stylists, however, that I took a plunge into what you might consider the deep end. And it would be remiss to have a conversation about colour in the current sartorial climate without mentioning Bottega Veneta. Once known for its signature intrecciato weave, the Italian leatherworker turned fashion powerhouse is these days more likely associated with particularly vibrant shade of green. And while “Parakeet”, as it is called, wouldn’t fly in the CBeebies studio, the brand has since laid claim to a number of Instagrammable tones. Among them, an atomic chartreuse, which I was furnished with, in the form of a quilted gilet.

I’ve worn less eye-catching items while cycling through the city at night, but I can’t deny the impact this item has. Teamed with a sweater in Bottega’s trademark green tone, I feel like I could light up any room that I enter, from offices to art galleries, although I can’t shake off the idea that I should be helping schoolchildren cross a busy road.

By comparison, a shirt and scarf in contrasting patterns, worn over a lilac tee, is somewhat subdued. And, while the Bottega set-up positively radiates, select colour clashes teamed with neutral tones, to my mind, offers a slower release of energy.

But if this trend is as much about comfort as it is colour, then a name to know is The Elder Statesman. The cult Californian brand has cornered the burgeoning market for psychedelic cashmere wares, instilling the notion that “feel good” can and should feel even better than that. Its line of slouchy shawl-collar cardigans improbably join the dots between the Dude from The Big Lebowski and Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. You’d think that this rainbow-hued proposal would be hard to pull off in the real world, but I could happily live in this garment for the rest of my days. And I guess that’s the warm, fuzzy place we’re aiming for here.

Indeed, any apprehension that I may have had when it came to clashing patterns and colours proved wide of the mark when actually wearing them. I could feel the double-takes and I did get a few questions on the morning school run, although generally, they were variations of: where did you get that? As ever, the key to nailing this look turns out to be confidence, and by embracing the pieces that express you best, that, too, gets a boost. It’s a virtuous circle.

Those bright colours didn’t just seem to lift my mood, either. They also cheered up the people around me – my friends and family, and the photography crew who caught these dazzling outfits.

I’ve always been a fan of a jazzy sock, but since my enforced sartorial saturation, I’ve found that vibe spilling out into the rest of my wardrobe, too. And while I haven’t binned the navy blues, greys and blacks entirely, I’m increasingly finding uses for those low-key tones as a backdrop for wilder pieces.

Is that really a spring in my step? Had I been more scientific in my approach, I would’ve had my dopamine levels checked before and after this experiment (or am I overthinking things again?). But I certainly feel something. And, this time, it’s not just the pain in my lower back.

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