Low Contrast, High Contrast. What’s it all mean?

CAQ #40 blog featured photo-Hey, There,

Think quickly!! What did Uma Thurman look like in the movie “Pulp Fiction?” (Hint: Remember her “Cleopatra” hairstyle? What color was her hair? What was her complexion?)

Write your answers down.

Got it? OK. Second question…What was Uma Thurman wearing in the movie “Pulp Fiction?” If you’ve worked with me you should know the answers to both! (Hint: The answers to what she looked like and what she was wearing are very similar.)

Got it? Write your answer down.

My client Tracy sent me a question that I wanted to address in today’s newsletter:

What does it mean to dress low contrast (and I presume there are other contrasts that other people ought to wear), and what examples of outfits?

Thank you Tracy!

Before I get into Tracy’s question, let me just begin by saying that dressing within your contrast level is something that I teach my clients during my 2-hour Initial Consultation. However, my Initial Consultation also includes many other style tips, tools and techniques, that this concept, which is a little hard to grasp, can easily be overlooked or forgotten.

However, in my opinion, dressing within one’s contrast level is one of the fine nuances in dressing well.

So…at this point you may be a little confused and asking, “OK, Michelle, so can you now get to the question?”


There are 3 levels of “contrast” when it comes to getting dressed:

  1. Low Contrast
  2. Medium Contrast
  3. High Contrast

Your outfit is considered “Low Contrast” when the colors you’re wearing are all around the same value or intensity. Meaning you could be wearing all Light value colors, all Medium value colors, or all Dark value colors in one outfit, and your outfit would be considered “Low Contrast.”

If you have Light value colors mixed with Medium value colors, Medium value colors mixed with Dark value colors, or Medium Dark value colors mixed with Medium Light value colors, in your outfit, then your outfit would be considered, “Medium Contrast.”

If you have Light value colors mixed with Dark value colors in your outfit, your outfit would be considered “High Contrast.” In short, the highest contrast that you could have in an outfit would be mixing BLACK – Level 1 on a gray scale value guide. and WHITE – Level 10 on a gray scale value guide.

csq 40 contrast levels (1)

As a side note, when you’re dressed “monochromatically,” you’re wearing one color from head to toe, therefore there is no “contrast.”

So what does this have to do with you?

Well, let’s go back to Uma Thurman in the movie “Pulp Fiction” for a minute. If you’ve seen the movie you may recall that Her character had Dark brown, almost black hair. Her complexion was quite fair – Light, and her eyes were Light blue. Is that what you wrote down?

If you took a black and white photo of her and compared her “personal coloring” (The color values of her hair, skin, and eyes) with the gray scale value guide here, we would say that her “Dark” hair was a value of 1-2, her “Light” skin a value of 9, and her “Light” eyes a value of 8-9. When you have a combination of “Light” and “Dark” values, in style speak we would say that her own personal coloring is “High Contrast.”

Now, let’s look at what her character was wearing: A white shirt and black pants. Did you guess correctly? Her character’s outfit is also “High Contrast.”

Because her character’s “personal coloring” and her “outfit” were the same contrast levels, “High Contrast,” we would say that she was dressing in an “outfit” that was perfect for her “personal coloring.”

CSQ 40 contrast levels. Uma Thurman (1)

Now, let’s look at Gwyneth Paltrow. Where do you think her “personal coloring” would be on the gray scale value guide if you were to take a black and white photo of her?

If you guessed that she would be considered “Low Contrast” you would be correct. Her hair, is very “Light” blond with a value of 8-9, her “Light” skin is around the same, and her eyes, although they would register the darkest value of the three,  are also “Light,” a value of 8.

Gwyneth looks beautiful and ethereal when she is dressing right for her contrast level – meaning when she wears colors that are the same or very close in value or intensity. Picture her in a white column dress with a light blue wrap – stunning!

Make note too that an African American who has dark skin, eyes, and hair can also be considered “High Contrast” if he or she has bright white teeth, and the whites around their eyes are bright white as well.  

You can see why unless you’re “High Contrast” in your “personal coloring,” wearing black and white in an outfit can be overpowering or too strong if you are “Low Contrast” or “Medium Contrast.”

However, black and white combos in an outfit are very classic and popular. If you aren’t “High Contrast” in your “personal coloring” but love to wear that popular combo, just know that it is perfectly OK to wear, but that it may not be the best color combo and value on you.

Many people, especially women, love the boldness of black and white for the look, and for their Personality. For example, Ellen Degeneres is “Low Contrast” but her Personality is bold, and her signature look is white shirts and a black jacket and pants – “High Contrast.”

CSQ #40 Alek, Gwyneth, Ellen (3)

Just know that if you aren’t “High Contrast” your outfit may be taking center stage, depending upon the outfit, wearing you instead of you wearing it. Meaning it is the difference between getting compliments such as, “Wow! Love your outfit!”  and, “Wow! That is a great outfit on YOU!”

There is no right or wrong, just choices depending upon how you want the world to see you and react to you. And…when it comes to making those choices, you are at the helm.

Maybe you aren’t “High Contrast” but you always seem to negotiate a great deal or have good luck when you wear your “High Contrast” outfit. It could be that it gives you the confidence and boldness you need. Or maybe you just feel at the top of your game in “High Contrast.” Whatever it is, if it’s working, and you feel how you want to feel, then by all means, go for it!

Bonus tip: For those of you thinking, “Oh no, I’ve been dressing all wrong,” know that whatever your contrast level (Low, Medium, or High) don’t feel limited to dressing within that level only. You can experiment with “neighboring” contrast levels and see how you look and feel:

  • If you’re “Low Contrast” experiment with an outfit that is “Medium Contrast.”
  • If you’re “Medium Contrast” try experimenting with a “Low Contrast” or “High Contrast” outfit. 
  • If you’re “High Contrast,” experiment with a “Medium Contrast” outfit. 

Pay close attention to how the colors in your outfit look against your own “personal coloring.” 

Want to change your contrast level? Change your personal coloring. The easiest way to do that is to change the color of your hair. If you have Light fair skin and Light blond hair and you dye your hair red, you will go from “Low Contrast” to “Medium Contrast.” Dye your hair to jet black and you are now “High Contrast.”

Knowing your contrast level is an empowering style tool. Use this knowledge to change your contrast level to your liking, and to create outfits that you know are going to look the best with your “personal coloring.”

I hope that answers your question, Tracy! I know this stuff can be confusing, so I hope by clarifying it here, you and everyone else has a better understanding of how to dress right for his or her contrast level.

Now, it’s your turn. I’d love to hear from you.  Your insights and inspiration are appreciated so please share your stories in the comments below.

Blog me.



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By | 2017-09-21T13:16:42+00:00 January 20th, 2016|Style Resources|4 Comments


  1. Suzanne January 30, 2016 at 3:17 PM - Reply


    This is so interesting

  2. Suzanne January 30, 2016 at 3:20 PM - Reply

    Oops, I didn’t mean to post yet.

    I wanted to say that I found this very interesting and want to learn more about this. I am a medium skinned african american. I like to wear bright colors. How does the contrast come into play with my PC?



  3. Suzanne January 30, 2016 at 3:22 PM - Reply

    I have dark brown eyes and dark brown hair. 🙂

    • Michelle Moquin February 28, 2016 at 3:42 PM - Reply

      Hi, Suzanne,

      I am sorry for the remiss reply. I will answer your question in my next newsletter which will be sent out on Wednesday morning. Talk to you then!



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