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My fashion faux pas, or why Einstein is my style hero

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

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Over seven decades I have acquired a range of skills of which I am justifiably proud. I can floss my teeth, operate a vacuum cleaner and dishwasher, drive a car and read and write passably well. I can even cook a mean plate of scrambled eggs with bacon.

It thus came as a shock to learn that I am totally unschooled in one important aspect of living – something I learned while staying recently with my daughter and her family.

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I had come down to breakfast one morning wearing a pair of tan-coloured slacks with a mustard-beige, long-sleeved shirt, one of my favourite combinations for informal occasions. Before long my daughter gently pointed out that my shirt and pants were not, as she diplomatically put it, colour co-ordinated.

Responding to my blank look, she explained that the colours of the two garments should be both contrasting and complementary. I asked for clarification, which triggered a lengthy and wholly amicable discussion of acceptable colour combinations.

Apparently there is an entire field of human endeavour devoted to ensuring that articles of` clothing are correctly colour-matched. The key is knowing which colours complement each other. A Colour Circle, divided into segments following the spectrum of the rainbow, is used to match primary colours with their complements, which generally are found on the opposite side of the circle. There is even a Colour Triangle that provides similar information and is easier to understand.

Fortunately for people like me, who find this daunting, there is a fallback position: Black and white are neutral, and can be worn with any other colour.

As my daughter delicately put it, clothes make a statement about the wearer. According to that rationale, I have been projecting the wrong signals for as long as I can remember!

I readily confess I had never heard of a Colour Circle, let alone a Colour Triangle. During my 10 years in British boarding schools, the question of colour compatibility never arose: We all wore grey flannel trousers with white shirt, black tie and dark blue blazer. Consequently, I have gravitated toward a conservative wardrobe, eschewing bright hues and other manifestations of sartorial flamboyance.

I am aware that in some cultures much importance is attached to one's attire. My son-in-law is of Italian descent and is careful about his choice of clothes. In fact I have noticed that those from a Mediterranean background tend to be more fashion-conscious than Northern Europeans. Living in a warmer climate, I presume, encourages experimentation in dress, and multihued textiles are readily available.

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Northern Europeans (among whom I count myself) would have less opportunity for such frivolity. Animal skins do not tend to come in different pastel hues and survival in a cold climate would naturally trump displays of chromatic differentiation.

Besides factors of geographic origin, I believe there is a gender component. I have observed that women are more sensitive to juxtaposition of colours. Men are better at detecting motion and distinguishing shades of grey. Perhaps this is a result of evolutionary adaptation. For Stone Age women gathering food, the ability to discern the reds and oranges of fruit amid the green tree canopy would have been advantageous. Men hunting prey at dusk may have honed their skills at detecting slight movements in the underbrush, or the darker outline of a deer against evening shadows. I take comfort in believing that my shortcomings are the fault of my evolutionary past.

I recall my late wife asking if I remembered a certain lady at a recent house party, "the one in the yellow dress with the black belt." For the life of me I could not recall anyone in yellow, or in any other colour for that matter. "Do you mean the brunette with the slim figure, cleavage and husky voice?" I asked (responding to some evolutionary imperative). "You men are all the same!" was her disdainful reply.

By now my artistic friends will be nodding their heads in unison, my long-suspected deficiencies exposed for all to see.

Fortunately, I sense I'm not alone. I recall a photograph of Albert Einstein wearing the same shaggy sweater he had worn for some 20 years while lecturing at Princeton. The sweater became part of his persona and made a statement of a kind, though it probably broke every rule in the fashion guidebook.

Now, the question is what, at this stage in my life, I should do about this suddenly exposed gap in my laboriously acquired skill set?

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I am well past the stage of trying to impress others. Increasingly my brain is clogged with passwords and PIN numbers and trying to remember which button to press when my cellphone rings. Do I really have to memorize a Colour Circle?

After much deliberation I have decided I'm going to take my lumps and continue as before. As long as my clothes are clean, in good repair and comfortable I will not fret about colour compatibility. I'll continue making periodic fashion misstatements and committing chromatic aberrations. Meanwhile, I will be comforted by images of Einstein's famous sweater.

After all, leaving aside the genius aspect, if it was good enough for Einstein it should be good enough for me.

John K. Nixon lives in West Vancouver.

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