Why buying clothes is frustrating for the colorblind

Shopping for clothing is one of the more problematic experiences for the colorblind. It brings together some of the most fundamental problems of being color blind.

Naming color comes very natural to most people and doesn’t require a lot of though or effort. You take a look and you know what color it is. Sure, a shade of a color can sometimes require a small moment of contemplation. But you can tell: it’s definitely blue, not a pure blue but rather dark, almost black, navy blue you’d recon.

The colorblind however, are not that good at naming color. Colors tend to lie closer to each other because of their narrowed color spectrum. That’s an issue, because anyone shopping for clothing – online or in a store – has to decide on two very basic things. First: what color is this item? And second: does it look good with my other clothing?

The color of asphalt

Some time ago I found a shirt I liked, it looked either green or gray to me. I knew that the name of the color is sometimes listed on the price tag, so I checked. In this case it was ‘asphalt’. As I was reading it I realized that I had never thought about the actual color of asphalt. Green, black or maybe gray?

Suddenly buying this shirt came to be about one of the great questions of life: what color is asphalt?

First you have to decide on the general color category. I decided on gray, reasoning that buildings are gray and nature is green. Asphalt isn’t part of nature, so I reckoned there was a big chance it wasn’t green but gray.

But this careful consideration can only take you so far. It’s an error prone process that relies on previously learned knowledge that’s often incorrect.

So my working theory was gray, but with all my deduction and reasoning I could still not be sure this was actually true. That’s because green, gray and blue belong – for most colorblind – to the same category. I might not see it all the time, but green is not gray. There’s a world of difference between them.


It’s about style, not function

A simple solution might be just putting ‘gray’ on the price tag. While it would help a lot, it’s not the ultimate solution, sadly.

The name of a color is somewhat of a functional part. Clothing is about style, less about function. Knowing the name of a color is only the first step. Style is subjective, you have to get a feeling of how the color actually looks, if it fits a specific outfit and how it relates to your general apparel.

With a piece of clothing, you have several options of getting a better feeling for the color. You can look at it from different angles, hold it up close or take a few steps back. You can keep it in the light, either the light from the lamps above you or walk over to a window to get some natural light on it. Or you put the piece of clothing next to a differently colored item to try and match or compare it.

I did all of this, it must have looked like some sort of strange ritual dance. I even kept in mind my earlier findings about asphalt probably being gray because of the industrial link.

But I still could not be certain.

Asking for help

The only way of really being certain is to find someone that isn’t color blind and ask. This changes the way you make decisions.

After my rough estimate I had to decide if the piece of clothing was nice enough to take the step of asking someone about the exact color.

This adds another layer of complexity to the process. But most of all it makes you feel helpless. Standing in the middle of the store with a piece of clothing in your hand, looking around for someone to ask the color of the shirt you’d like to buy.

Who will you ask? The guy next to you is dressed the complete opposite of what you dress like, he obviously has no fashion sense. The store clerk is nowhere to be found and the woman in the next isle is on the phone.

When you finally find someone they often give you a confused look, as if you where joking. And you can’t really blame them. The question is kind of silly when it’s not being asked by a child. Everyone is supposed to know the names of all the colors after 3rd grade, right?

Turns out I was right, the asphalt colored shirt was gray, so I bought it. Problem solved, I survived.

But I only bought the shirt because I really liked it. I was lucky enough to be in a store where I could hold the shirt and try to get a better feeling for the shirt. And then I still liked it enough to consider asking someone for help with the color.

Thats a lot of steps, thinking and frustration for just a shirt.