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May 16, 2012

How to Improve Your Color Sense

Cecil Beaton, "Unseen Vogue"

Readers, today I want to talk color.

If there were one sewing-related skill I wish I could master overnight, it would be my color sense.  I think mine is OK, sometimes even good.  But occasionally I see someone walking down the street in an outfit that knocks my socks off, not because of the clothes themselves but because of the wearer's use of color, and I wonder how they do it.

There are no short cuts when it comes to developing one's color sense, imo.  You can look at color wheels and Pantone color books and Color Me Beautiful till the cows come home, but it won't make you a colorist. You have to pay attention to the world around you.




I've always loved color (my living room walls used to be purple) but I never really felt confident about it, to be honest.  Even when I shop for fabric, I rarely go looking for a particular color unless it's for something like Cathy's opera coat, where I already know what I need.  I seldom go out of my way to color coordinate my own clothes, as anyone who's ever met me knows -- it's enough to keep myself showered and shaved.

My living room about eight years ago.

With Cathy's help, about three years ago I put together a color palette for myself and it helped tremendously.  Remember this?  Maybe it's time to do it again.



Lately, I've started paying more attention to master colorists.   I've become familiar with the work of British cintematographer Jack Cardiff ("Black Narcissus"), fashion photographer John Rawlings (Forties and Fifites Vogue), costume designer Dorothy Jeakins ("The Sound of Music", "The Music Man"), and so many others whose work I'd seen for decades and enjoyed, but never connected with the artist behind it.

From "Black Narcissus"



I was at a rehearsal for a project Michael's working on the other day and I noticed these chairs...



...and my friend Stephanie.



These palettes look beautiful to me, but if I hadn't taken photographs, I might not have really noticed them.  Sometimes when I'm walking down the street I have to remind myself to see, if that makes sense.  Usually the colors in our environment just blend into the background and we don't take them in.  That's when it's sometimes nice to carry a camera!

I generally don't look at Martha Stewart Living and magazines of that ilk, not that they aren't pretty.  But I find there's a sameness to so much of what's in mainstream print media; I'd rather find my inspiration elsewhere.   I love the saturated colors of 1940's technicolor movies, Kodachrome portraits, and fashion advertising.   (You may have already seen my Pinterest board of same -- last Pinterest mention today, promise!)

In closing, if you have a sophisticated color sense, how did you develop your eye for color?  Did it come naturally or did you work at it?  Where do you find your inspiration?

Is there a fashion era whose colors you love most, or a film, or an artist that inspires you? 

Do you like unusual color combinations or more classic ones (i.e., red, white, and blue)?

Color me curious!

(Fabulous MGM Technicolor from "Yolanda and the Thief")

41 comments:

  1. For me personally I am a huge colour lover. But I don't recall "getting it" until I was about 16. I had a deep purple wrap cardigan and a white and red dress and it became my favorite outfit because everyone noticed the colours. I stick to colours I like, I know that red is now a colour I don't wear because of my reddish complexion, however pumpkin orange? Mustard yellow? Perfect! Its just trial and error. Being brave is a big part of it too! Good Luck! x

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  2. As a NY-er, I tend to default to our native uniform: black. But I have a sister who has amazing color sense. I always feel three steps behind. So, I can't wait to see others' feedback on this since I've been trying to hone my color skills in the last 2 years.

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    1. How about the purple hair? THAT'S not black! LOL

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    2. Every time I see Clio's pretty purple hair, I want to color my own too. I know this sounds silly but I think I could do a pretty good job with color but shoes hold me back. Shoes are the weakest part of my style. Though right now, I don't think I'm expressing myself well.

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  3. Interesting topic Peter.
    I love color and am not a paint in beige kind of decorator or seamstress.
    I recently repainted the majority of the main level of my home and had a bit of a hard time finding color inspiration. I turned to Pinterest and was disappointed to find so much of the design ideas and photos were of white walls and furniture with black and white large prints on the walls. It looks great and striking on a blog or in a magazine but does anyone really live like that?

    The painting company I hired even sent over a color consultant but when I told her I wanted the kitchen a warm ochre, the dining nook tomato red, the connecting room a lighter shade of the kitchen gold but not off white and the den a deep teal (the living room wasn't being painted but was staying a light olive green) I thought she was going to throw her Sherwin Williams color deck at me! I did get my way (it is my house after all!) and the end result is gorgeous and totally works with our lifestyle. I have furniture and fabrics and rugs that pull it all together and it looks warm and inviting. Not cold and bland. I too had a purple wall but it was too dark for the room it was in.
    My wardrobe is a little less bold but I do like to wear deep saturated colors and they look best on me. (I'm a "winter".) But a lot of the time I stick with black or grey slacks and a colored shirt. You have inspired me to continue my search for the perfect brightly colored animal print denim for a fun pair of jeans however!

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    1. It's interesting -- that spare "Etsy" aesthetic I think you describe is everywhere these days. It's tasteful and rather dull at a certain point, imo. Good for you for doing something different!

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  4. fascinating and beautifully written & illustrated.
    i'm with you - love learning more about color. It's a broad and deep subject, isn't it?

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  5. My wardrobe color could use some serious help. Now that I'm sewing again, it should improve. I tend to sew more colors/prints than I would usually end up buying in ready-to-wear. Not that I wouldn't buy a colored/printed skirt, but finding one in ready-to-wear that is the right color/print/fit/design/etc. vs. the odds that I'll find a black one, leads to lots of black skirts in my closet.
    I do love to be surrounded by color though. My husband has always said he's afraid our house will end up looking like a circus tent/fun house because of the different colors, so I have made a few of the rooms neutral. My bedroom is about the same color as the living room picture above. My living room is cherry red. One thing I have noticed about the dark/bright colors I've painted, is that I tend to describe them as something edible. Therefore, my bedroom is painted shades of boysenberry cobbler with a side of vanilla ice cream, and the outside of the house is pumpkin pie with chocolate trim. I totally get what you say about needing to pay attention in order to really see the colors that are all around. I'm guessing that in my case, my senses of smell and taste are dominant over my sense of vision.

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  6. I love looking at photos for color palette inspiration, because what I've found is as soon as you identify what might seem like an unusual, yet pleasing combination of colors, that you can often find the same representation in nature. I find that back-up reassuring.

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  7. SeamsterEast@aol.comMay 16, 2012 at 1:04 PM

    Long ago, at age 22, I bought two Munsingwear knit shirts, same material, same size, one in a not quite navy blue and one in a pine green.

    The difference in looks I got from the women was dramatic, to say the least. Hands down, the green drew looks by the double armfulls, compared to nothing unusual for the blue.

    This surprised and amazed me, for in the suburban white collar suburb I lived darker blues, reds and even pinks (we were all young men at the time) were the standard.

    But boy oh boy did green work on me.

    To this day, I tend to favor forest green and sage and hunter green in my sweaters, and to the extent I can in my shirts. Hard to do when most are still blue and red and maroon and charcoal, etc.

    Once upon a time I had a job involving customers and lots and lots and lots of color choices. It took very little time to realize peach was a color, not a fruit. Still, seeing all those colors in so many, many ways on a day in and day out basis I did develop a "sense" of what fit together and what didn't. It seemed subtle at first, but it wasn't. "Right" colors "worked" with each other, almost right didn't.

    Recently I needed some buttons for a shirt I was making. I took a swatch to 39th St (NYC) and a Mexican guy who looked more likely to be driving a forklift took my swatch and found me the right color buttons in about 20 seconds. And they were the right color.

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  8. I think color is a really interesting topic. As a quilter we talk about it a lot. I recently heard a lecture by an artist, both paint and fabric and she said that there are actually multiple color wheels out there. The color wheel that paint and ink are based off are different than that of fabric dyes. Also, TV has it's own color wheel as well.
    As for clothing; I always get more complements when I wear something more 'bold'. I have a raincoat with orange/red poppies on a cream background and have never failed to get a compliment on it when I'm out.

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  9. Two years ago I moved into a rental that was painted beige and white. I felt like I was drowning in non-color, and begged to be able to paint. The moment I had color on the walls--real colors, like purples and sunshine yellow and soft jade green--I felt at home. In my wardrobe, I shop for fabrics and wardrobe pieces by color. If it doesn't make me look and feel good, why wear it? I also look for inspiration from non-wearble pieces and trends...when tiffany blue and rich brown hit big in home furnishing trends, I thought, those would be great colors for an outfit. If you like a color combo in one place, you are likely to like it in another. Now I live in a city where black is the color of most people's choice, and while I do wear slightly more muted colors here, I still love to wear classic pieces in unexpected colors. If you see someone on the Paris metro in a lavender trench coat, odds are it's me. :-)

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  10. Good places to find color inspiration are: art museums, flower gardens, birding field guides. It's true: if you just pay attention to color as you go about your day, you will soon begin to SEE color differently. I like tweak conventional color combinations to see what happens. For example, take red and green. Not very exciting. But change one of those just a bit. Make it red and MINT green and now you're getting somewhere. Purple and yellow is a bit jarring, but purple and a deep mustard is rich and delicious. I was at JoAnn's last week wearing a red and cream-colored print pencil skirt with a dark kelly green top. The cashier loved it and lamented that she would never be brave enough to try it. Brave? I don’t know about that.

    There's a lot to be said for taking a somewhat bland outfit and dropping a piece of color onto it. Today I'm wearing khaki pants and a white linen top. But I have a big turquoise ring on. I like doing that sort of thing with color. Accessories make it really easy.

    I don’t get people who wear black all the time. I’ve said it before: life’s too short to be perpetually dressing for a funeral.

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  11. Art school.

    Seriously though, learning basic color theory in my art classes helped me immensely.

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    1. Laura, could you expand on that a bit? Beyond the color wheel -- complementary, analogous colors, etc. -- what is there to color theory?

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    2. I agree that color theory, combination and matching can be learned, and really helps. But I believe to be a colorist is more a matter of talent and instinct. One can see by primitive artists, with no instruction about color theory. On the other side, I know many who studied art and play safe with color combination. Some even to to extreme and use just black and white.

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  12. It's interesting that the majority is saying that they like their houses bright and colorful. My house is done in the palest tints of colors. I find colorful rooms overstimulating and I can't be at peace in them. I'll sew and wear brights and darks but in the home I want to see them only in the smaller touches, not on the walls or furniture.

    Mel M

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  13. Interesting post - I'll up you one though! I'd love to develop better color sense, but I'm part of the small minority of women with color-blindness. Sigh.... I think I could be much braver if I knew that I was seeing what the rest of the world saw! LOL!! Oh well... much better to see minus some shades of a few colors than not see at all.

    I'm following this discussion with interest though, as I would love to develop my color sense as much as possible.

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  14. Interesting post. I've felt the need to break out of my neutral mode as well.

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  15. I like colour is all it's forms and I absolutely love colourful fabric. However, a couple of years ago I went into target and tried on every colour t-shirt I could find. The colours that suited me then (and maybe I need to do it again) I have written down so that when I go into a fabric store to pick out something for me I avoid the ones that I know clearly don't suit me REGARDLESS of how much I like them (yes I am looking at you sunshine yellow)

    Since following sewing blogs I have discovered just how much I like the look of pink and red together, even though it is not something that suits me :-(

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  16. Great topic. I will say that I do have a very good colour sense (as for fitting, that has me pulling out my hair). You are so right, it is about looking at nature, flower conservatories, and art (even in books). I take into the sewing room art books with colour combos I like (and clothes I like). For example, Matisse. Although I adore very bright and unexpected, sometimes I miss the confidence. But, just do wear it (sew it), and WOW, you will feel great, and compliments will come. Unexpected touches and combinations are winners. Asscessories really help. At present I am wearing beige tights, a white big T with a lot of lavendar in the line art, a lime green cardi, silk scarf with a lot of lavendar, and silver aerosoles. Plus a wonderful copper pin of a cat, very funny, with green spots (custom, from a charity shop, where we buy almost everything). Super reading. Cathie, in Quebec.

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  17. My friend studied art and I wish I had paid more attention to her when she spoke about color, depth etc. She based her colors in her home around nature in all its palete. She did the same with her clothing and she was able to make combinations of colors work.

    Josette

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  18. Check out this web-site:
    http://design-seeds.com/

    You can sign up to get a daily e-mail with a picture and corresponding paint colors - kind of an interesting way to expand your thinking about color.

    No affiliation, just something I stumbled upon.

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  19. Ah, Peter - you WOULD mention Dorothy Jeakins, who is one of my pet enthusiasms. Her work for 'Sound of Music' is top-notch (she was so concerned with getting the right homespun texture for Julie Andrews' costumes early in the film that she used Greeff and Herman Miller upholstery fabrics for some of them.

    But its her work for 'Music Man' that is truly great. She was channeling the Edwardian couturier Lucile (Lady Duff-Gordon) for them, and her use of color is magnificent. Her detailing is, too. The ladies of the town are individually designed for, with each being assigned a social and financial rank. At the top of the scale, Hermione Gingold as the mayor's wife gets designs even more sumptuous than those seen on Shirley Jones. On the lesser players at the bottom of the town's pecking order, Jeakins deliberately made some of the outfits appear to be amateurishly home-sewn, with crooked details.

    The Buffalo Bills, who play the barber-shop quartet, get a great sight gag in their costuming: At the beginning of the movie, they don't like each other, and their outfits clash with each other. As they discover their talent for barber-shop harmony and become friends, they're gradually dressed in outfits of the same color, and by movie's end, they're dressed alike.

    Shirley Jones' Lucile-inspired lace dress for the 'Shipoopi' dance number takes full advantage of the wide cummerbund sash so popular in 1912 fashion - hers is hiding the fact that she's in her second trimester with son Shaun Cassidy. Shirley gets away with it on first viewing, but once you know, it's easy to spot.

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    1. My favorite is the palette of the "Marian Madam Librarian number -- I was looking for a good quality photo to post and I just couldn't find one. I could look at that for hours!

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  20. Peter - The 'Marian the Librarian' number is not only a great bit of design, but Shirley Jones's laser precision in it is pure pleasure to watch. When you stop to think that she's not primarily a dancer, it's all the more wonderful.

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  21. Peter- I l-o-v-e using color and the theory behind it. Lucky me as an artist, it comes naturally. Color combinations can invoke different ambiance or reaction or response. For example, blue can be either warm or cool depending on its hue. A woman I worked with wore a beautiful silk purple and lime outfit that was so striking with her olive complexion. My favorite combos are: purple, leaf green and sunflower (think of a japanese iris) and turquoise and chocolate. You have to watch one of my favorite movies, "Amelie" Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Fantastic use of basic color throughout the movie.

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  22. The sufragettes used the colour combination of purple green and white as symbols and to my eye it's one of the best. I'm also keen on red, gold and green. Placed in a windowless office, I sponged all the office green filing cabinets with red paint, then with gold. Not only did I like the office better, colleagues and students looked at it and said 'what a nice room' instead of 'poor you, stuck in a cupboard'. In spite of these trio likes, I'm afraid most of my wardrobe is basic Melbourne (and apparently basic NY) black!

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  23. Has anyone noticed that little kids, say under 5 years old, have wonderful color sense and confidence? Then as they get older and get exposed to the should/shouldn't rules, suddenly they loose their sense of adventure and no more gren skys and orange suns in the drawings.

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  24. I still go between craving color and being stumped on how to effectively pair it. I'm finding especially now that I've moved back to the mid-Atlantic region, I'm less bold with my color choices than I was living on the Gulf Coast of Florida (where one could get away with eye-searingly bright colors without anyone batting an eye). I admire color use and want to be better at pairing things, but it still stumps me on a certain level beyond the "classic" pairings.

    One thing I noticed while watching that clip you posted is how often I seem to skim over the stunning colors of those Technicolor films! I mean, I know they're visually stunning, but I don't focus on them and study them. From now on, I think I shall--at least in an effort to add more excitement to my own clumsy attempts at color pairings. ;)

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  25. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/design/2012/04/pantone_color_forecasts_are_they_accurate_.single.html -- a friend on FB just posted this link to a story about the Pantone color-trend-forecasting process, it's very timely! Thanks as always for your thoughtful posts and pix.

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  26. Peter, have you ever seen Academichic's "Fashion 101" series of posts on colour? I found it very interesting, and they then follow up the 'theory' with a series of outfit posts where each contributor would try to fulfil that week's challenge (e.g. complementary colours, colour triads, etc). You can find the posts here listed under 'tutorials': http://www.academichic.com/taking-notes-2/

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  27. If I were doing Cathy's colors, I would advise her to stay on the cool side of the color wheel, and into strong colors. I think Cathy does better with jewel cool tones rather than pastels. Cathy's skin is porcelain anyway, and sometimes that can get lost in a pastel, where as a strong jewel tone compliments her coloring and forces her porcelain skin to show off even more. Of course that also means that Cathy has to wear strong lip color and not dull colors - even though wines are on the cool side, brilliant cherry reds are a must. White and black of course always work for Cathy....that black taffeta dress was a killer on Cathy, but absolutely strong colors like sapphires, royal purples, great royal blues, and cherry reds will all look great on her. I also think that Cathy would look strong in some solids. I know she adores those trendy prints, but maybe you could talk her into trying a few solids to accessorize cause her skin color sings when she wears those gorgeous strong tones.

    Color is so vital and so under appreciated. The amazing thing too is that if you do stick to a tried and true palette, then everything in the closet actually coordinates really well, which means everything goes together - this is sort of a side benefit. Also it's good to point out to Cathy that just because you don't have any camel, or neutrals in your closet that you have to have them. It takes a little discipline at first, but when Cathy starts going to her closet and she can wear one thing after another and coordinate things so easily, she'll fall in love with the idea. I think it's just a matter of a habit, and getting used to it, then it becomes second-nature.

    As far as triads, complimentary, primary, secondary and other color palettes; these are great for art works and visual arts, but I think we have to be careful and realize that we're working within a certain restraints - usually the skin tone, hair color and other color aspects of a person. It's like an artist who sets out to paint a landscape painting using portrait colors, or vice versa. It puts the artist at a serious disadvantage right off the bat.

    So when you use some of those color combinations realize that those "off colors" from Cathy's palette should be kept away from Cathy's face, and also that they will not combine well with other garments in Cathy's closet.

    I hope Cathy doesn't mind me being so forward, but I do this all the time with my clients, and it's so much fun to watch their looks really change when they start wearing the right colors. You'll enjoy watching Cathy's imagination take hold and all the beautiful coordination she'll start putting together....have fun!!!

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    1. Claire, thank you SO MUCH for this. I'm am calling an emergency meeting with Cathy and her team to review this ASAP. Much appreciated!

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  28. I've found I've gotten braver with colours as I get older and more confident. I still express this through accessories or one statement piece of clothing.
    If you like film inspiration, have you seen Baz Luhrmann movies? Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge, Australia? His movies are an acquired taste, while I did not particularly like the movie Australia there were several scenes where the colours of the costumes and settings were just breathtaking, I stopped watching the movie and just fell in love with the visuals. The costuming was divine!

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    1. I tried Moulin Rouge but couldn't get into it. Maybe I'll borrow Australia...

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    2. His movies are a bit trippy. I was not a fan of Australia (the movie, my country is kinda ok) but I thought it looked gorgeous!

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  29. Well, historically the pin-up jiggle body form of the 40's is in sharp contrast to the thin straight style of the 20's and 30's. But I think it is also noteworthy that the 30's were leaner times. As we entered WW2, there was a sense of prosperity (even though everything was rationed), a lot of families had everyone in the house working: men off to war, women working in production factories and older children were busy with collecting metals and whatnot.

    It is a reflection of the times, the pin-up. A lush vibrant representation of our society, economy and culture.

    I think it is interesting that some of the fashion houses have come out and stated that they will not display models who are under aged or under weight. I think the actual verbiage was "models who displayed eating disorders." We are again, as a society and culture, in leaner times and the fashion of the day is bone thin.

    With the exception of the pin up subcult, we are socially and culturally educated to believe an ounce of fat is shameful. Almost all images flashed before us involve skin and bones. Heroin chic came at a time when drugs were normal. Now, we are expected to be thin but healthy.

    I suppose these are ramblings and wanderings, however, I am hoping I am making some sense, and not enraging anyone. Do take care, Peter, I enjoy reading your blog.

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  30. I'm kind of obsessed with color. In junior high, I had a permanent pass from my art teacher to come in early in the mornings to work on my projects because I spent so much time getting the colors just right. I'm deeply affected by color, and when I feel it's off somehow, it makes me sad. It's one of the things that got me sewing. It was hard for me to find RTW in happy spring colors year round. And the "country" sort of palette pretty much from whatever decade makes me feel kind of nauseous. It's interesting to me that those icky chalky blues and peaches if you go two shades this way or that way on the color wheel can become not only nicer to look at, but have a totally different style. There was a show at some point on HGTV called Color Correction where the designer did just that--took existing rooms and revamped the palette by changing the shades of the colors in those rooms by a little bit this way or that way. I didn't always like what she came up with, but I think it's true that small changes can have dramatic results in color.

    I tend towards aquas and greens and pure, clear colors. If we're talking film, I really love all of the colors in An American in Paris and Singin in the Rain. And Maria's dress when she comes back to the von Trapp's is my favorite dress ever. I remember being like 6 hoping that I could wear a dress like that some day.

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