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The role of color in fashion

By Esmee Blaazer


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Two ton sur ton looks (see paragraph 3) from Max Mara resort SS23 and Stella McCartney SS23. Images via Catwalkpictures.com

Fashion is one of the most important visual phenomena of our time, and in fashion, color plays a major role. In this background article, we share the difference between primary and secondary colors, discuss color combinations and contrasts, and the influence of color in the fashion industry.


  1. Primary, secondary and tertiary colors
  2. Depth and brightness of colors
  3. Colour combinations and color contrast
  4. Appearance, meaning and associations of color
  5. Colour and Clothing
  6. How fashion designers use color
  7. Colour trends and trend colors
  8. Colour in marketing and retail [for influencing buying behaviour]
  9. Colour: the basics

    1. Primary, secondary and tertiary colors

    The primary colors are yellow, blue (cyan) and red (magenta). These are colors which can’t be created by mixing other colors. A combination of these primary colors can create a primary shade of black.

    A secondary color is made by mixing of two of the three primary colors: creating orange from yellow and red, green from yellow and blue and purple from blue and red.

    A tertiary color, also known as an intermediate color, is a color made by mixing primary and secondary colors together. Examples are blue-green, red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green and red-purple.

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    Here you can see the primary colors: yellow, blue and red. Credit from left to right: Akris SS23, Lanvin SS23, Akris SS23 via Catwalkpictures.com.
    Here you can see the secondary colors: orange, green and purple in Akris' SS23 collection. Credit: Akris SS23 via Catwalkpictures.com.

    2. Depth and brightness of colors

    The depth of color indicates how light or dark the color is. Adding white makes the color lighter, and adding black weakens the color and makes it darker.

    While adding grey can change the brightness of a color. The more grey added to a color can dull the intensity of the shade. Adding white or black and mixing with grey creates numerous color shades and nuances.

    3. Color combinations and color contrast

    Colour can be essential when creating a contrast. Simply put, contrast is the difference between two colors. Some combinations make colors more vivid and intense, while other neutralise each other.

    For instance, a color-to-color contrast between colors that are not mixed with black or white can make a striking impact.

    Another example is a cool and warm contrast. Warm colors are yellow, orange and red, and cool colors are green, blue and purple. Turquoise and scarlet (which is orange-red) form the greatest cool-warm contrast. Within each color, there are also cooler and warmer tones.

    Ton sur ton is French for tone on tone. Which describes wearing one color but combining different shades within that color. This combination offers the smallest of contrasts in color.

    Whereas faux camaïeux is a false one-tone color combination. You combine colors with the same grey value: that are equally warm and bright but differ in the base color.

    The strongest color contrast that exists is black and white.

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    In this image, you can see color-to-color contrasts: yellow versus blue at Marni and blue versus red at Missoni. Credit: Marni AW22 and Missoni AW22 via Catwalkpictures.com
    Here you can see a cool and warm contrast in turquoise and red at Gucci. Image: Gucci SS20 via Catwalkpictures.com
    Here you can see tone-on-tone contrasts in nude/pink (left), blue (centre) and brown (right). Credit f.l.t.r: Issey Miyake SS23, Issey Miyake FW21 and Michael Kors AW22 via Catwalkpictures.com.
    A faux camaïeux, or false mono-tone look by Alberta Ferretti. Credit: Alberta Ferretti AW22 via Catwalkpictures.com
    The strongest color contrast is black and white. Credit: Christian Wijnants SS23 via Turbulence PR. By the way, this is also a total look (see boxed terms at the bottom of the article).

    4. Appearance, meaning and associations of color

    In addition to color contrasts (section 3), the appearance of color is important. Colour offers an emotional appeal. Colours can evoke different emotions and behaviours in people and can convey a message.

    The meaning and effect of color are very personal, but there are similarities in the perception of color. For instance, we find black neat, red romantic and dark blue businesslike. Each color (shade) also has its own meaning and effect. The subjective meaning we attach to various colors is also known as color symbolism. Yellow, for instance, is associated with the sun, happiness, optimism and vitality. The color is cheerful and positive.

    Many colors also have both positive and negative associations. With red, we think of love and passion, but the color is also associated with danger and aggression.

    How a color is experienced often also depends on the context, as well as the color’s strength. In general, light colors weaken the effect of dark colors.

    Colours can also have different meanings in different countries and cultures.

    The influence of color in fashion

    5. Color and Clothing

    The appearance, or optical image, of clothing, is described by four optical characteristics:

    • color
    • decoration: such as embellishments or embroideries
    • material: the fabric
    • shape: the silhouette of a garment is defined by its pattern (the cut) and is described by words such as oversized or fitted

    "In today's visual culture, color combined with the right materials, shapes and textures is the key to making a product successful," says Belgian trend forecaster and color expert Hilde Francq in her book 'Colour Sells'. "Colour can make a product look cheap or chic. Color can be natural or synthetic, masculine or feminine, reliable or frivolous, timeless or trendy."

    Because, as you now know, color creates atmosphere and has a certain effect (see section 4).

    Color is, therefore, often the first thing you notice about [the clothing of] others. Colour choices affect not only how you see others, and how they see you, but also how you see yourself. Wearing a color you love, can calm your nerves or lift your mood. Meaning you can literally boost your mood and/or self-confidence with color, as well as with the clothes themselves. This is often referred to as dopamine dressing.

    So you could say that color is a powerful tool.

    6. How fashion designers use color

    Fashion designers can deploy and use color in countless ways, such as using color as a source of inspiration (read: the starting point) for their collections. They can also use color to make a statement or connect [with consumers], for example, in terms of diversity and/or inclusivity. In addition, they can also naturally apply color through embellishments and embroidery to compliment their designs (see also section 5).

    Fashion designers choose and determine color schemes that have a desired artistic effect. They are usually familiar with the theory of color and often work with color charts and swatches. Fashion designers determine color schemes for each fashion collection, made up of various types of garments in different designs, colors and prints. When you see this collection on racks or mannequins, you usually see the color image, as it is called in the industry. The color image, together with the designs and prints, form the overall picture of the collection.

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    Here you can see a color image of Another Label. Image: the Another Label SS23 stand at the summer edition of fashion trade fair Modefabriek in July 2022. Credit: Aygin Kolaei for FashionUnited.
    Here you can see a color image at Dior. Credit: Dior SS23 menswear, property Dior.

    Colour as a designer's trademark

    Some colors in fashion have become big. Just as French artist Yves Klein was synonymous with a specific color blue (International Klein Blue), 'Valentino red', for example, has become a household name.

    There are also iconic color combinations. For example, do you know the iconic Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian collection? The colorblock geometric Mondrian dress (1965) is the most famous garment inspired by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian's paintings and his love of straight, black lines and primary colors.

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    Image: Valentino Red. Left: Valentino Spring Summer 2023. Right: Valentino Spring Summer 2022. Credit: Catwalkpictures.
    YSL Mondrian dress, Credit Pierre Verdy / AFP

    Sometimes the use of color is even synonymous with a fashion designer's signature. Italian designer Giorgio Armani became known as the 'king of greige' for his abundant use of beige and grey shades in his designs, such as taupe, sand and concrete. While contemporary designer Dries van Noten from Belgium is considered a master of color.He is often praised for his unique, vibrant use of color and prints in his collections.

    On the other hand, there are also designers known for their dark-colored fashion, including Yohji Yamamoto, Rick Owens, Olivier Theyskens, Ann Demeulemeester and Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons).

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    Belgian fashion designer Dries van Noten is praised for his unique, vibrant use of color and prints. Credit: Dries van Noten SS23 via Catwalkpictures.com
    Credit: Dries van Noten SS23 menswear, property Dries van Noten. By the way, this menswear look is also multi-colored (see terminology box multicolor). .
    Dark-colored fashion. Credit f.l.t.r: Rick Owens SS22, Ann Demeulemeester AW22 and Olivier Theyskens SS23, via Catwalkpictures.com

    7. Colour trends and trend colors

    Fashion changes with time, and trend watchers such as the Dutch Lidewij Edelkoort and the Belgian Hilde Francq keep a close eye on changes in society and their influence on fashion and color. They translate these developments into trend forecasts, which are made about two years before clothes hit the shelves.

    Color trends and trend colors are part of those forecasts. For instance, Lidewij Edelkoort announced the major (re)introduction of brown more than two years ago. She reported in June 2019 that brown would replace black as an it-color for the next 30 years. Now, brown can be found in almost every fashion collection, on the high street and in consumer’s wardrobes.

    In addition, leading color experts/institutes such as Generally, Pantone and Coloro are also dedicated exclusively to color advice and predictions. For instance, the Pantone Color Institute annually names a color of the year and predicts the popular colors set to be used by designers at leading fashion weeks, including New York Fashion Week and London Fashion Week. They also analyse fashion collections shown by designers and determine what the color palette will look like.

    In short: Trend watchers and color institutes have a direct influence on fashion, but on the other hand, fashion also have a direct influence on color trends. Generally, trends are dictated by the catwalk, and brands and retailers look to designers for inspiration to translate for their fashion consumers. So, it works both ways.

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    Valentino set a trend this year (2022) with its 'hot pink' FW22 collection that the Italian fashion house debuted on the catwalk last March. The bright magenta ‘Pink PP’ hue was created by Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli in collaboration with Pantone. Image owned by Valentino.
    Bright pink is also part of Pantone's NYFW FW22 color trend report. Image: Pantone Colour: 17-2624 Rose Violet, property Pantone
    Image illustrating the so-called trickle-down effect. The high street retailers take inspiration from catwalk designs. Currently, you see bright pink frequently in fashion collections, such as at H&M. Left: Brasserie Hennes Holiday 2022, owned by H&M. Right: H&M Studio AW22, owned by H&M.

    8. Color in marketing and retail [for influencing buying behaviour]

    Now that you know the basics and the role of color in fashion (sections 1-7), you need to understand how colors can also influence consumer purchasing habits.

    Color is used in fashion and retail for marketing, such as advertising campaigns and promotion, store design and visual merchandising (the commercial visual presentation of products to generate more sales).

    According to Belgian trend watcher and color expert Hilde Francq, there are still gains to be made by companies. "The fact that the color of a product is essential for its success is often underestimated," she states in her book 'Colour Sells'.

    "From marketing strategy to packaging, color is essential to the positioning and sales of brands and products," adds Francq. "You have to hit not only the head, but also the heart. Never underestimate the importance of eye candy."

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    Image illustrating the use of color in visual merchandising. You can see Beaumont's stand on the exhibition floor at Modefabriek (so it is not visual merchandising on the shop floor in this case). Image: Modefabriek SS23 July 2022 edition. Credit: Aygin Kolaei for FashionUnited.
    Use of color in shop concepts. Luxury brand Jacquemus chose pale blue for its themed pop-up in London in May 2022. Image: 'Le Bleu' pop-up by Jacquemus, property Jacquemus
    Use of color in shop concepts. Luxury brand Jacquemus’s swimming pool-themed pop-up in London in May 2022. Image: 'Le Bleu' pop-up by Jacquemus, owned Jacquemus
    Use of color in shop concepts. This is the Christian Wijnants store in Berlin. The Antwerp-based designer combines silver wallcoverings with greenery. Credit: Christian Wijnants via Turbulence PR
    A few more color terms:
      Complementary colors are two colors that are on opposite sides of the color wheel. Examples are blue (cyan) and orange, yellow and purple, and red (magenta) and green.
    • A garment executed in one color is called uni or mono.
    • A garment consisting of two colors is referred to as bicolor.
    • Multicolor means multi-colored.
    • Color blocking or colour blocking is when two or more different colors are used in a piece of clothing or outfit.
    • Monochrome refers to an outfit that consists of one color from head to toe.
    • Total Look in styling is where one color or print is worn is used to create a complete look.
    • A Color Consultant gives consumers color and style advice. They advise clients on which colors and combinations suit them. The consultant distinguishes different color types based on their skin (warm or cool), hair and eye color. Sometimes the client receives a color passport highlighting the colors that suit him/her. A color passport can be useful when buying new clothes, as it can show which colors gave them a boost and which colors made a good combination. Retailers also sometimes hire color consultants to train their shop staff to give color advice to customers.
    Here you see complementary colors on the catwalk. Yellow versus purple at Valentino and Prada. Credit: Valentino SS22 and Prada SS22 via Catwalkpictures.com.
    Here you see colorblocking in a skirt by Max Mara and a dress by Jil Sander. Credit: Max Mara resort SS23 and Jil Sander AW19 via Catwalkpictures.com.
    Here you can see colorblocking at Christian Dior and Roksanda. Credit: Christian Dior SS22 and Roksanda AW21 via Catwalkpictures.com. By the way, the Roksanda dress is also two-tone.
    A total look in black by Christian Wijnants. It is also a monochrome look. Credit: Christian Wijnants AW22 via Turbulence PR.
    Total looks/monochrome looks in green and blue by Christian Wijnants. Credit: Christian Wijnants AW22 via Turbulence PR.
    Also read:


    • TMO Fashion Business School education by the author
    • ‘Fashion Advisor' by Mirjam van den Bosch, Astrid Hanou and Hans van Otegem, publisher Stichting Detex Opleidingen, 2003, second edition.
    • FashionUnited archive content by authors Jackie Mallon and Katrien Huysentruyt (the original publications can mostly be found in the linked article text)
    • ‘Colour Sells’ Appletizer by Hilde Francq
    • 'Fashion and imagination, about clothing and art' book by Jos Arts, Jan Brand, 2009 Beeldbalie.nl 'The meaning of color', 2015
    • 'Colour in Fashion' lesson 7, FashionMusic.Wordpress.com
    • 'Colour in Fashion' by Nellmode.be, 2014
    • 'Understanding primary, secondary and tertiary colors,' Adobe
    • 'What Is The Importance Of Colors In The Fashion World?' by Michael Crawford, Digital Marketing Consultant at a Crowdsourcing company, published on Inspiring Meme, April 2022
    • 'Colour Selection Techniques for Fashion Designers' by Jahanara Rony, Fashion2apparel.com
    • Bella+Canvas video 'Color 101: Understanding How Color