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The role of colour 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, colour plays a major role. In this background article, we share the difference between primary and secondary colours, discuss colour combinations and contrasts, and the influence of colour in the fashion industry.


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

    1. Primary, secondary and tertiary colours

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

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

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

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

    2. Depth and brightness of colours

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

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

    3. Colour combinations and colour contrast

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

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

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

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

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

    The strongest colour contrast that exists is black and white.

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    In this image, you can see colour-to-colour 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 colour 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 colour

    In addition to colour contrasts (section 3), the appearance of colour 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 colour are very personal, but there are similarities in the perception of colour. For instance, we find black neat, red romantic and dark blue businesslike. Each colour (shade) also has its own meaning and effect. The subjective meaning we attach to various colours is also known as colour symbolism. Yellow, for instance, is associated with the sun, happiness, optimism and vitality. The colour is cheerful and positive.

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

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

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

    The influence of colour in fashion

    5. Colour and Clothing

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

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

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

    Colour 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 colour you love, can calm your nerves or lift your mood. Meaning you can literally boost your mood and/or self-confidence with colour, as well as with the clothes themselves. This is often referred to as dopamine dressing.

    So you could say that colour is a powerful tool.

    6. How fashion designers use colour

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

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

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    Here you can see a colour 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 colour image at Dior. Credit: Dior SS23 menswear, property Dior.

    Colour as a designer's trademark

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

    There are also iconic colour combinations. For example, do you know the iconic Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian collection? The colourblock 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 colours.

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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 colour 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 colour.He is often praised for his unique, vibrant use of colour and prints in his collections.

    On the other hand, there are also designers known for their dark-coloured 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 colour 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-coloured (see terminology box multicolour). .
    Dark-coloured fashion. Credit f.l.t.r: Rick Owens SS22, Ann Demeulemeester AW22 and Olivier Theyskens SS23, via Catwalkpictures.com

    7. Colour trends and trend colours

    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 colour. They translate these developments into trend forecasts, which are made about two years before clothes hit the shelves.

    Colour trends and trend colours 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-colour 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 colour experts/institutes such as Generally, Pantone and Coloro are also dedicated exclusively to colour advice and predictions. For instance, the Pantone Color Institute annually names a colour of the year and predicts the popular colours 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 colour palette will look like.

    In short: Trend watchers and colour institutes have a direct influence on fashion, but on the other hand, fashion also have a direct influence on colour 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 colour 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. Colour in marketing and retail [for influencing buying behaviour]

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

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

    "From marketing strategy to packaging, colour 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 colour 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 colour 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 colour 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 colour 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 colour terms:
    • Complementary colours are two colours that are on opposite sides of the colour wheel. Examples are blue (cyan) and orange, yellow and purple, and red (magenta) and green.
    • A garment executed in one colour is called uni or mono.
    • A garment consisting of two colours is referred to as bicolour.
    • Multicolour means multi-coloured.
    • Colour blocking is when two or more different colours are used in a piece of clothing or outfit.
    • Monochrome refers to an outfit that consists of one colour from head to toe.
    • Total Look in styling is where one colour or print is worn is used to create a complete look.
    • A Colour Consultant gives consumers colour and style advice. They advise clients on which colours and combinations suit them. The consultant distinguishes different colour types based on their skin (warm or cool), hair and eye colour. Sometimes the client receives a colour passport highlighting the colours that suit him/her. A colour passport can be useful when buying new clothes, as it can show which colours gave them a boost and which colours made a good combination. Retailers also sometimes hire colour consultants to train their shop staff to give colour advice to customers.
    Here you see complementary colours on the catwalk. Yellow versus purple at Valentino and Prada. Credit: Valentino SS22 and Prada SS22 via Catwalkpictures.com.
    Here you see colourblocking 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 colourblocking 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.


    • 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 colour', 2015
    • 'Colour in Fashion' lesson 7, FashionMusic.Wordpress.com
    • 'Colour in Fashion' by Nellmode.be, 2014
    • 'Understanding primary, secondary and tertiary colours,' 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 Impacts Apparel Design', 2020
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