Colour is a complex and multifaceted thing that affects brand, consumer perception, aesthetic, and meaning. In this module, you will learn how to approach colour as meaningful, inspirational, and as something that can be carefully curated to create the best results.
Colour in fashion is a complex mix of chemistry, artistry, and design. However, while chemists must develop pigments and create specific types of dyes, stains, and paints, as an artist, your primary concern is typically choosing the right colours for the right reasons. Once the practical matters of colour manufacturing have been handled, it is up to the artist to mix colours into the chromatic spectrum to create desired results and this is often more difficult than it seems.
Colours are an important part of fashion, and they should be chosen based on the garment or accessory, the material, and the style. For example, there are many practical considerations that come into play when choosing colours for a garment. For example, how are you achieving the colour? If you are using dye, is it colour fast? How does it respond to heat and moisture? Is it toxic? Does it stain? While you will often not be responsible for making these choices when choosing colours, they do affect what is practical and possible for creating different fashion items in different materials. For example, leathers are often difficult to dye after the tanning process is completed. Taking information like the use of the dye, the prospective environment, and effect on the material into consideration when choosing a colour allows you to make the best choice for your material.
In some cases, you will have to purchase raw materials and have them dyed to meet your needs. The manufacturer can make the pertinent decisions regarding dye and pigments. In others, you will be able to purchase pre-dyed leathers, fabrics, and other materials that will immediately suit your needs. For the most part, you can discuss your needs, practical colours, and applications with your manufacturer to come to a solution that meets both your colour preferences and the capabilities of the materials you want to use. This means that for the most part, you only have to choose the colours you prefer to use.
And, more importantly, that is where the work comes in. While it is relatively easy to predict how a dye will react in a certain environment, it’s more difficult to decide how people will react to the colour. The designer’s job is to integrate colour into silhouette, pattern, texture, and detail, to create a whole piece that works. Understanding colour, and how it affects culture, psychology, physiology, and language is an important part of this process.
1.1.1 Colour and Culture
Colours mean different things in different cultures. Show a swatch of crimson to anyone in the western world, and you are likely to evoke images of red carpet, sultry red dresses, and the famous Louboutin heel. Show that same swatch in China, and you’re more likely to evoke a picture of prosperity, good luck, and weddings, as red is often worn by brides. And in South Africa, red is associated with mourning.
(A traditional wedding procession with the bride in yellow in India)
Taking the time to understand the connotations carried by culture in the area that you want to market products allows you to make better design choices, and to make different design choices for each market.
One consideration that can be kept in mind is that the designer’s own personal preferences for or aversions to colour often represent their own cultural biases. Take a minute and think. What colour should a wedding dress be? What would you wear to a funeral? What colour shoes should you wear to work?
If you answered with white, black, and black or brown, then you’re probably from Europe, the UK, Australia, or the United States. Cultural biases and cultural norms greatly affect what we choose to wear or not to wear and this can be important to keep in mind. For the most part, you can use your own cultural biases to make the best decisions for your market, because you are likely selling to your own market. However, your decision making will become more complex if you choose to expand and sell in international markets with different cultures than your own.
1.1.2 The Psychology of Colour
Colour psychology is the concept that different colours have different meanings, and that you can use them to influence how people feel about a product. However, this is extremely subjective for a number of reasons.
First, colour psychology varies a great deal based on culture, age, gender, and location. The second is that it is sometimes unreliable, simply because individuals often associate their own meanings with colours. For example, a person whose mother’s favourite colour was blue would have fond memories and a special fondness for blue that the average person would not have.
(Fabrics and textiles)
Psychological associations can be positive or negative, based on the person, their cultural biases, and their normal associations with the colour.
For example, most people in Europe know that pink is for girls and blue is for boys but this hasn’t always been the case. In the 1930s, pink was so associated with boys to the extent that designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s use of the colour pink was shocking. During World War 2, Nazis further changed the association of pink as a strong colour, which was then linked to red, by assigning it to homosexuals. And, by 1959, Barbie was released in pink, forever rebranding the colour as the one for girls. Today, it is rare to see men choosing to wear pink, thanks to this subconscious association of pink with girls.
(Coco Chanel made it fashionable for women to wear black for the first time in history with her 1926 “The Little Black Dress”)
Designers have the power to change cultural associations with colour, and there is no example more famous than the little black dress. Black has traditionally been associated with mourning in western cultures, to the point where it was once considered indecent when worn outside of a funeral or mourning setting. But, in the 1920s, Coco Chanel and Jean Patou changed that by designing the Little Black Dress, a closet staple that outlasted fads, fashions, and trends, and went on to become the item of clothing that every woman is expected to own.
Of course, most designers can’t expect to change anything to that extent, but a good designer can change individual perceptions by pushing boundaries. However, you should keep in mind that it is safer to cater to expectations, meet demand, and to create clothing that is wanted, rather than creating clothing that is shocking or new, but a good designer can and should try to aim for both.
Many people unconsciously associate colour with emotions, but again, this can change from person to person.
In western cultures, most colours can be linked with specific emotions and meanings. While not everyone will have these associations, they are very common. Taking them into consideration when choosing dyes for garments and shoes can be helpful for catering to your market.
The following include brief definitions of the meanings behind many colours.
Red – Red is the colour of fire and blood, and is often associated with strength, passion, energy, danger, desire, love, and sometimes war. As a very emotional and intense colour, it is often not worn every day, but is popular for adding accents to outfits, for special occasions, and for accessories. Red brings an article of clothing or an accessory to the forefront, and the specific shade can communicate different feelings. Too much red is ‘too bold’ for most to wear everyday.
Orange – Orange is associated with joy, sunshine, and the tropics, combining the energy of red with the happiness of yellow. It is often associated with enthusiasm, fascination, creativity, attraction, and success. Orange is an aggressive colour, and like red, is not often worn in large amounts. Darker oranges, such as rust symbolize food, harvest, autumn, and leaves.
Yellow – Yellow is the colour of sunshine and is most often associated with joy, happiness, cheerfulness, and warmth. As a bright colour, it is often used to get attention, and is often found on taxicabs, jackets, and shoes.
Too much yellow is unpleasant to most, but darker yellows and gold are very popular for many types of clothing and accessories.
Green – Green is associated with nature, growth, harmony, and freshness. It has a strong emotional correspondence with safety, and may be associated with money.
Blue – Blue is another natural colour, but can vary a great deal depending on the shade. Where light blue is often associated with the sky and light-heartedness, or pleasantness, darker blue is associated with the ocean, depth, and stability. Both shades symbolize trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, faith, and truth. It’s also a colour that’s easy to use, and is relatively common in nearly all fashion.
Purple – Purple is a mix of blue and red, and as a result, combines both. Purples often have the stability of blues and the energies of red, and are associated with royalty, power, nobility, and extravagance. Too much purple can be tasteless, but with the right design, light purple can be feminine, playful, and romantic, while dark purple can be gloomy, sad, or elegant.
White – White is associated with light, goodness, innocence, and purity, often considered to be the colour of perfection, safety, and cleanliness. White is usually considered positively, but in clothing, is often considered a women’s colour for all but shirts.
Black – Black is associated with power, elegance, formality, death, evil, and mystery. The shade is now one of the most classic of colour options and is typically considered a basic. Black can be negative, but in fashion, it is most often used as a staple, which can be paired with nearly everything.
Other more personal colour associations include specific items, such as “that colour doesn’t look good on me” or “My favourite colour is violet”. If people believe that they can’t wear a particular colour, only the best designer can change their opinion.
Harder still is the ability to change a cultural perception that one shouldn’t wear a colour – perhaps because of hair colour, body type, age, or occasion – because the design has to change the perception of the colour. Here, like Coco Chanel, the designer has an opportunity to influence how colour might be experienced in a new way.
Colours can soothe, raise the heartbeat, create certain connotations, and give an impression of the person wearing them. For that reason, it is important to understand the decisions behind choosing colours, consider where those colours are going to be used, and consider the audience receiving them.
1.1.3 Colour Nomenclature
Semantics are increasingly important in fashion as consumers gain more experience and education, and become more aware of their choices and the reasons behind them. A red by any other name is a much different red in the world of fashion, because descriptive names can help to paint a unique picture, and can differentiate different shades and styles from others. Designers can and should look for inspiration to name their shades and colours, rather than simply relying on them to be red or blue. For most, nature is an excellent inspiration, and gemstones, flowers, and many other naturally occurring colours can all be used.
The following include a list of primary, secondary, and tertiary colours with their colour variations listed using different nomenclature. For example, everyone knows that bordeaux and rose are different colours, despite them both falling under the category of red. Keeping this in mind when using and naming colours for your products can help you to influence the emotions and perceptions of your audience.
Bordeaux, Rose, Crimson, Pomegranate, Fire Engine, Scarlet
Goldenrod, Buttercup, Lemon, Banana, Amber, Mustard, Canary
Royal, Navy, Cobalt, Sapphire, Azure, Indigo, Aquamarine, Turquoise
Rust, Pumpkin, Coral, Carrot, Salmon, Tangerine, Sienna, Tomato
Grass, Avocado, Forest, Mint, Emerald, Kiwi, Lime, Chartreuse, Moss, Olive
Violet, Grape, Amethyst, Plum, Eggplant, Lilac, Lavender, Magenta
Noir, Jet, Coal, Ebony, Sable, Raven, Caviar, Onyx, Ink, Liquorice
Charcoal, Slate, Silver, Steel, Stone, Ash, Smoke, Shark, Cement
Old Lace, Magnolia, Seashell, Ivory, Milk, Dove, Pearl, Frost, Cotton
1.1.4 The Senses and Colour
Colour is a visual experience and for most, it tells a story. In the world of fashion, colour is more than just that visual experience, because it becomes an observable, tactile thing that is touched, felt, and woven into cloth. The process of wearing a colour transforms the perception of it, and the experience of it. There is no comparison to the experience of seeing a yellow colour swatch and seeing a woman in a yellow dress. The experience of colour becomes different when it is on clothing.
(Lady in yellow dress in lavender field)
As a designer, considering how the brain will process the colours you use, and how the transference of those colours onto an article of clothing will affect perceptions can help you to make better choices. What impression does a black swatch of leather give? Does that change when the swatch it is part of a pair of stilettos?
Designers should consider how the brain processes multisensory information and then attributes many intangible, but often interesting properties to colour. Luckily for many, our own perceptions will hold true for at least a small percentage of the population. If you can get feedback from 5 or more people from different groups, you can get a fairly good picture of how most people will perceive how you are using a colour.
Colour is incredibly subjective, and can be interpreted by the viewer in ways that are unexpected, and sometimes even unique to the viewer. As a result, colour is complex, fascinating, and powerful, and can be used by fashion and accessory designers to great effect. In fact, even changing tints and opacity can greatly affect the psychological effect of the colour. For that reason, pastels are interpreted differently than rich hues, a dark blue is interpreted differently than a sky blue, and pink, which is a less saturated red, is interpreted very differently from its mother colour.