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The Language of Colors: Navigating Color Theory in Fashion

When picking an outfit, I almost always have trouble deciding on a color theme and then end up asking my mom for advice (She’s a stylist, so I know I’m in good hands!). When in a pickle, I tend to gravitate to like-colors, such as browns, beiges, and tans. It’s easier to match clothing pieces together and saves me a lot of time in the morning. As a consumer of clothing and as someone who used to work in retail, I’ve realized that color can make or break a design. A clothing designer must fret over colors much more than I do, as color is important when it comes to designs. I’ve learned that no matter what kind of work you do, color theory is bound to come up in any conversation you have regarding your work process.

As I’ve mentioned, color is crucial to how your customers view your products and can deter or attract them to certain designs whether it be on clothing, accessories, artwork, furniture, and even websites! For clothing designers, color theory is something to keep in mind when creating new items. Color theory is basically your guide to color mixing and a color wheel is a tool that visualizes color combinations for you. The wheel is made of primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors (also called intermediate colors). If you don’t already use the color wheel, it’s a great tool to utilize when you want to pair certain colors together in a design but aren’t sure if they complement each other!

The Basics

The photo above is what a standard color wheel looks like with 12 colors in total, though there is a wheel with 24 colors! Those 12 colors are divided into primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors. It’s believed that the three primary colors are red, yellow, and blue (RYB), though some people think that cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) are the primary colors since printers test prints with CMYK ink cartridges. However, it’s not as widely recognized as the RYB trio. Secondary colors are achieved by mixing the primary colors with each other and making violet (or purple), green, and orange. Tertiary colors are made by mixing primary and secondary colors together and making blue-green, yellow-green, yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, and blue-violet.

It’s good to remember that every color has a “temperature”, meaning that it’s either a warm color or cool color. For example, greens, blues, and purples are cool colors, and reds, oranges, and yellows are warm colors! Just for reference, the coolest color is blue and the warmest color is orange. The reason why you want to keep this in mind is that cool colors may attract customers because of their “coolness” in the hot summer months. On the other hand, people like wearing bright, warm colors like yellows and reds in the summertime as well because those colors radiate happiness. It’s all up to you with how you want to color your designs!

Paint brush with cups of paint beside it and smears of paint on napkin.

Color Experimentation

If you’re a designer and want to explore every possible color combination or mix, consider experimenting with color tints, shades, tones, and mutes! To break it down for you:

tints = color + white

shades = color + black

tones = color + gray

mutes = color + complement color (i.e. red + green = brown)

The undertones for the tints, shades, tones, and mutes depend on the warmness or coolness of the white, black, gray, or complement color (i.e. to create warm orange, use a warm undertone). Play around and manipulate some colors, and see how you can make colors lighter, softer, darker, duller, or muted. The best part of the creative process is that there’s no “wrong” color, just colors that can be mixed differently and improved!

Color Schemes

In color theory and the color wheel, there are six color schemes that you can refer to when choosing colors and designs:

Complementary: a color’s opposite color on the color wheel (i.e. green's complementary color is red).

Split complementary: takes color and instead of using the complementary color, you use the colors next to it (i.e. red is green’s complement, so a split complementary scheme would be green, red-orange, and red-violet).

Triadic: three colors evenly spaced apart from each other on the wheel (i.e. blue, red, and yellow are a triadic color scheme).

Tetradic: (also known as Square) this scheme uses four colors evenly spaced on the color wheel.

Analogous: typically includes three colors (but there can be more) that are like colors (i.e. green, blue/green, and blue is an analogous color scheme)

Monochromatic: one hue (color) is used with variations of any number of tints, tones, shades, and mutes.

With analogous color schemes, you can create color palettes of the same color and use them in branding for your business or even website color themes! Consider using monochromatic colors if you have a vision for a certain line of clothing, like casual wear with colors that are easy on the eyes or fabrics that suit solid colors better.

For those of you who are just starting out in creating your own clothes, the color wheel is a vital resource that will help you elevate your creations so much more! When it all comes down to fashion, just have fun! Don’t limit yourself with what colors you choose to design with, be original, be bold, and people are bound to appreciate your wonderful creations.

We’d love to learn more about what you do, clothing designers! Comment on this article and let us know what colors you love using in your creations, or if there’s a color you just can’t figure out how to design! We want to know it all :) If you want to talk with other designers and creatives like you, sign up for Geneva and join our creatives chatroom!



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