Fashion colour theory and how to use it

Does it ever happen to you to have plenty of great clothes that you like them individually, that you struggle to bind them together to make a decent outfit? Do you want to understand how to combine clothes and accessories into a single capsule wardrobe? You do not know where to start?

Combining colours to make an outfit is a skill to be learned. Few people are born with this skill. Some of the greatest in fashion had to learn it.

Is not something difficult to learn, but you need practice to ace it. Why should we do that? Not just because it helps you look great, but because it allows you to express yourself.

Colours and emotions relate to each other, and knowing the psychological effects of particular colours may help you make the most of your wardrobe.

This article will help you learn how to use fashion colour theory to set up a wardrobe that more effectively express your personality.

What is colour theory, anyway?

Believe it or not, this theory is over 350 years old and Sir Isaac Newton invented it himself in 1666 when he also he invented the colour wheel. Newton understood colours as human perceptions of wavelengths of light. He classified colours into three groups:

  1. Primary (red, blue, yellow)

  2. Secondary (mixes of primary colours)

  3. Tertiary (or intermediate, a mix of primary and secondary colours)

Newton’s theory also identifies the following colour properties:

  • Hue is how we describe colours: red, purple, blue, etc.

  • Value (lightness) describes overall intensity to how light or dark a colour is. It is the only dimension of colour that may exist by itself.

  • Chroma (Saturation) is the strength or dominance of the hue. On the outer edge of the wheel, we have the intensely saturated hues. Towards the centre of the colour wheel, no hue dominates, and they become less and less saturated.

Why is colour theory important?

Colour wheel

Colour theory is essential in many fields. However, for fashion designers, it often refers to the practical rules for colour matching. It also refers to the ideas behind aesthetically harmonious colour combinations.

This theory combines psychology, science, and emotion. Understanding its fundamentals will help you when you are designing or choosing your outfit.

The key element of understanding the theory and its application is the colour wheel. This tool offers a condensed representation of the significant colour families and is the basis for several rules used by different sectors. The colour wheel shows the relationship between primary and secondary colours.

When following the fashion colour theory, keep the following concepts in mind:

  • Temperature - Is about breaking down colours into warm hues. Experiment with matching both cool colours and warm colours to get a certain look and impression.

  • Harmony - This term is used to describe aesthetically pleasing colour combinations. Harmonious colour schemes are those that use analogous and complementary hues.

Selecting Outfits According To The Colour Wheel

When we creating an outfit, we want to use hues that create a pleasant to looking appearance, not a chaotic mix. The wheel and the related theory can help us achieve exactly that. It helps us determine colour combinations that work, as long as we know what we want to achieve.

Let’s have a look then at five most common combinations: analogous, complementary, triadic, tonal and monochromatic.

Analogous is a combination where we use hues next to each other on the colour wheel. The colours blend with each other when paired together. Examples: pink and red; blue and purple; green and blue. The feel here is a cohesive and harmonious soft gradation of colour.

Analogous outfit

Complementary colours are opposite to each other in the wheel. They contrast each other, thus making each other seem more vibrant when together. Examples: yellow and purple, purple and red, blue and orange, and red-green. The effect is a contrast of colour that creates an electrifying look.

Complementary outfit

Triadic colours you take three colours which are equally distant on the wheel. Although the colours may not be vibrant, the scheme maintains harmony and strong contrast. It’s easier to make visually appealing outfits with this than with a complementary scheme. Examples: orange, purple and green; red, yellow and blue. This is a multi-coloured but balanced type of look.

Triadic outfit
Photo by Rahul Pandit from Burst

Tonal colours are different shades of the same hues. For example, we can combine different shades of blue like teal, berry, navy, and magenta blue. These are all unique tones, with a different shade of the colour blue. The tonal look is fun, easy and gives a pretty style that’s a bit more subtle than the monochromatic one.

Tonal outfit

Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

A monochromatic takes one hue and creates other elements from different shades and tints of it. It is wearing the same shade of colour, from head-to-toe. It’s quite difficult to create an outfit as you need spot on when matching items colour. Neutral colours tent to be the easier one to play with monochromatic. This look has been popular lately, with many individuals using it.

The first three combinations (analogous, complementary and triadic) suite are suitable for neutral colours like white, grey or black as, by definition, they don’t count as colours themselves.

Monochromatic outfit

Photo by Nicole De Khors from Burst


How to start with colour theory?

The best way to understand the theory is to apply it to your existing clothes. My suggestion would be to practice with the first three combinations as they provide more flexibility, allowing for neutral colour. This will give you more clothes to play with.
  • Pick up a scheme (let’s say complementary)

  • Organise your clothes and accessories by hue

  • Identify the complementary colours and match them together

  • Identify the neutral clothes and distribute them to complete the outfits

  • Always use the wheel to guide your decisions

If, like most people, you find it difficult to coordinate colours, you could have an excess of neutral tone items.