Color in Fashion

fashion color
Figure 1.--One of the difficulties HBC has is that we rely heavily on photography. It is not the only source we use, but it is certainly the primary source. And unfortunately until the 1970s, photography was mostly black and white. Thus limited information on color can be dreived from historical photography. This boy was from Broockton, Massachusetts, probably about 1890. The portrait suggests his suit was black, but other dark colors were possible. Note his large bow, it was clearly a pastel color, but we are not sure just ehat color.

Color is a topic of some interest in fashion and clothing. Color is important in the animal world, but more for birds and insects than mamals. An exception here is primates. Color acuity seems to have been an important element in the evolution of primates. And this is especially the case of humans. The human eye can recognize an amazing number of colors--perhaps 10 million. There are interesting eoconomic and technical aspects to color. Dyes were valuable trade goods in the anicent world. Scientific advances in chemicals during the 19th century made available a wide-range of color dyes which affected the use of color in fashion. Curiously many of these colors came available just at the time when the fashion world was emerging from the standard black of the mid-19th century Victorian era. HBC has not yet seriously addressed the subject of color in fashion. It is, however, an important topic that needs to be addressed in some detail.


Color is important in the animal world, but more for birds and insects than mamals. An exception here is primates. Color acuity seems to have been an important element in the evolution of primates. And this is especially the case of humans. The human eye can recognize an amazing number of colors. This and the fact that we know that color was important to known primative people suggests that from the earliest points of pre-history, color has been important. Initially it seems to have been connected with food recognition and acquisition, but as human society developed, color was used in fashion and decoration. Paintings provide a very useful depiction of the use of color in fashion. Here we have to realize that paintings are not color photographs. As a result we can not be sure just how color depictions are in paintings. We note quite a few medieval paintings, for example, where crods of people are painted with extrodinarily colorful garments--almost cartoonish. We see this in both Bilical scences (often done with comtemprary clothing) and secular contemprary scenes. We think that individual portraits are more likely to have accurate color depiction. We think that by the 16th century we begin to get more accurate color depictions. Of course a great deal of art was commissioined by the Church or the aristocracy and other wealthy individuals. Thus we know much more about the elite than the common people. We note both plain brown clothes in the 18th century as well as very colorful clothes. This can be seen in the individual 18th century portraits we have found. The development of photography in the 19th century brought us much more detailed information on clothing than ever before. Unfortunately almost all photographs in the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century were black and white images. Interestingly this was roughly contemporary with the beginning of the Victorian era when blaxk clothing, especially for men, was very common. Colorized images, paintings, catalogs, and magazines provide some color images. After World War II color photography becomes increasingly common, especially by the 1970s.


Dyes were valuable trade goods in the anicent world. Colors that were difficult to produce could be quite expensive. A particular example here was purple which could only be produced fom a rare marrine snail. It thus became the color reserved for the emperor in the Roman Empire. When Spanish Conquistadores reached Mexico, they were astonished by the intense scarlet color of cochineal dye, which was brighter and more resistant to fadeing than any red dye in Europe. Blue was a relatively easy dye to make. This is one reason that English charity school boys wore blue uniforms. Scientific advances in chemicals during the 19th century made available a wide-range of color dyes which affected the use of color in fashion. Germany with its important chemical industry became the world leader in dyes.

The Physics of Color

Color is commonly thoughof as a property of light. It can more correctly be considered as a property of the brain. The human experience with color and perception of color depends not only on the wavelength of the light rays that strikes the rods and cones of retina, but also the context in which it is perceived. Important factors are background colors, lighting, past experiences, and the individual's surroundings. There are three primary colors: red, blue, and green. Note that this is different than pigment colors. White is a combination of the three primary colors while black is their absence. Yellow, orange, purple, mauve, and countless other colors form through the combination of the three basic colors. They are secondary colors. These three colors combine to make the millions of colors that the human eye destinguish. Scientists estimate that the averahe human eye can destinuish something like 10 million different colors. The HSB model is commonly used to classify colors. This HSB model has three components: Hue, Saturation, and Brightness. Hue is a specific shade or appearance of a color. There are about 150 hues the eye is capable of distinguishing which are the colors of the visible light spectrum. Brightness means the amount of light emitted by an object. Saturation means the purity of a color or the intensity of a hue. Differences in brightness and saturation turn the approximately 150 hues into the 10 million different colors that the human eye can destinguish. We are not sure yet if there are physiological differences in color perception betwen men and women. Scientists have found gender differences in color preferences and responses to color. Women certainly can identify more colors than men, but this seems to be more of a learned/socialized response than based on phyiological capabilities.

Specific Colors

We note children wearing clothes done in about every different color imaginable. Some colors have been more popular than others. This has varied over time and by gender. Blues and browns seem especially popular for boys, but they worn many more colors. The modern blue/pink conventions are fairly modern developments. There are also other variables such as fashion, cost, garment, countries, and others. Here we want to list every color and review it uses in fashion. There are major fashion varitions. For most of histiry, brightly colored clothes were for aristocrats and the well to do. The peasntry which was the great mass of the population wore undyed homespun which meant natural colors, primarily brown shades, some close to white. Flax and cotton yielded white fabrics. Purple was only for emperors in the Roman Empire. During some periods men and boys wore brightly colored clothing and at other times it was women ang girls that wore bright colors. There were sometimes religious factors. Jews had to wear yellow garmentsduring the medieval era. nThe Puritans considered bright colors ostentatious. The Victorians, especially Victorian men preferred black. And some colors were reserved for royalyy. Chinese emperors chose yellow. Sumterary Laws restricted the lower classes from wearing bright colors. This was in part the rarity and cost of creting dyes. The development of the chemical industry in Europe and ability to create low cost dyes of virtully every color removed the economic contraints of wearing bright colors. Our knowledge of color was at first restructed to vintage clothing and art work and literary references. Fashion plates appear in the 18th century and catalogs in the 19th century. We begin to get color lithographs in the late 19th century. We do not get large number of color images, howeve, until the 1970s when color photography becones prevalent nd we can see in great detil what color clothing children wore.


We have begun to develop some information on how color was used in specific garments. We have only invetigated certain garments at this time, but we hope to to expand this section as HBC develops. The use of black-and-white photography has complicated work on this section, but we have made some limited progress. We have worked on Fauntleroy suits, sailor suits, pants and trousers, and hosiery.


Science and fashion are often considered worlds apart. In fact science or technology in general has played a major role in fashion and clothes manufacture. The first dyes were of course national dyes. Gradually man learned how to extract dyes from plants and animals. Scientific advances beginning in the 18th century played a role in the European industrial revolution which was a first centered in the textile industry. The discovery Prussian blue and the publication of Newton's Opticks (1704) were some of the important early developments. Perkin synthesized mauveine dye (1856). These and many othger advances, often centered in Germany, created an array of color dyes providing fashion designers a much greater range of colors than had previously been available and at low cost. Curiously many of these colors came available just at the time when the fashion wold was emerging from the standard black of the mid-19th century Victorian era.


Color in clothing has often carried very significant messages. Here we mean both the shades of color as well as presence or absence of color. Slaves and poor people once wore clothes with little color, only the natural colors of the material from which fabric was woven. Here the primary significance was the cost of colorful dyed clothing. Puritans wore mostly black to show their rejection of conspicuous clothing which in fact was a poerful fashion statement. The Cavaliers that replaced the austere Cromwell introduced riotous color into clothing and in part signified their social outlook.


Some colors have been associated with royalty, in part because of their rarity or difficulty to produce. Purple bcame associated with Roman emperors and the color was ressrved for them. Yellow was reserved for the emperor in China.


This is a vey complicated topic. Color has been used differently in various countries. This has of course varied over time. And there have been different uses of colors by various groups within countries. Here we have only begun to assess the topic of variation in the use of color in fashion among countries. Often there was considerable continuity in the use of color over national borders within regions.


The issue of color and gender is an important fashion topic and a very complicated one. Some authors use the modern associations between colors and genders as a way of determining gender in old paintings. There is much reason to believe, however, that the blue-for-boys, pink-for-girls idea is a fairly modern one, even a 20th-century convention. Other colors such as the idea that wedding dresses must be white are fairly recent, many dating to the Victorian era. In our modern age, the convention seems to be that girls and women tend to prefer brighter colors and boys and men more comfortable with muted colors. This of course has varied over time. There were historical periods such as the late-medieval era when men wore very bright colors. There were also periods in which black and muted colors were popular such as the Victorian era. There have also been religious-based color preferences. Our discussion pf color has been primarily a cultural one. Blue may have been become a popular boy color because blue dye was cheaper than other colors and used for charity boys school uniforms, establishing a convention. The association of blue with navy uniforms may have been another culture-based factor. There are indications that color conventions have varied over time. This suggests that culture-based color conventions may be to an extent hapinstance. We note recent research, however, suggesting that there may be some genetic basis for genfer color preferences.


Sources of Information

HBC relies heavily on photography for it many fshion pages. Here there are limitations becuse until well into the 1970s, photography was primarily a black and white entrprise. Thus on most pages we are not sure about the colors, in fact we often have no idea about colors. There are, however, several sources oif information on color. These sources differ substatially in accessibility and reliability. HBC is working hard ti make these sources more accessible to readers. The reliability of these sources is a more difficuklt question. There are two HBC sections that do provide us helpful information about color. These are the art section and the vintage clothing section. Both of which readers interested in color may want to utilize. There is also some color information in the catalog section. There are relatively few color illustrations, but the ad copy often includes color details.

Color and Photography

One aspect of historic clothing that the old black-and-white photographs do not provide is color. Some boys clothing is rather dark muted colors, black, greys, and dark greens, blues, and browns. Not all clothing are these colors. Unfortunately the bklack and white photography gives the impression that the clothes worn by boys were these muted colors. Some color infirmnation can be discerned from black-and-white photographs, but it is very limited.

Color: The Right Chemistry

A Kent State University Museum exhibition provides a great del of information about color and fashion. The curator tells us, "Wearing color is part of the human experience. From time immemorial, colors were an integral part of the fiber of society and their presence, or absence, served a social function. They contribute to making us who we are as individuals and can speak of culture, beliefs and life stages. In the days of slavery, clothing of undyed and unbleached osnaburg fabric served to strip a person of their ndividuality.(1) The somber yet saturated palette of blues and purples of Amish clothing is part of their culture and beliefs just as the tricolor scheme of revolutionary France."


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Created: 10:40 PM 6/17/2005
Last updated: 11:02 PM 9/15/2012