Color Theory & Color Wheel for clothes

Learn about the impact of colors in fashion and understand the clothing color wheel to help you understand how different colors can be coordinated and paired effectively in your outfits.

color theory

Color wheel is a visual representation of the relationships between colors. The color wheel is a fundamental tool in color theory, helping to understand color relationships, harmonies, and contrasts.

You can use color wheel and color theory to great effect when choosing the right colors for clothes.

Color theory studies the effect of different shades of colors and how to get the right color with different color combinations based on the color wheel. 

The color theory is a collection of rules and guidelines used by designers to analyze different colors, and study the effects these colors have on each other and then mix different colors to get the right color combinations and use them effectively to create a design that communicates effectively with its consumer. 

The theory of color was first propounded by Sir Isaac Newton in his book Opticks published in 1704. He made his observations of color after noticing that when a ray of light passes through a glass prism it separates into different colors. He recognized that color is a result of different wavelengths of light. This discovery and consequent studies by eminent men have led to different guidelines that help us to present color in a visually pleasing and effective way.

Importance of colors, color theory & studying the color wheel in fashion

The color theory is particularly important for fashion designers. They study the color wheel (also called color circle) thoroughly and decide on the best color combinations after analyzing the colors. There are many reasons for this.

They have to understand color trends, color theory, and how to create appealing color palettes for clothing collections.

Colors can communicate non verbally – without saying a word it can tell you a lot. For eg. When you wear a red dress you know that you will get attention – you are asking for it. 

Colors can affect our moods. They are known to invoke certain feelings in the onlooker.

For example, the color red invokes danger, passion, excitement, or energy. The color green, on the other hand, brings a sense of calmness and peace.

When I see my turquoise coffee cup I feel happy and uplifted because I associate it with my beachside holiday from where I bought it. 

The colors are said to affect the wearer psychologically, as we all have our preferences for colors. Certain colors appeal to us, whereas certain colors affect us negatively – this is usually very individual and may be influenced by past experiences or associations.

When you wear blue clothes, some one might assume you are trustworthy based on the color alone.

Colors also play a significant role in our social and cultural lives.

Color is constantly on our minds when we dress. Some colors compliment our skin tones or our personality. We regularly wonder if a particular color will suit us, or the occasion. We instinctively stay away from colors that make us appear dull or disproportionate.

In fashion design, colors can create divisions, hierarchies, and structure – colors can make some parts more prominent than others, it can divert attention, it can project confidence in the design, and change previous perceptions.  

So, it makes sense to study the visual effect of color and how to achieve the best color combination and that is precisely what color theory does. Fashion designers can analyze these effects, and create clothing that resonates with their target audience.

Color wheel for clothes

colortheory and color wheel
Color wheel

The color wheel is a visual representation of what color theory proposes. In the color wheel colors are arranged in a circle in a particular sequence. A conventional color wheel has 12 colors.

It shows the relationships between primary colors (red, blue, and yellow), secondary colors (orange, green, and purple), and tertiary colors (created by mixing a primary and a neighboring secondary color).

12 colors of a color wheel

The color wheel helps to learn about the different colors and their relationships with each other. 

The color wheel is a representation of colors according to their wavelength and helps us to understand the relationship between colors. 

blue and green combination clothes

2 color theories and the 2 types of color wheels

The color wheel was invented by Sir Isaac Newton in the late 17th century. After this many variations of this basic color wheel have come out. According to the 2 main types of color wheel, you can say that there are 2 color theories – the traditional color theory and the modern color theory. 

The color theory expounds the relationship between the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. These are described through the Itten wheel proposed by the Swiss artist Johannes Itten.

But you have to know that the primary colors can be different depending on the medium used. Primary colors are the most basic colors of a color wheel – Red, blue and yellow. For printing the primary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow.

For mixing colors for painting the red blue and yellow color wheel is used.

Red Yellow Blue color wheel

RYB color wheel (Red-Yellow-Blue) – This is the traditional color wheel according to which colors red yellow and blue are the most important colors.

This is the color wheel mostly used by painters and other artists to learn about color harmony and relationship.

color theory
Red Green Blue color wheel

RGB color wheel (Red Green Blue) – This is the modern color wheel used by computer users. The primary colors of an RGB color wheel are Red, Green, and Blue.

Color harmony

Achieving harmony in clothing is possible by getting the color combinations right. You can refer to the color wheel to understand color relationships.

Color harmonies based on the color wheel like complementary, analogous, and triadic color schemes, can be used to create visually pleasing and balanced outfits.

Complementary colors, split complementary colors, analogous colors, triadic colors, are all color schemes that you can use in your fashion design projects according to your preference and the message you want to communicate.

pink complementary colors

Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel

Analogous colors are adjacent to each other on the color wheel.

analogous colors of a color wheel

Triadic colors are evenly spaced on the color circle.

triadic colors of rust

Split-complementary colors have a base color and two adjacent to its complement on the wheel.


You can find some of the Best colour combination for clothes based on the color wheel.

How are colors used based on color theory?

You have many choices when using colors –

1. Using the color in its full intensity or

2. Mixing it with other colors to make different colors, or

3. Mixing with white or black or grey.

Cool colors and warm colors

color wheel
Half of the color wheel belongs to the cool color family

Colors on one side of the color wheel that includes shades of blue, green, and purple are called Cool colors. Colors on the opposite side that includes shades of red, orange, and yellow are known as warm colors. 

warm color comprises of red yellow and orange colors

Color properties according to the color theory

Some very important aspects that you have to note about using colors properly are to ensure proper use of intensity/ saturation of each hue and mixes, and maintaining the values correctly.


Hue is a pure color without any added white, black, or gray. Hues are classified as primary colors, secondary colors and tertiary colors.

The primary colors are 3 colors which cannot be reproduced by mixing other colors. They can be mixed in different combinations to get all the other colors of the color wheel. 

When the primary colors are mixed with other colors in the color wheel you get secondary colors and tertiary colors. Secondary colors are orange, green, and Violet.

Red + Yellow – Orange
Yellow + Blue – Green
Red + Blue – Violet

When you mix a secondary color and a primary color you get the tertiary color. 

Yellow + Orange – Yellow-Orange
Orange + Red – Red-Orange

Red + Violet – Red-violet
Violet + Blue – Blue-Violet

Blue + Green – Blue-Green
Green + Yellow – Yellow-Green

You can learn more about the categories of different colors here. 

Value (Brightness)

Value is referred as the lightness or darkness of a color. Colors at the top of the color wheel are typically the lightest (tints), while those at the bottom are the darkest (shades).

When white or black is added to a color its value increases /decreases, creating lighter or darker versions of the same color. When you add grey to a color you change the tone of the color.

Saturation (Intensity)

This refers to brighter and darker versions of a color. Colors at the outer edge of the color wheel are highly saturated, while colors toward the center are less saturated.

When using more than one color in a design, checking the saturation level of different hues is very important – you have to ensure that the saturation level of the hues is coordinated. Matching colors based on their saturation levels is indeed an important aspect of color coordination in design.

Highly saturated colors are vibrant and bold, while desaturated or muted colors are more subdued. Usually, similar saturation levels are preferred for a harmonious and cohesive design.

Colors with vastly different levels of saturation can clash and create visual discord.

But sometimes, this can be used to bring attention to a part of the clothing. When you want to give a part of a design some prominence, you will have to increase the saturation level of the hue used in that part to make it stand out. You can use high-saturation colors strategically to draw attention to specific areas of your body or outfit. For, eg. A bright-colored belt can be a focal point and bring attention to a thin waist. 

The same effect can be achieved if you use colors that contrast with each other ie which have different values (lightness or darkness)

Different aspects of color selection 

There are many other aspects of colors that a fashion designer should pay attention to when creating a collection. 

One of them is the seasonal color trends in the fashion industry.

Certain colors may have different meanings in various cultures, and fashion designers should consider these cultural nuances when creating international collections.

The color black is the color for mourning in the West, whereas, in China and some other Asian countries, white is the color for mourning. But in Thailand and European countries, the color of mourning is not black, it is purple. For the native American Indian tribes, black was the color of victory and success, whereas in India, black is largely considered the color of evil and negativity.

These variations in the way the same color is perceived between different countries and cultures should be taken into consideration to avoid potential problems.

Another aspect is the buying fabric for clothes. Different fabrics can absorb and reflect light differently, affecting the perception of color. Texture of fabrics can change the look of colors. Look of a color of an outfit in natural daylight maybe different from how it looks at night or under artificial lighting.

These aspects can be explored in conjunction with the color wheel to achieve the ideal combinations for clothes.

Color names

Since the color theory was first thought of, there has been an influx of many different colors – not that they didnot exist before – but they have come to our notice and we love them and use them extensively in our projects. Some of them have very peculiar names like Livid Blue, Folly and Coquelicot. You can find most of the famous color names in this post

More details about color theory in the website here.

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Author: Sarina Tariq

Hi, I love sewing, fabric, fashion, embroidery, doing easy DIY projects and then writing about them. Hope you have fun learning from sewguide as much as I do. If you find any mistakes here, please point it out in the comments.
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