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How do you read a color wheel for fashion?

Selecting the right color palette is crucial for creating fashionable and cohesive outfits. Understanding how to read a color wheel can help you combine colors in aesthetically pleasing ways. In this guide, we’ll go over the basics of color theory and how to use a color wheel to choose color schemes for fashion and wardrobe planning.

What is a Color Wheel?

A color wheel is a circular diagram that shows the relationships between different hues. The most common type is the 12-part color wheel devised by Johannes Itten, which contains the three primary colors (red, yellow, blue), the three secondary colors (orange, green, purple) and the six tertiary colors in between. The colors are arranged in a specific order based on their hue and relationship to one another. Studying a color wheel helps illustrate how colors interact and can be combined.

Basic Color Schemes

There are several basic color schemes commonly used in fashion design:

  • Monochromatic – Different shades, tones and tints of one color
  • Analogous – Colors next to each other on the color wheel
  • Complementary – Colors opposite each other on the wheel
  • Split Complementary – A color plus the two colors adjacent to its complement
  • Triadic – Colors equally spaced around the wheel

Studying these color schemes on a wheel provides guidance on pairing colors in aesthetically pleasing combinations. Let’s look at each one in more detail.


A monochromatic scheme uses different shades, tones and tints of one base hue. This creates a minimalist, elegant look. For example, an outfit may combine dark blue, medium blue and light blue.


Analogous colors sit next to each other on the color wheel, and usually have a similar intensity. They create a harmonious, smooth look when combined. For example, orange, yellow-orange and yellow.


Complementary colors are directly opposite each other on the wheel. They create high contrast when paired together. For example, red and green, or purple and yellow.

Split Complementary

This scheme uses one base color, plus the two colors adjacent to its complement. It provides more nuance than a straight complementary pairing. For example, blue with yellow-orange and yellow-green.


A triadic scheme uses three colors equally spaced around the wheel. This creates a vibrant, colorful combination. For example, red, yellow and blue.

Color Properties

In addition to understanding basic color schemes, studying the properties and relationships between colors helps create successful outfits. Here are some key aspects to keep in mind:


The attribute that distinguishes one color from another. Hue refers specifically to where a color falls on the color wheel.


Refers to the intensity or purity of a color. A highly saturated color contains little to no grey, while a less saturated color is muted and greyish.


How light or dark a color is. Adding white increases value (tint), while adding black decreases value (shade).


Colors are either warm or cool. Warm colors like red, orange and yellow evoke heat or sunlight. Cool colors like blue, green and purple are more calming and reminiscent of water or ice.


Complementary colors have high contrast as they contain both a warm and cool color. Analogous schemes have low contrast. Contrast creates visual interest.

Paying attention to these elements creates color combinations that are both pleasing to the eye and convey a certain mood or style.

Choosing a Color Palette

When selecting colors for an outfit or wardrobe, start by choosing one or two base hues from the color wheel that you want to build around. Consider the mood and aesthetic you want to achieve.

Some examples:

  • Bright, vibrant primary colors for a fun, youthful look.
  • Cool tones like blues and greens for a relaxing, earthy vibe.
  • Warm neutrals like tans, browns and beiges for a subtle, natural palette.

Next, refer to the color wheel to select additional hues. Follow one of the basic color scheme formulas, such as complementary, triadic or analogous. Make sure to vary saturation and value for visual interest.

Here are some examples of color palettes for different aesthetics:

Style Color Palette
Romantic Pink, mauve, pale blue
Casual Khaki, olive green, light blue
Dramatic Burgundy, deep purple, charcoal grey
Retro Mustard yellow, cherry red, forest green

When selecting individual garments, make sure they fit within the overall color scheme you’ve chosen. Keep proportions in mind—you generally don’t want one color to dominate an outfit.

Using Neutrals

Neutral colors like white, black, brown and grey provide flexibility within any color palette. They act as anchor points, allowing brighter accent colors to stand out.

Some ways to incorporate neutrals:

  • Pairing a neutral top or bottom with a brightly colored garment
  • Layering several neutral tones together
  • Choosing neutral accessories like bags, shoes and jewelry

Black, white and grey go with virtually any color scheme. Earth tones like taupe, sand and brown also pair well with most palettes. Just take care not to let neutrals become boring—add interest with texture, silhouette or accessories.

Considering Undertones

Your skin’s undertones also play a role in choosing colors. Are you warm toned, with yellow/golden undertones? Or cool toned, with blue/pink undertones? While not definitive, considering undertones can help guide you toward hues that are extra flattering.

Some guidelines:

  • Warm undertones – Drawn to warm, golden colors like yellow, peach, coral. Can also wear deeper warm hues like olive green.
  • Cool undertones – Look great in cool, jewel toned colors like royal blue, fuchsia, emerald green.
  • Neutral undertones – Mix of warm and cool. Flexible in wearing both warm and cool shades.

Looking at the veins on your wrist can give clues—greenish tinge indicates warm tones, while blueish means cool. Drape fabric swatches in different colors near your face and see which you prefer.

Achieving Balance

No matter your color scheme, achieving balance is key for a successful outfit:

  • Combine warm and cool tones to create contrast
  • Mix saturated colors with soft neutrals
  • Balanced color placement—don’t overload top or bottom half
  • Repeat colors throughout the outfit for cohesion

It also helps to pay attention to your surroundings. If attending an event with cool toned decor, a cooler palette will help you stand out while still blending in.

Tools for Planning

Some handy tools for planning and trying out color schemes include:

  • Color wheel
  • Photographs and magazine clippings for inspiration
  • Online palette generators
  • Fabric swatches

Sketching rough outfit illustrations can also help visualize how colors work together before getting dressed.

Mobile apps like Adobe Color CC make it easy to experiment with color schemes on the go. Some even use your photos to generate customized palettes.

Color Trends

While classic color theory always applies, staying up to date on seasonal color trends can provide inspiration. Some current trends include:

  • Vibrant neon hues
  • Warm earth tones like terra cotta, ochre and umber
  • Bold color blocking and mismatched color pairings
  • Soft pastel shades

Fashion runways, paint company announcements and home decor forecasts offer clues on rising color trends. However, personal preference should take priority over sticking strictly to trends.


Learning to combine colors aesthetically takes practice, but mastering the basics of how to read a color wheel provides guidance in selecting harmonious color palettes for fashion and wardrobe planning. Consider the color schemes and properties discussed here as you experiment with incorporating more intentional color usage into your personal style.