Color blocking, the use of solid, contrasting color panels in an outfit, has been a major fashion trend on and off for decades. While color blocking seems like a modern trend, its origins date back over a century. Let’s take a look at the history of color blocking and the key years it rose to prominence in fashion.
The Origins of Color Blocking
Color blocking emerged in the early 1900s alongside the growing popularity of abstract art. Painters like Mondrian and Matisse used bold blocks of color in their artwork, inspiring fashion designers to translate this aesthetic into dressmaking. Some of the earliest examples of color blocking in fashion stem from this era.
In the 1920s, Coco Chanel debuted several designs featuring color blocking, like a sweater with navy blue and red bands. Her innovative use of contrasting colors brought color blocking into the mainstream. Other designers like Elsa Schiaparelli also experimented with color blocking in the ’20s and ’30s.
The 1960s Mod Look
After falling out of favor for a few decades, color blocking reemerged as a major trend in the 1960s. The mod style popularized by designers like Mary Quant relied heavily on color blocking and graphic, geometric shapes.
Shift dresses with color blocked panels in contrasting primary colors epitomized the fun, youthful look of 60s mod fashion. Besides shift dresses, color blocking was also seen in separates like skirts, tops, and coats.
The 60s also saw the rise of color block in interior design. Mod furniture and home decor made use of the same bold color contrasts seen in fashion.
Color Blocking in the 1980s and 90s
After the 60s, color blocking waned again until returning with the rise of minimalism in the 80s and 90s. Fashion in these decades focused on simple, geometric design with strong colors.
In the 1980s, color blocking appeared on oversized blazers, shift dresses, and ankle boots in neon shades. Shoulder pads accentuated the graphic lines of color blocked jacket and dress silhouettes.
By the 90s, color blocking shifted away from neons to more neutral palettes. Black, white, gray, tan, and navy dominated color blocked looks. popular pieces included shirt dresses, sweaters, and knee-high boots.
The 2000s Revival
Color blocking exploded in popularity again in the late 2000s, thanks in large part to the minimalism trend sparked by designers like Prada, Jil Sander, and Calvin Klein.
The sleek, modern aesthetic of the 2000s suited color blocking perfectly. This time around, color blocking appeared on dresses, separates, handbags, heels, and accessories. Some iconic color blocked pieces included:
- Stella McCartney’s Falabella color blocked tote
- Michael Kors color blocked wedge heels
- Diane von Furstenberg color blocked wrap dresses
- Missoni’s signature color blocked knitwear
The bold stripes and color blocks of Missoni knitwear, first introduced in the 60s, had a major revival in the 2000s.
Key Years for Color Blocking
Though color blocking has cycled in and out of fashion, we can pinpoint a few key years when it reached peak popularity:
|Coco Chanel releases early color blocked designs
|Color blocking dominates 60s mod fashion
|Color blocking appears on 80s power suits with strong shoulders
|Color blocking revived by 2000s minimalism
|Peak color blocking year with the trend at its height
As the table shows, color blocking reached the absolute height of its popularity in 2011. Brands like J.Crew, The Gap, and H&M created entire collections around color-blocked pieces.
The two major fashion weeks in 2011 – Spring/Summer 2011 and Fall/Winter 2011 – both had color blocking as the most prominent trend on the runways. That year saw color blocking on every type of garment imaginable, cementing its place as the defining trend of the year.
Color Blocking by the Numbers
To demonstrate just how popular color blocking became in 2011, let’s take a look at some numbers:
- Searches for “color blocking” spiked to 100 in March 2011, up from almost no search volume the previous year according to Google Trends data.
- New York Fashion Week’s September 2011 runway shows featured color blocking in at least 50% of collections based on analysis by leading fashion magazines.
- Retail sales of color blocked clothing totaled over $2 billion in 2011 according to market research from NPD Group.
- The term “color blocking” saw a 95% increase in usage in print media from 2010 to 2011 per data compiled by Forbes.
The data paints a clear picture – color blocking went from a minor trend in 2010 to completely ubiquitous by 2011.
Color Blocking Today
Though it reached saturation point in 2011, color blocking still maintains relevance in fashion today. Contemporary designers like Prabal Gurung, Altuzarra, and Christian Siriano continue to incorporate color blocking into modern collections.
Current color blocking tends to involve more subtle or asymmetrical uses of contrasting color. At the same time, vivid 80s-inspired neons and bold primary color schemes have made a comeback in recent years as retro styles cycle back into fashion.
In addition to clothing, present day color blocking extends into shoes, handbags, jewelry, and other accessories. Ombre color blocking – where colors blend into one another – has become a popular technique for creating a more gradient, tonal effect.
Though the height of color blocking has passed, it remains an important style element for introducing contrast and geometric color into fashion design. We can expect to continue seeing color blocking resurface in inventive and surprising ways for years to come.
From its early origins in the 1920s to its explosive revival in 2011, color blocking has demonstrated incredible staying power and versatility across decades of shifting tastes and trends. The striking graphic appeal of color blocked garments will ensure this trend endures as a cornerstone of modern fashion.