Color in Fashion: Sources of Information

Figure 1.--A popular form of advertising in the late-19th century was trade cards. These were colorful cards given to customers. They were popular because scrapbooking was so popular at the time. This one was distributed by Hires root beer, a drink I enjoyed as a boy. The card is undated, but we would guess dates to the 1890s. The card is interesting here because the baby is dressed in red. We think that this was not very common, but the red was chodsen just to add a little eye-catching appeal to the card. We see white and light colos beuing used much more commonly for babies. Put your cursor on the image to read the advertising ad copy on the back. Hines promoted itself as "the temperance drink".

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 to make these sources more accessible to readers. The reliability of these sources is a more difficult asseess. 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.


Advdertising is one of the most accessible sources of information on color, but one of the least reliable. Here we are talking about advertizing in general and not clothing advertisements. (We have included clothing advertisements in the catalog section.) Tremendous advances were made in lithography so that illustrations could be easily and inexpensively added to newspaper and magazine adverising during the 19th century. This was a great boon to advertising because illustrations were so eye catching. And by the late-19yh century, color lithography made high-quality color printing possible. We begin to see advertisment in bright, eye-catching colors. This is the problem with using advertisement as aource of information on color trends. There is a temptation to use them, becaause msany are dated. But the purpose of advertisement is to catch a potential customer's attention, not to accurately depict the color of garments. We do noit suggest ignoring advertisements, but we suspect that bright colors are more commonly used in advertising than was common in actual fashions.

Art: Paintings

A major source of information on historical clothing is art, particularly painting. This was of course especially true before the invention of photography in the mid-19th century. Suddently images of individuals showing their clothing were available in huge quantities, in the millions. This swaped the number of painted portraits and were more acurate depictions of clothing. There was one exception--color. Until the 1970s, photography was mostly black-and-white. Thus paintings continued to provide useful color information. The questioin arises as to how accurate the color depictions were. Here we are not entirely sure. As best we can figure, there were substantial differences over time, with styles, and individual artists. We note that the religious paintaings which dominated European art through the 15th century often iused bright colors. The great Italian nmasters during the Renaisance often used a color palet for clothing that was almost cartoonish. This seems unrealistic to us. Subsequent European artists it seems to us produced more reasonable deictions. The Dutch and Flemish masters we believe were exceedingly acurate depictions. As to portraits, we suspect that most people wanted accurate depictions. They probably appreciated little touch ups as to their facial appearance, but wanted accurae depictions of their clothing. We would appreciate any insignts that readers may have on this subject. With the popularity of abstract art in the 20th century, depictions become more problematic, but for the 20th cetury we have more alternative sources of information and f course by the q1970s, color hotography.

Art: Illustrations

Illustrations are another source of color information in clothing. In contrast to paintings, however, the color depictions are much less reliable. Illustrations are often delightful, but they are often not realistic depictions. The problem here is the reason that they were drawn. Illusrations were commonly depicted to illustrate books and other stories. The accuracy of the color depictions were usually not a an important facytor. Rather eye appeal and emotional impact were more important. An exception here were illustrations in fashion magazines and books describing fashions.

Clothing Catalogs

There is also some color information in clothing catalog and advertisements. There are relatively few color illustrations in catalogs until the mid-20th century, but the ad copy often includes color details. We can thus pick up basic colors, but not hues. Despite this limitation, these catalogs are one of the most important sources of color information for the late-19th and early-20th centuries. HBC is developing a very sizeable section on the children's clothing offeredin catalogs.

Commercial Postcards

Postcards began to become popular in the late 19th century. Color lithography made color printing possible. Other postcards were made with color painted on photographic images. The accuracy of the depictions is highly variable. We note that the depictions are often not very accurate. Here the commercial nature of the post cards was a factor. The idea was to sell these cards. Thus bright colors were often used to make the cards more eye catching. This was pribably a way to make them more saleable. It was not such bright colors we note. We are also not entirely sure about the use of pastels as well. Often the clothing used in commercial postcards was especially fancy or nistalgic clothing and not the ordinary clothing that children more commonly worn. We suspect the same was true in the use of color.


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 black and white photography gives the impression that the clothes worn by boys were these muted colors. It is possible to make some assessments abot color in these old photographs. There are many sources of information on color. These sources do not resolve our color problem, but they fdo provide some useful information.

Vintage Clothing

An especially helpful aspect of archiving vintage clothing on HBC is a source of information on color. This is particularly important for HBC because we rely so heavily on period phjotographs which were until relatively recently were almost entirely black and white. We can make some color assessments from black and white images, but this is very limited and highly subjective. Thus the actual vintage clothing items provide this valuable information on color. Eventually we will index the vintage garments we have archived by color. Several colors were especially popular for boys clothes, including blue, brown, and white. Many other colors were used. Here age is a factor as brigter colors might be used for younger boys clothing. The garment is another factor. Brighter colors were more acceptable for shirts than pants. Also casual and play bclothing was often done in brighter colors than more formal clothing.


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Created: 5:49 PM 7/17/2008
Last updated: 8:50 PM 5/31/2011