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How to make the most of colour in costume design for screen

By Marie Bramah – 5/11/2018

Colour holds much potential in expressing characters, relationships, ideas and meaning within a story. It has the power to sub-consciously provoke certain psychological reactions from its viewers and draw attention to a particular character or theme.

In a production with minimal dialogue, colour is an excellent tool for highlighting character traits, social status and differences. Understanding the power of colour as a costume designer opens up new opportunities for visual creativity in your ideas – so check out the tips below and try them out in your next project.

Where to begin?

After meetings with the director and HODs, you should have a strong understanding of their intentions for colour schemes. With this knowledge, you can then begin to explore how you will use colour in the costumes. It’s essential that a designer has properly grasped the characters’ personalities and their relationships. After analysing the script, you should identify key character traits/emotions. Creating a list of these words allows you to then pick out the appropriate colours which represent such ideas.

It’s also useful to identify the relationships between characters, as these can also be subtly expressed through colour combinations. Are the characters in a conflict? Soulmates? Relations?

The character of Debora shares the same monochrome colour scheme with the character Baby in Edgar Wright’s Film Baby Driver

Ways of using colour symbolically

Monochromatic and analogous palettes are good for harmonious and undivided relationships. Complementary combinations work best for characters in opposition, emphasising the tension within a scene. If the director wants to really draw attention to a particular conflict/opposition, then colour discordance is key. This is any combination which does not conform to those previously mention and stands in isolation with the rest of the films colour scheme. Select colours which are almost opposite to each other on the colour wheel and the viewer’s focus will be drawn to this.

For characters who possess a desire for control, adopting a consistent colour palette with the same combinations is a creative, visual personification of this. Conversely, collating a wardrobe with a wide variety of colours in contrasting combinations is a successful way to convey characters who are chaotic or unsure of who they are. An adoption of both methods could be effective in expressing the difference between childhood and adulthood.

Characters can be visually detached from their alter ego through colour. A friendly, joyful and nurturing character may be dressed in browns and yellows, whilst their dark, sexual and menacing alter ego might be wearing red and black.

If you plan on using colour transitionally to embody a character’s transformation, you need to identify their development from the start. This is particularly important for television series. A designer must remain consistent and aware of the colours used in previous scenes/episodes and what stage the story is at in each selection process.

If you remain consistent in using a particular colour for a character, it can generate an association or emotional reaction to it. This may be useful in highlighting a character who is a threat to another character/situation, or for foreshadowing death.


If you intend to explore relationships through colour, it’s important to experiment with your ideas before sourcing the costumes. Look for objects which have a similar colour/combination. An even better method is to find the fabrics you have in mind, in the colours you wish to combine and see how they work together. Understand that colour is best-used sub-consciously, so if your combinations are too bold/distracting, you may wish to reconsider. Unless of course, the intention is to draw attention.

Colour is an important part of the costume design for Disney's The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
Colour is an important part of the costume design for Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Credit: Disney

This method also helps to better understand how colours alter with different textures. Satin and silk fabrics reflect surrounding light, whereas velvet absorbs it. Therefore, a colour may appear brighter and potentially lighter on a silk costume. If you choose a fabric with a rough texture, note that these cast shadows upon themselves, which can alter the appearance of its colour’s temperature. A colour might appear warmer with more intensity when on a woollen fabric.

Also, experiment with how the colours and fabrics work within the settings. Bright colours tend to reflect the light that shines on them around its space, thus intensifying its effect. Be cautious of yellow, as this is particularly potent in this. Another colour to be careful with is green, as the eye perceives this colour as brighter than others, thus drawing more attention.

Communication is key

A production involves different departments, each with their own ideas and intentions. Therefore, if you want to utilise colour symbolically, it’s essential that a close rapport with other designers involved, such as lighting and set design, is established from the start. Knowing their plans for colour schemes will help to guide your decisions and vice versa.

For example, if you intended for a character to stand out from the setting in a green costume, you would need to know if the set designers also planned to use green within the set beforehand, so that negotiations can be made. If green screens are going to be used, your colour palettes may be drastically limited, as shades of green and blues would be unsuitable. Additionally, due to the unpredictable nature of production, it’s important you are kept up-to-date of any changes in plans.

It is also vital that you understand how the lighting will affect the colours of your costumes. Are there plans to use fluorescent lighting? Will sepia or blue filters be added?

Another key relationship to have is with the editors and colour graders. Their changes to the overall colour of the scenes could dramatically alter the colours and their qualities within the costumes.

Working in black and white

When filming in black and white, different colours record as different shades of grey and black. If your costume is blue, this will translate as a lighter grey than if it were green. Designers of the past, such as Edith Head, avoided using pure white in their fabric choices, as it tends to create a disagreeable outcome and builds too much contrast with other colours/settings.

Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina

Off-whites, pale pinks and sometimes yellows are preferred. Another colour to be cautious of is red, as this comes out as a muddy shade of grey or black. A favourite alternative is brown.

-Marie is a costume designer based in the South-West of England, Coming from a textile family, Marie grew up with a strong interest for the subject, which soon developed into an enthusiasm for art and fashion, and eventually costume. Having a great passion for film, she studied Costume and Performance Design for Screen at the Arts University Bournemouth.


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