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Choosing Colors for Costumes

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Stage vs Restaurants and Parties

When you are on stage, your audience sees you from a distance; 30 feet or a hundred. Subtle details and color combinations will not be effective, and dark colors colors may actually hide your movements. In a restaurant or party venue, however, the customer is close enought to appreciate subtle details and color combinations, both light and dark.

Avoid costumes which are predominently black in all venues unless you have a good reason for using it. If the venue has a dark background, the dancers will disappear. On stage and in venues with soft or dim lighting, only the movements of the body parts that are uncovered (face, hands, arms, torso) will be easily read. (That is why stagehands who have to come on stage to move properties during a performance wear it.) Close up, a black costume with minimal ornamentation may disappoint customers who are hoping for a joyful costume presentation.

For the stage, go bold and bright. Reach out to your audience with the brighter colors: earth-tone costumes will often not show up well on stage. Sequins and glitterdot really come into their own here; that $4/yd glitterdot will put on a better show than most beaded costumes. Folkloric costumes with their yards of fabric, large sleeves, heavy jewelry and swinging tassels are also good choices that can be read at a distance. Any patterns, either printed, embroidered or appliqued, should be large enough to be read at a distance. If you have a professional doing your lighting in a theatre, you have more options; a rich brown with pink accents, for instance, might be killer. A costume with elaborate fringe will broadcast your movements under the right lights. On an outdoor stage at a community gathering, the brown will probably fall flat and the fringe may obscure, not highlight.

For restaurants and parties and other places where the audience will see you close up: beautiful details will make your audience happy. Beaded fringe and elaborate embroidery with stones and applique add joy and opulence to the occasion. Both bright and dark colors in shades that flatter your figure and skin tone are appropriate.

Choosing Colors for Solo Costumes

The color of the costume will depend greatly on the emotional message of the dance, hence the chart on The Emotional Messages of Color, below. However, you have more freedom to choose colors that are flattering to your skin and hair coloring than troupe members may.

If you are not sure what those colors might be, The book Color Me Beautiful, an eye-opener for many in the 1980s, might be of interest to you. The author proposed basing color choices on skin color and intensity (contrast). To aid comprehension, she divided coloring into four seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn.

  • Temperature: based on the undertones in your skin and hair.
    • Warm toned: you have a yellow or golden undertone to your skin, your eyes are golden brown or green (or have gold flecks), your veins are green, or you look better in gold than silver.
    • Cool toned: you have a pink or blue undertone to your skin, your eyes are dark brown or blue, your veins are green, or you look better in silver than gold.
  • Contrast: based on the difference in color between your hair and skin.
    • High: your hair color is much darker than your skin tone.
    • Low: You have a low level of contrast if your hair color is about the same color as your skin tone.
Harmonious Rhythm: Color Combinations that not only fit together but include one or more dynamic accent colors that bring the whole combination to life.— Adriene Cruz, Technicolor Quilts, Threads Magazine Dec 94/Jan 95.

Value referes to the amount of light or dark in a color, but it is always relative. A color's value depends on what surround it. A medium-navy fabric surounded by lighter-colored fabrics is dark in value in relation to these other colors. But the same navy surrounded by a black fabric is lighter in value than the other fabrics.— Adriene Cruz, Technicolor Quilts, Threads Magazine Dec 94/Jan 95.

Contrast: The difference in values in adjacent colors. Dramatic designs often incorporate strong contrasts. Subtle, low-key designs incomporate minimal contrast.— Adriene Cruz, Technicolor Quilts, Threads Magazine Dec 94/Jan 95.

  Intensity Temperature 
WinterHighCoolColoring is cool and clear, with a high level of contrast between skin tone and hair color. Vivid or icy tones like pure white, navy, emerald green, deep hot pink, true red, bright burgundy, royal blue, charcoal gray, black. Accessorize with silver or platinum.
SummerLowCoolColoring is cool and muted, with a low low level of contrast between skin tone and hair color. Cool, soft colors, like most blues (including periwinkle, blue-gray and navy), off-white, rosy beige, brown, lavender or pastel pink (with blue undertones). Accessorize with silver, very pale gold or pearls.
SpringHighWarm Coloring is warm and clear. Clear, delicate and bright hues, like creamy beiges, light royal blue, peachy or bright warm pinks, turquoise or aqua, pastel green, golden brown or medium purple. Accessorize with gold or pearls.
AutumnLowWarm Coloring is warm and muted. Strong shades with warm undertones, like camel, dark tomato red, forest or olive green, all oranges, coffee or chocolate brown, teal blue. Accessorize with gold.

Colors have many different characteristics. Because of this, anyone can wear any color/hue based on their own characteristics and those of the color.

Choosing Colors for Troupe Costumes

"A good, no-fault color scheme for a [troupe] costume is to pick one deep, jewel tone color (ex. royal blue, red, purple, emerald, burgundy or teal)... In additin to looking great on the individual dancer, this color scheme will crate a more unified troupe, even if everyone in the troupe chooses a different color... Avoid mixing metallics, and avoid using too many colors. Yes, it is possible to pull these off successfully, but more often than not it creates chaos rahter than harmony. Multi-colored costumes and prints tend not to blend well within a troupe (unless its a tribal troupe, which we are not). " — Sedonia Sipes

Troupes often do not have the broad selection of costumes that a soloist has. In order to use the emotional messages of color to your advantage, consider starting with base costume pieces that can be mixed and matched with belts, vests, veils, panels and overskirts.

Only the strongest dancers in a group onstage should wear red or gold unless everyone else on stage is wearing them as well. The audience eyes will be attracted to that color; the audience will then focus on that performer; and the skill of your entire performance group will be evaluated by the skill of the performer in the red costume. These colors also carry emotional messages that need to be in sync with the dance and the dancers; a performer who is letter-perfect in her dance but unable or unwilling to project power and passion should not be in a red costumes. Unfortunately, red and gold are frequently the first colors your beginners will want to wear on stage, because they are attracted to them too. Be firm; solo colors in a group dance context have to be earned.

Farida Fahmy:

Here are a few tips to keep in mind. When choosing one color for group dances, introducing different shades of the same color adds richness to the total scene. If a different color for each dancer is preferred, then colors should be in the same tones, all pastel or all in bright colors. Striking colors such as bright reds or oranges should be avoided or worn by solo dancers. When prints or designs are used they should not be overpowering, nor should they be too small to be seen from the stage. Shiny materials reflect the stage lighting and tend to make the wearer larger than she really is. Intricate bead work is beautiful for floor shows and films, but not necessary for solo or group dancers on a theatre stage, as they cannot be seen from a distance.

For more suggestions on designing costumes for troupes, see Costume Design for Dance Troupes.

The Emotional Messages of Color

Color Wheel Tints and Shades Magic
Costume Book
Red   Brilliant, intense, enlarging, masculine, active, opaque, dry.
Fire, heat, strength, love, passion, power, anger, primitiveness, excitement, patriotism, sin, fierceness.
  Dark Pure Red   Love and Amiability
  Medium Red   Health and Vitality
  Bright Red   Passion
  Dark Greyed Red   Evil
  Strong Light Pink   Daightiness
  Pure Medium Pink   Delicacy, innocence
  Greyed Light Pink   Daintiness
  Greyed Medium Pink   Frivolity
Red-orange   Intense, bright, dry, enlarging, masculine.
Autumn, energy, gaiety, impetuousness, strength, spirit, boldness, action, warmth, loudness.
Orange   Bright, luminous, dry, enlarging, masculine, glowing.
Autumn, warmth, cheer, youthfulness, vigor, exuberance, excitement, extremism, earthiness, satiety, loudness, charm.
  Strong Dark Orange   Ambition
  Strong Medium Orange   Intensity
  Dark Medium Brown   Utility
Light Medium Brown     Maturity
Yellow-orange   Bright, radiant, dry, enlarging, masculine, glowing.
Autumn, happiness, prosperity, hospitality, gaiety, optimism, openness.
Yellow   Sunny, incandescent, radiant, feminine.
Spring, brightness, wisdom, enlightenment, happiness, kindness, cowardice, treachery, ill health, warmth.
  Strong Light Yellow   Inspiration
  Medium Yellow   Prudence, goodness
  Light Medium Yellow   Wisdom, attention
  Strong Light Yellow    
Yellow-green   Tender, bright, enlarging.
Spring, friendship, youth, sparkle, warmth, restlessness, newness.
Green    Clean, moist, reducing.
Summer, youth, inexperience, growth, envy, restlessness, newness, quiet, naturalness, wealth, coolness, water, refreshing, ghastliness, disease, terror, guilt.
Blue-green   Quiet, clean, moist.
Summer, quietness, reserve, relaxation, faithfulness, smoothness, discriminating, rational.
Blue   Transparent, wet, deep, reducing.
Winter, peace, restraint, loyalty, sincerity, youth, conservatism, passivity, honor, purity, depression, melancholy, sobriety, serenity, gentleness, innocence.
Blue-violet   Deep, soft, reducing, moist
Tranquility, spiritualism, modesty, reflection, somberness, maturity, aloofness, dignity, fatigue.
Violet   Deep, soft, dark, misty, atmospheric, reducing.
Stateliness, royalty, drama, dominance, mystery, dignity, pomposity, supremacy, formality, melancholy, quietness, mourning, loneliness, desperation, profundity, artistic, philosophical.
Red-violet   Deep, soft, dark, warm.
Drama, enigma, intrigue, tension, remoteness, intensity.
  Brown Warm, dark, deep.
Autumn, casualness, friendliness, naturalness, earthiness, tranquility, honesty, security, substance, stability, humility.
  White Spatial, light, deep.
Winter, snow, youthfulness, virginity, joy, purity, cleanliness, honesty, hope, innocence, spiritualism, enlightenment, forgiveness, worthiness, delicacy, love, day.
  Black Spatial, dark, deep.
Night, mourning, ominous, deadly, death, formality, sophistication, gloom, uncertainty, evil, mystery, dignity, sorrow.
  Gray Neutral, misty
Calmness, dignity, serenity, versatility,
resignation, death, ghostliness, obscurity, penitence

Interestingly enough, the color black, the basis for so many tribal and beginner costumes, may NOT be a wise choice unless the dancers are proficient and the dance mood calls for it. In a study covering 50,000 NHL games over a quarter-century, researchers found that teams wearing black jerseys were were assessed ten percent more penalty minutes than when wearing other colors. One explanation is a cognitive bias that comes from cultural associations. Black = witch, white = bride, etc. I suggest that the torso color is the key here; black pants or skirt with colors on the torso will side-step most of the problem. In short, beware the default black tribal costume unless black is what you mean to say.

Color Combinations

Few costumes are all one color. Take the short cut to effective color combinations by testing your main color with a few Color Schemes to add nuance and meaning. You will be surprised by the number of color options that open up to you.

The Schemes are based on the position of each hue on the Color Wheel.

  1. Monochromatic: Based on one hue and paired with various tints, values and intensities of that color.
  2. Adjacent: Based on 2-4 hues that are directly next to each other (i.e. yellow and yellow-orange; yellow and yellow-green; violet and blue-violet, etc.).
  3. Complementary: Based on two hues that are opposite each other (i.e. yellow and violet; blue and orange; red and green, etc.).
  4. Double-complementary: two Adjacent hues and their Complements.
  5. Adjacent-complementary: two Complementary hues and one adjacent for each of them.
  6. Split-complementary: One Complementary hue and the two Adjacent hues for the other Complementary (three total).
  7. Double-split-complementary: All Adjacent hues from two Complementary hues -- without either Complementary hue (four total) .
  8. Triad: any three hues equally spaced from each other. The primary hues are the most famous Triad.
  9. Terad: any four hues equally spaced from each other other. They are at right (90 degree) angles with each other (i.e. yellow and red-orange; blue and violet-red; green and orange, etc.).
  10. Neutral: black,white and gray. Low intensities and very high or very low values of other colors whose hue is difficult to determine. A true neutral is a combination of complements of equal strength.
  11. Colors that form a T: (i.e. blue, orange, and violet-red; yellow, violet, and red-orange; yellow, blue-green, and red-orange).
  12. Colors that form an X: Colors that form an X (i.e. blue, orange, violet-red, and yellow, violet, blue-green, and red-orange).

Tints and Shades of the colors can also be used. Substituting pink with red should not invalidate the Color Scheme under consideration.

Color Wheel as defined by Johannes Itten :: By Zeichner: Malte Ahrens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Effect of Light on Color

Be aware of the effect of stage lights on costume colors. A colored light often has the same effect as adding it to a paint mixture; shine an orange light on a violet costume and the audience will perceive the costume as dark gray, for instance. Bright lights make colors seem warmer (yellow undertones); low lights make colors seem cooler (blue undertones). Amateur light technicians at a gig may need to be encouraged to hold off on the DJ rotating color spot lights during your performance; the focus should be on the dancing, not the fancy color effects.

From There are two ways to mix colors in lighting:

In additive mixing, primary colors are those three colors which, when aimed at the same place at the same intensity, theoretically form white light ("theoretically", because in practice, this is limited by the imperfections of color filters and light sources). These colors are red, green, and blue.

The secondary colors in additive mixing are those colors which can be created by evenly mixing two primaries. These colors are Cyan (blue and green), Magenta (blue and red), and Amber (red and green).

Translating Theory into Fabric

Solids vs Prints: A shape cut from solid-color fabric is read as both a color and a shape.

Small-scale prints can be read as solid-color or as muddy, depending on the design and on the number of colors in the print.

Small-scale prints look uniform in design at any size, and do not require special handling to match design components or to control impact.

Large-scale prints cut into pieces will produce different effects in each piece, unless cut so that each piece is exactly the same.

Combining large, small and medium scale prints can enliven a design.

Solids show stitching problems far more than printed fabrics.


Christine Hall (Almeh Amira), Articles, Reviews & Tips, 2003.

J. Arthur H. Hatt, The Colorist, color theory from the printer's point of view. D Van Nostrand Company, NY, 1908.

Sidonia Sipes, General Costume Suggestions, Teszia troupe costume guidelines, 2001. color wheel.

Colorist Color Wheel from 1908.
Maura Enright, Proprietor
©2012 - 2015 by Maura Enright
Updated December 2015
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