One essential thing to learn is colour: harmony, science and colour theory in mid-nineteenth-century fashion advice

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Mid-nineteenth-century fashion advice frequently included references to the suitable and pleasing use of colour in dress. This article argues that colour theory, particularly of the dye chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul significantly influenced fashion advice in periodicals aimed at middle-class women: the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine in Britain and Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine in the United States. This writing was part of a broader genre of advice literature on household science, which has not been widely studied. During a period when science was very much a part of public life and culture, Chevreul enjoyed a reputation as a popular public lecturer who discussed aspects of dress. Occasionally, writers acknowledged Chevreul explicitly, always emphasising his scientific authority and careful research, using these to convince readers of the validity and usefulness of colour advice. Fashion writers adapted Chevreul's recommendations for their readers, using terms such as harmony and contrast and disseminating his ‘laws' of colour on the appropriate combinations for different complexions. The concept of ‘harmony' held particular appeal for these authors; colour could refer specifically to the palette or to a general middle-class ideal of suitable, moderate female dress. This study considers how science and fashion, two fields that are usually considered separately, overlapped in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in the area of colour. At a moment when science constituted an important part of culture, fashion writers presented the research and methods of experts such as Chevreul for their own use in attaining ‘harmony' in dress. By revealing compelling examples of the application of colour theory to everyday decisions about dress, this article addresses connections between colour theory and fashion, demonstrating how the language and principles of the science of colour influenced fashion advice of the mid-nineteenth century.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)218-236
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Design History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2013


  • advice literature
  • colour
  • Chevreul
  • Michel-Eugène
  • dress
  • fashion
  • science


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