Origin of the Trend: Color Blocking

Color blocking is the most retro thing to hit the runways since high-waisted shorts. It’s so retro that it never really went away, but instead has continued to “reappear” in contemporary collections, as if it’s the new thing. Although it may not be innovative, it’s a trend that always makes you look fresh and fashion-forward. Oh, the irony.

To me, color blocking is the fashion world’s way of doing what Georges Seurat did with Pointillism and what Claude Monet did with his series of haystack and poplar tree paintings: it is an exploration of the optical effect of putting colors that are opposites on the color wheel next to each other (read on color theory and Post-Impressionism here). Or, it may be an excuse for stylists to throw together everything leftover on a shoot.

Either way, it looks pretty fresh.

The emergence of Pop Art in the 1950s pushed America into the acceptance of vibrancy and manufactured structure, leading to the development, in the 1960s, of a fashion culture enamored of color blocking. I like to picture Edie Sedgwick in some tights, a red bodycon dress, and a brightly colored coat, even though all she ever wore is that one striped piece, right?

Sedgwick may have been a Pop Art muse, but the clothing inspired by the movement was more in line with its empowering/addicting/acid-trip-esque ideals: “Characterized by bold, simple, everyday imagery, and vibrant block colours, [Pop Art] was interesting to look at and had a modern ‘hip’ feel. The bright colour schemes also enabled this form of avant garde art . . . to narrow the divide between the commercial arts and the fine arts” (Visual-Arts-Cork.com). Artists like hipster-favorite Andy Warhol were so cool that everyone in New York couldn’t help but start to wear clothing that was as bold as the work in their galleries, like this Piet Mondrian-inspired dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent.

As demonstrated by this 1966 video, the runway was soon covered in Pop Art’s clean lines and flat colors (though, I guess you can’t definitively tell that the latter is true in this footage; you’ll just have trust that I traveled back in time to do my research).

Of course, color blocking made it to the 1970s, the home of all trends. The 70s were such a clusterfluff of styles that I can’t think of a look that wasn’t popular during the decade. Imagine a pair of belted crimson bell-bottoms pulled over a sky blue blouse with an awkwardly shaped blazer on top. Thankfully, 2011 achieved the 1970s look a little bit better than 1970 did when color-blocked sweaters became popular among top designers.

The 80s loved color-blocked sweaters, too (they also loved tracksuits, but we don’t really like to talk about that, even though each one was probably the epitome of color blocking). In addition to the primary-color-adorned pieces loved by the designers of the 1960s, those in this decade filled rigid squares with secondary shades.

Collections of the past few seasons have managed to mix color blocking elements from all of the previous decades, ensuring the trend’s classy usage. The 80s were just a learning experience.

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on March 23, 2012.

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