Scientists are studying the light-manipulating properties of butterfly wings in a bid to develop clothing materials that wouldn't need to be printed or dyed one specific colour. 

The same article of clothing, for example, could reflect a subdued colour during the workday, and a more ostentatious one at night.

"You would just tune your structure to produce the colour you want," explains Kok Wai Cheah, a physicist at Hong Kong Baptist University.

According to research detailed in the Optical Society's (OSA) journal Optical Materials Express, physicists have uncovered how subtle differences in the tiny crystals of butterfly wings create stunningly varied patterns of colour.

The wing structures on the butterflies each have subtle differences in their iridescence, a property of materials that change colour depending on the viewing angle. 

Studying each wing under a scanning electron microscope, the team found specialised architectures in which solid flat cuticle layers alternate with thin "air" layers known as laminae.

The laminae aren't entirely empty space, however; they also contain pillars of the cuticle material, which gives the wing a repeating crystal-like structure that reflects only certain wavelengths, or colours, of light. And the varying colours arise from slight differences in crystal parameters.

The team next plans to investigate color-generating mechanisms in other insect body structures, such as the metallic effect produced by iridescent beetle shells.