CSS Variables Module Level 1

W3C Working Draft 10 April 2012

This version:
Latest version:
Editor's draft:
Luke Macpherson, Google, Inc.,
Tab Atkins Jr., Google, Inc.
Daniel Glazman, Disruptive Innovations,


CSS is a language for describing the rendering of structured documents (such as HTML and XML) on screen, on paper, in speech, etc. This module contains the features of CSS level 3 relating to variables. It includes and extends the functionality of CSS level 2 [CSS21], which builds on CSS level 1 [CSS1]. The main extensions compared to level 2 are the introduction of the variable as a new primitive value type that is accepted by all properties.

Status of this document

This section describes the status of this document at the time of its publication. Other documents may supersede this document. A list of current W3C publications and the latest revision of this technical report can be found in the W3C technical reports index at http://www.w3.org/TR/.

Publication as a Working Draft does not imply endorsement by the W3C Membership. This is a draft document and may be updated, replaced or obsoleted by other documents at any time. It is inappropriate to cite this document as other than work in progress.

The (archived) public mailing list www-style@w3.org (see instructions) is preferred for discussion of this specification. When sending e-mail, please put the text “css-variables” in the subject, preferably like this: “[css-variables] …summary of comment…

This document was produced by the CSS Working Group (part of the Style Activity).

This document was produced by a group operating under the 5 February 2004 W3C Patent Policy. W3C maintains a public list of any patent disclosures made in connection with the deliverables of the group; that page also includes instructions for disclosing a patent. An individual who has actual knowledge of a patent which the individual believes contains Essential Claim(s) must disclose the information in accordance with section 6 of the W3C Patent Policy.

This is the first public working draft.

Table of contents

1. Introduction

This section is not normative.

Large documents or applications (and even small ones) can contain quite a bit of CSS. Many of the values in the CSS file will be duplicate data; for example, a site may establish a color scheme and reuse three or four colors throughout the site. Altering this data can be difficult and error-prone, since it's scattered throughout the CSS file (and possibly across multiple files), and may not be amenable to Find-and-Replace.

This module introduces a family of custom user-defined properties known collectively as variable properties, which allow an author to assign arbitrary values to a property with an author-chosen name, and then use those values in other properties elsewhere in the document. This makes it easier to read large files, as seemingly-arbitrary values now have informative names, and makes editting such files much easier and less error-prone, as one only has to change the value once, at the variable definition site, and the change will propagate to all uses of that variable automatically.

1.1. Module Interactions

This module defines a new type of primitive value, the variable, which is accepted by all properties.

1.2. Values

This specification follows the CSS property definition conventions from [CSS21]. Value types not defined in this specification are defined in CSS Level 2 Revision 1 [CSS21]. Other CSS modules may expand the definitions of these value types: for example [CSS3COLOR], when combined with this module, expands the definition of the <color> value type as used in this specification.

2. Defining Variables With Variable Properties

This specification defines an open-ended set of properties called variable properties, which are used to define variables.

Name: var-*
Values: see prose
Initial: invalid (a keyword, but see prose)
Applies To: all elements
Inherited: yes
Computed Value: specified value with variables substituted (but see prose for "invalid variables")
Media: all

Any property name starting with the prefix "var-" is a variable property. Variable properties are defined to be valid but meaningless as they are meant solely for allowing authors to pass custom data around their page, similar to the custom data attributes in HTML. Other specifications and user agents must not assign a particular meaning to variable properties or attach a specific effect to them beyond the bare minimum that comes from them being valid properties.

As defined here, the syntax for variable usage is different from the syntax for variable definition (i.e. var-foo for definition, var(foo) for usage). Some have suggested that the syntaxes should should match, using functional syntax in both cases. Others have suggested using a prefixed symbol instead of functional syntax (e.g. $foo) for both the property and usage.

The valid possible values of a variable property are almost completely unrestricted. A variable property can contain anything that is valid according to the value production in the CSS Core Grammar. The values do not have to correspond to any existing CSS values, as they are not evaluated except to replace variables occuring within them until they are actually referenced in a normal property with a variable.

This specification reserves the use of all function tokens starting with the prefix "var" within variable properties. Authors must not use any such functions except as defined in this specification or future updates. If a variable property contains such a function, it must match the grammar defined in this specification or future updates; the use of such a function that does not follow the grammar, or that utilizes such a function that is not yet defined, makes the variable property invalid and it must be ignored.

For example, even though this spec doesn't define a ‘var-inherit()’ function, that name is reserved by default and cannot be used. Similarly, the ‘var()’ function is defined by this spec, so any use of it must match the definition in the spec. The following property declarations are thus invalid:

:root { 
  var-foo: var-inherit(bar);   /* Use of reserved, but undefined, function. */
  var-foo: var(bar, baz, qux); /* Invalid use of var() function. */

For each variable property, there is an associated variable with the same name save for the "var-" prefix. For example, a variable property named "var-foo" is associated with the variable named "foo". See the next chapter for details on how to use variables.

This style rule:

:root {
  var-header-color: #06c;

declares a variable property named "var-header-color" on the root element, and assigns to it the value "#06c". This property is then inherited to the elements in the rest of the document. Its value can be referenced via the "header-color" variable:

h1 { background-color: var(header-color); }

The preceding rule is equivalent to writing ‘background-color: #06c;’, except that the variable name makes the origin of the color clearer, and if ‘var(header-color)’ is used on other elements in the document, all of the uses can be updated at once by changing the ‘var-header-color’ property on the root element.

Variable properties are ordinary properties, so they can be declared on any element, are resolved with the normal inheritance and cascade rules, can be made conditional with ‘@media’ and other conditional rules, can be used in HTML's style attribute, can be read or set using the CSSOM, etc..

If a variable property is declared multiple times, the standard cascade rules help resolve it. Variables always draw from the computed value of the associated variable property on the same element:

:root { var-color: blue; }
div { var-color: green; }
#alert { var-color: red; }
* { color: var(color); }

<p>I inherited blue from the root element!</p>
<div>I got green set directly on me!</div>
<div id='alert'>
  While I got red set directly on me!
  <p>I'm red too, because of inheritance!</p>

Variable properties may use variables in their own values to build up composite variables. This can create cyclic dependencies where two or more variable properties each attempt to use the variable that the other defines; doing so makes all the variable properties involved in the cycle compute to their initial value (which is a guaranteed-invalid value).

This example shows a variable property safely using a variable:

:root {
	var-main-color: #c06;
	var-accent-background: linear-gradient(to top, var(main-color), white);

The ‘var-accent-background’ property will automatically update when the ‘var-main-color’ property is changed.

On the other hand, this example shows an invalid instance of variables depending on each other:

:root {
	var-one: calc(var(two) + 20px);
	var-two: calc(var(one) - 20px);

Both ‘var-one’ and ‘var-two’ now define invalid variables rather than lengths.

It is important to note that variable properties resolve any variables in their values at computed-value time, which occurs before the value is inherited. In general, cyclic dependencies occur only when multiple variable properties on the same element refer to each other; variable properties defined on elements higher in the element tree can never cause a cyclic reference with properties defined on elements lower in the element tree.

For example, given the following structure, these variable properties are not cyclic, and all define valid variables:

<one><two><three /></two></one>
one   { var-foo: 10px; }
two   { var-bar: calc(var(foo) + 10px); }
three { var-foo: calc(var(bar) + 10px); }

The <one> element defines a value for ‘var-foo’. The <two> element inherits this value, and additionally assigns a value to ‘var-bar’ using the ‘foo’ variable. Finally, the <three> element inherits the ‘var-bar’ value after variable substitution (in other words, it sees the value ‘calc(10px + 10px)’), and then redefines ‘var-foo’ in terms of that value. Since the value it inherited for ‘var-bar’ no longer contains a reference to the ‘var-foo’ property defined on <one>, defining ‘var-foo’ using the ‘var(bar)’ variable is not cyclic, and actually defines a value that will eventually (when referenced as a variable in a normal property) resolve to ‘30px’.

The initial value of a variable property is a special invalid value which makes the associated variable an invalid variable. This is represented by the keyword ‘invalid’, but that keyword has no special meaning in itself, and is valid if set explicitly in a variable property.

  <p>Sample text</p>
p { var-foo: invalid; }
div,p { font-family: var(foo); }

In this example, the "foo" variable is an invalid variable at the time the DIV element references it, because the ‘var-foo’ property still has its initial value. This causes the DIV's ‘font-family’ property to compute to the initial value for ‘font-family’.

On the other hand, the P element defines an explicit value for the ‘var-foo’ property. Its ‘font-family’ property thus references a font named "invalid".

3. Using Variables: the var() function

A variable allows the value of a variable property on an element to be substituted into another property on the element. Variables are used with the ‘var()’ function, taking the name of a variable and returning the value of the associated variable property. The syntax of the ‘var()’ function is:

<variable> = var( IDENT )

The ‘var()’ function references the variable property with the name obtained by prepending "var-" to the function's argument. Note that all possible variable properties exist; if one with the given name has not yet been defined in the document, it simply takes its initial value. When a property resolves its computed value, a ‘var()’ function is replaced by the value of the referenced variable property.

A variable can be used anywhere a value is expected in CSS. Variables can not be used as property names, selectors, or anything else besides property values - doing so either produces an invalid value or, in some situations like the attribute value of an attribute selector, a valid value that nonetheless has no relation to the variable of that name.

A variable is substituted for its value in the property value at computed-value time. If a declaration, once all variables are substituted in, is invalid, the declaration is invalid at computed-value time.

For example, the following usage is fine from a syntax standpoint, but results in nonsense when the variable is substituted in:

:root { var-looks-valid: 20px; }
p { background-color: var(looks-valid); }

Since ‘20px’ is an invalid value for ‘background-color’, this instance of the property computes to ‘transparent’ (the initial value for ‘background-color’) instead.

3.1. Using Invalid Variables

When a variable property has its initial value, a ‘var()’ function referencing that property represents an invalid variable. Using an invalid variable in a property value makes the declaration invalid at computed-value time.

A declaration that is invalid at computed-value time results from either using an invalid variable in a property value, or using a valid variable that produces an invalid declaration when it is substituted in. When this happens, the declaration must compute to the property's initial value.

For example, in the following code:

:root { var-not-a-color: 20px; }
p { background-color: red; }
p { background-color: var(not-a-color); }

the <p> elements will have transparent backgrounds (the initial value for ‘background-color’), rather than red backgrounds. The same would happen if the variable itself was invalid.

Note the difference between this and what happens if the author had just written ‘background-color: 20px’ directly in their stylesheet - that would be a normal syntax error, which would cause the rule to be discarded, so the ‘background-color: red’ rule would be used instead.

The invalid at computed-value time concept exists because variables can't "fail early" like other syntax errors can, so by the time the user agent realizes a property value is invalid, it's already thrown away the other cascaded values. I think ‘attr()’ needs to rely on it as well, as its behavior is almost identical to variables.


Variable properties are ordinary properties, and can be read or modified using all of the existing CSSOM APIs for reading or modifying properties.

The specification extends the IDL definitions in the CSSOM spec to represent the use of the ‘var()’ function.

4.1. Interface CSSVariableComponentValue

The CSSVariableComponentValue interface represents a use of the ‘var()’ function.

IDL Definition
[NoInterfaceObject] interface CSSVariableComponentValue {
           attribute DOMString variableName;
  readonly attribute any variableValue;
variableName of type DOMString
This attribute represents the argument to the function. Changing this attribute changes the variable property being referred to.
variableValue of type any, readonly
This attribute represents the value of the variable property the function is referencing.

4.2. Additions to the CSSStyleDeclaration Interface

The set of variable properties is open-ended, so it's not clear how best to represent this. Ideally, the CSSOM would expose the current set of properties with a non-initial value and allow setting of arbitrary properties. The most natural way seems to be to first, set up a getter behavior on the interface somehow that deals with variable properties, and second, set up a vars map that exposes the variable properties that aren't set to their initial value.

5. Conformance

5.1. Document Conventions

Conformance requirements are expressed with a combination of descriptive assertions and RFC 2119 terminology. The key words “MUST”, “MUST NOT”, “REQUIRED”, “SHALL”, “SHALL NOT”, “SHOULD”, “SHOULD NOT”, “RECOMMENDED”, “MAY”, and “OPTIONAL” in the normative parts of this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119. However, for readability, these words do not appear in all uppercase letters in this specification.

All of the text of this specification is normative except sections explicitly marked as non-normative, examples, and notes. [RFC2119]

Examples in this specification are introduced with the words “for example” or are set apart from the normative text with class="example", like this:

This is an example of an informative example.

Informative notes begin with the word “Note” and are set apart from the normative text with class="note", like this:

Note, this is an informative note.

5.2. Conformance Classes

Conformance to CSS Variables Module is defined for three conformance classes:

style sheet
A CSS style sheet.
A UA that interprets the semantics of a style sheet and renders documents that use them.
authoring tool
A UA that writes a style sheet.

A style sheet is conformant to CSS Variables Module if all of its declarations that use properties defined in this module have values that are valid according to the generic CSS grammar and the individual grammars of each property as given in this module.

A renderer is conformant to CSS Variables Module if, in addition to interpreting the style sheet as defined by the appropriate specifications, it supports all the features defined by CSS Variables Module by parsing them correctly and rendering the document accordingly. However, the inability of a UA to correctly render a document due to limitations of the device does not make the UA non-conformant. (For example, a UA is not required to render color on a monochrome monitor.)

An authoring tool is conformant to CSS Variables Module if it writes style sheets that are syntactically correct according to the generic CSS grammar and the individual grammars of each feature in this module, and meet all other conformance requirements of style sheets as described in this module.

5.3. Partial Implementations

So that authors can exploit the forward-compatible parsing rules to assign fallback values, CSS renderers must treat as invalid (and ignore as appropriate) any at-rules, properties, property values, keywords, and other syntactic constructs for which they have no usable level of support. In particular, user agents must not selectively ignore unsupported component values and honor supported values in a single multi-value property declaration: if any value is considered invalid (as unsupported values must be), CSS requires that the entire declaration be ignored.

5.4. Experimental Implementations

To avoid clashes with future CSS features, the CSS2.1 specification reserves a prefixed syntax for proprietary and experimental extensions to CSS.

Prior to a specification reaching the Candidate Recommendation stage in the W3C process, all implementations of a CSS feature are considered experimental. The CSS Working Group recommends that implementations use a vendor-prefixed syntax for such features, including those in W3C Working Drafts. This avoids incompatibilities with future changes in the draft.

5.5. Non-Experimental Implementations

Once a specification reaches the Candidate Recommendation stage, non-experimental implementations are possible, and implementors should release an unprefixed implementation of any CR-level feature they can demonstrate to be correctly implemented according to spec.

To establish and maintain the interoperability of CSS across implementations, the CSS Working Group requests that non-experimental CSS renderers submit an implementation report (and, if necessary, the testcases used for that implementation report) to the W3C before releasing an unprefixed implementation of any CSS features. Testcases submitted to W3C are subject to review and correction by the CSS Working Group.

Further information on submitting testcases and implementation reports can be found from on the CSS Working Group's website at http://www.w3.org/Style/CSS/Test/. Questions should be directed to the public-css-testsuite@w3.org mailing list.

5.6. CR Exit Criteria

For this specification to be advanced to Proposed Recommendation, there must be at least two independent, interoperable implementations of each feature. Each feature may be implemented by a different set of products, there is no requirement that all features be implemented by a single product. For the purposes of this criterion, we define the following terms:

each implementation must be developed by a different party and cannot share, reuse, or derive from code used by another qualifying implementation. Sections of code that have no bearing on the implementation of this specification are exempt from this requirement.
passing the respective test case(s) in the official CSS test suite, or, if the implementation is not a Web browser, an equivalent test. Every relevant test in the test suite should have an equivalent test created if such a user agent (UA) is to be used to claim interoperability. In addition if such a UA is to be used to claim interoperability, then there must one or more additional UAs which can also pass those equivalent tests in the same way for the purpose of interoperability. The equivalent tests must be made publicly available for the purposes of peer review.
a user agent which:
  1. implements the specification.
  2. is available to the general public. The implementation may be a shipping product or other publicly available version (i.e., beta version, preview release, or “nightly build”). Non-shipping product releases must have implemented the feature(s) for a period of at least one month in order to demonstrate stability.
  3. is not experimental (i.e., a version specifically designed to pass the test suite and is not intended for normal usage going forward).

The specification will remain Candidate Recommendation for at least six months.


Thanks to Daniel Glazman and Dave Hyatt for writing the original Variables draft in 2008. Thanks to many WG members for keeping the idea of variables alive through the years. Thanks to Roland Steiner and Shane Stephens for invaluable feedback and implementation experience.


Normative references

Bert Bos; et al. Cascading Style Sheets Level 2 Revision 1 (CSS 2.1) Specification. 7 June 2011. W3C Recommendation. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/2011/REC-CSS2-20110607
S. Bradner. Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels. Internet RFC 2119. URL: http://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc2119.txt

Other references

Håkon Wium Lie; Bert Bos. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS1) Level 1 Specification. 11 April 2008. W3C Recommendation. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/REC-CSS1-20080411
Tantek Çelik; Chris Lilley; L. David Baron. CSS Color Module Level 3. 7 June 2011. W3C Recommendation. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/2011/REC-css3-color-20110607


Property index

Property Values Initial Applies to Inh. Percentages Media
var-* see prose invalid (a keyword, but see prose) all elements yes specified value with variables substituted (but see prose for "invalid variables") all