Cascade Layers Explainer

Authors

With significant input from:

Participate

Please leave any feedback on the CSSWG issues for this proposal, or open new issues when appropriate:

Browser issues:

Historic context:

Typos or other document-specific issues can be reported in this repo.

Table of contents

Introduction

In the same way that Cascade Origins help to balance styling concerns across stakeholders – layering browser defaults, user preferences, and document styles – it can be useful to have similar layering of concerns within a single origin. Author styles often start with browser normalization or resets, then layer in default typography, broad patterns (sometimes from design systems or frameworks), and more specific component styles.

Currently that layering has to be achieved with careful management of selector-specificity, or over-use of !important flags – both resulting in unwanted side-effects. Cascade Layers would allow authors to define their own layering scheme and avoid specificity or source-order conflicts across concerns.

Goals [or Motivating Use Cases, or Scenarios]

Much of my work with design systems has revolved around helping companies define layers of abstraction: building tokens, then defaults, then patterns, components etc. That’s a common approach, whether we call it OOCSS or BEM or ITCSS or something else. In order to do that, we often have to be very careful with matching specificity to layers – so components override patterns, and so on. But third-party tools can easily break that delicate balance, requiring over-specific selectors or mis-use of the !important flag.

Cascading origins & !important are designed to solve that same problem on a larger scale – balancing UA defaults, user preferences, document authors. It’s a pretty clever solution, with !important providing much-needed counter-balance. But the primary tools available within a single origin are specificity and source order. The former is limited by the semantic requirements of selection, and the latter can be hard to control in all situations. There is a desire for “deterministic style ordering” based on a more explicit syntax.

This proposal aims to address those issues by providing customizable sub-origin “cascade layers” – using similar logic to the layering of origins.

Non-goals

There can be, in certain cases, an overlap between layering and encapsulation context or “scope”. It’s important that these features work well together, but it would be dangerous to link them too tightly. There are many use-cases for scope without layers and vice versa. Encapsulation and scope are generally tied to specific DOM-tree fragments, while layering should be available within and across fragments.

Layering Styles

The @layer rule

The @layer rule describes an explicit cascade layer, with the option to assign style rules using either a nested stylesheet block or a url import.

The import syntax is:

/* @layer <<layer-ident>>? <<url>>; */
@layer reset url(remedy.css);

The block syntax is:

/* @layer <<layer-ident>>? { <<stylesheet>> } */
@layer typography {
h1, h2 {
line-height: 1.2;
}
}

The contents of a <<url>> import or <<stylesheet>> block will be appended to the layer in question.

The @layer rule can also be used with only an identifier to define a layer without attaching any style rules. This can be useful for establishing a layer order in advance.

/* @layer <<layer-ident>>#; */
@layer reset;
@layer typography;
@layer design-system;

As a shorthand syntax, multiple layer identifiers can be provided in a single comma-separated rule. The following example has exactly the same behavior:

@layer reset, typography, design-system;

Both the url-import and ident-only syntax would need to be allowed before @import rules.

Layer names

The optional layer-ident is a CSS identifier that represents its layer name. If the given layer-name matches that of an existing layer defined in the same layer-scope, encapsulation context, and origin, then its style rules are assigned to that existing layer. If no identifier is given, or no existing layer name matches the given identifier, then a new layer is created.

Layer names provide a way to apply multiple style blocks to that single layer:

@layer default url(headings.css);
@layer default url(links.css);

@layer default {
audio[controls] {
display: block;
}
}

Layers without a name cannot be referenced from any other location. While these layers behave exactly like named layers in every way, they do not provide a “hook” for merging or re-ordering @layer rules:

@layer url(reset.css);
@layer url(base.css);

@layer {
/* the next layer */
}

@layer {
/* and another */
}

In most use-cases this would only be syntax-sugar for brevity – relying on well-organized source-order rather than any explicit names. However, it could be used by teams as a way to “force” an organizing convention (all layer code must be defined in one place), or by libraries wanting to merge & hide a set of internal “private” layers that they don’t want exposed to author manipulation:

/* bootstrap-base.css */
/* unnamed wrapper layers around each sub-file */
@layer url(base-forms.css);
@layer url(base-links.css);
@layer url(base-headings.css);

/* bootstrap.css */
/* the intrnal names are hidden from access, subsumed in "base" */
@layer base url(bootstrap-base.css);

/* author.css */
/* author has access to bootstrap.base layer, but not into unnamed layers */
@layer bootstrap url(bootstrap.css);

Layer identifiers do not cross the shadow DOM boundary, so the ordering of layers in the light DOM has no impact on the order of identically-named layers in the shadow DOM.

Nesting layers

When multiple @layer rules are nested, the resulting layer names are a combination of outer and inner identifiers, separated by a period.

In this example, the nested framework.default layer is distinct from the top-level default layer:

@layer default {
p { max-width: 70ch; }
}

@layer framework {
@layer default {
p { margin-block: 0.75em; }
}

p { margin-bottom: 1em; }

@layer theme {
p { color: #222; }
}
}

The resulting layers & layer-order are:

  1. default
  2. framework.default
  3. framework.theme
  4. framework unlayered
  5. unlayered

As a shorthand, nested layers can also be described by combining identifiers in a single layer rule:

@layer framework.theme {
blockquote { color: rebeccapurple; }
}

When using layer names inside a nested context, outer identifiers are prepended to any layer names. That means it is not possible for nested layers to reference layer names in a more global layer-scope:

@layer default;
@layer framework {
@layer default { /* framework.default */ }
@layer theme.default { /* framework.theme.default */ }
}

See issue #5791

Layers in the cascade

Cascade sort order

In Cascade level 2 the style attribute was described through specificity, and belonged to the normal author layer. In level 3, it is described through the scoping mechanism, but that’s not implemented anywhere. In order to achieve all three of the goals above, we propose adding explicit cascade sorting steps for both style attributes and custom layers (in order of cascade priority, highest to lowest):

  1. Origins & Importance
  2. Encapsulation Context (eg Shadow DOM)
  3. Style Attribute - Declarations that do not belong to a style rule (such as the contents of a style attribute) take precedence over declarations that do belong to a style rule.
  4. Layers
  5. Specificity
  6. Source Order

With Cascade Layers at a lower level than origins & importance, layered declarations will continue to divide into the existing origin structure:

  1. Transitions
  2. ❗️User Agent
  3. ❗️User
  4. ❗️Author
  5. Animations
  6. Author
  7. User
  8. User Agent

Layer sorting

Author-defined layers are listed in the document order where they are first introduced. For the purpose of this step, any declaration not assigned to an explicit layer is added to an implicit final layer.

When comparing declarations that belong to different layers, then for normal rules the declaration whose cascade layer is last wins, and for important rules the declaration whose cascade layer is first wins.

In other words, non-layered styles normally override layered styles, but order of layer priority will be reversed inside the important origins. This follows the same logic used for layering normal and important origins, so that the !important flag maintains the same semantic purpose in both settings. unlayered styles rank highest in the normal origin, and lowest in the !important origin.

For example, the following CSS:

@layer reset url(remedy.css);
@layer base url(base.css);
@layer patterns url(system.css);
@layer components url(library.css);

/* un-layerd styles can appear anywhere, */
/* and have the highest cascade priority */

@layer reset {
/* authors can add to an existing layer */
/* without changing where it appears in the layer order */
}

Results in the following layer orders (in order of cascade priority, highest to lowest):

  1. Important Author Origin
    1. Important reset layer
    2. Important base layer
    3. Important patterns layer
    4. Important components layer
    5. Important unlayered styles
  2. Animations
  3. Normal Author Origin
    1. unlayered styles
    2. components layer
    3. patterns layer
    4. base layer
    5. reset layer

Authors can use the ident-only @layer syntax to establish explicit (or “deterministic”) sorting of layers before any styles are defined:

/* establish the layer order */
@layer reset, base, patterns, components;

/* import into pre-ordered layers */
@layer base url(base.css);
@layer components url(library.css);
@layer patterns url(system.css);
@layer reset url(remedy.css);

Reverting layered properties with revert-layer

Cascade Level 4 added the revert keyword for rolling back values to their definition in the previous origin. We’re proposing a similar syntax for rolling back to the value defined in a previous layer.

@layer default {
h3 { color: rebeccapurple; }
}

@layer theme {
h3 { color: maroon; }
.no-theme { color: revert-layer; }
}

Key scenarios

CSS architecture: the “inverted triangle”

CSS is designed around the concept of layering a cascade of styles – starting with browser defaults, user preferences, and document design. CSS provides a syntax for both broad-strokes and minute details, and selector specificity attempts to capture the way those layers build on top of each other.

This has lead to common rules or “conventions” in CSS that advocate keeping specificity low at all costs (only using single-class selectors, as with BEM) or attempting to match specificity with discreet layers (as with Inverted Triangle CSS)

Cascade layers would provide an explicit & built-in way to author and name these layers, without flattening selectors & specificity within each layer:

@layer settings url(settings.css);
@layer tools url(tools.css);
@layer generic url(generic.css);
@layer elements url(elements.css);
@layer objects url(objects.css);
@layer components url(components.css);
@layer trumps url(trumps.css);

Targeted defaults, and general overrides

There are often particular issues at the two extreme ends of “inverted triangle” architecture – targeted defaults, and general overrides.

A glance at default browser stylesheets will show how much specificity can be required to establish robust defaults. In Firefox resource://gre-resources/html.css we can find many examples like the following:

/* only specified rules override 'border' settings
(increased specificity to achieve this) */

table[rules]:not([rules=""])> tr > td,
table[rules]:not([rules=""])> * > tr > td,
table[rules]:not([rules=""])> tr > th,
table[rules]:not([rules=""])> * > tr > th,
table[rules]:not([rules=""])> td,
table[rules]:not([rules=""])> th

{
border-width: thin;
border-style: none;
}

While browsers can’t rely on public classes & IDs, they often do rely on attributes, pseudo-classes, and complex nesting to create a reliable default. The same would be useful for authors to establish targeted defaults:

@layer default {
input[type=text]:invalid:not(:focus),
input[type=url]:invalid:not(:focus),
input[type=email]:invalid:not(:focus)
{
color: maroon;
}
}

/* unlayered rules override the default layer */
.no-invalid {
border-color: slategray;
}

CSS “Utilities” live at the other end of the specificity/targeting mis-match. The goal is to have a reusable selector that accomplishes a single, very specific, but generally-applicable task. These are often intended for broad usage, but require high cascade precedence.

Layers provide two interesting approaches – either by treating utilities as !important defaults, or by adding a utility layer higher up in the cascade.

CSS libraries

Shared CSS design systems, frameworks, and component libraries are popular – weather developed internally, or by a third-party. These tools often provide several layers of abstraction, from “design tokens” to layouts, reusable patterns, and fully designed components.

This proposal would help both in the development and usage of “third-party” CSS from design systems, frameworks, or component libraries. First, it allows library authors to write more targeted/semantic selectors, without forcing users to override each selector’s specificity.

@layer bootstrap url(bootstrap.css);
@layer override {
/* override bootstrap without specificity conflicts */
}

Library authors can use !important for its intended purpose, to mark declarations that are required for functionality:

@layer library {
.tooltip {
position: absolute !important;
}
}

Users of the library would not need to use important in order to override any normal library styles. We hope that this would reduce the use of !important by framework users.

Libraries would also be able to define a public architecture for interacting with the internal layers of the system:

/* bootstrap.css */
@layer configuration url(configuration.css);
@layer content url(content.css);
@layer components url(components.css);
@layer utilities url(utilities.css);

Library users would then have the option to slot custom layers between layers of the library as desired:

@layer bootstrap url(bootstrap.css);

@layer bootstrap.content {
/* append styles to the bootstrap content layer */
}

Library authors may also decide that some internal layering should be “private” – and not available for users to interact with. They can do that using anonymous layers:

/* bootstrap.css */
@layer url(configuration.css);
@layer url(content.css);
@layer url(components.css);
@layer url(utilities.css);

Detailed design discussion

See the existing issues marked for discussion for more.

What is the proper name for this feature?

[See issue #4981][4981]

The initial post on the CSSWG issue tracker referred to this feature as “custom origins” – but in May 2020, the Working Group resolved to call it “cascade layers”.

According to Jen Simmons in the meeting transcript:

Talking with other folks the word layer is good. Invokes photoshop for some authors and way it’s used in graphic design. Layer speaks for itself, it’s a good word to have in there.

While the photoshop association is useful, it can also bring to mind something more akin to z-index layering.

There are also some concerns that this will cause author confusion with the “top layer” primitive used for rendering alerts, dialogs, and fullscreen elements. While the latter is not currently well-known, there is discussion about exposing that functionality to web authors in the future.

What is the migration path for authors?

Since this proposal defines Cascade Layers directly above Specificity in the cascade, but below inline style attributes, it should be possible to polyfill the entire feature using ID tags to boost specificity. Most simply stated:

#reset <selector> { /* reset layer */ }
#base#base <selector> { /* base layer */ }
#components#components#components <selector> { /* component layer */ }

In order to avoid requiring a match with ID attributes in the HTML, that specificity can be generated using the :is() pseudo-class:

:is(#r, <selector>) { /* reset layer */ }
:is(#b#b, <selector>) { /* base layer */ }
:is(#c#c#c, <selector>) { /* component layer */ }

The reality will require additional finesse to avoid conflicts with existing ID selectors, but those details can be left to individual polyfills.

Use for refactoring

It would be nice for site refactors to slot all the existing styles into a “legacy” layer, and then have any/all new styles in a higher-priority layer. As new styles are added, they should always override the original legacy code. But this case presents an issue:

In the normal author origin, unlayered styles will always take precedence over layered styles. Legacy code would need to be given an explicit layer. That can be done in a manageable way, by using the layer import syntax.

However, if legacy styles are given the lowest normal layering, any legacy !important rules would have even more power, since important layer-order is reversed.

This would require changes to any legacy uses of !important – either manually, or using a css transpiler – so that normal rules have one layer, and !important rules have a different layer. Then both legacy layers can be individually placed at the bottom of their respective stacks.

This is a purely mechanical transformation which can be handled on the server side, but if it needs to get syntax-error handling right, it may not be trivial to write.

Considered alternatives

Top-level custom origins

The initial idea was to allow “custom origins” be added into the cascade in place of the existing “author” origins. That would have allowed us to re-use existing origin logic in browser engines.

There was concern about how that would interact with Shadow DOM isolation. To quote the original transcript:

emilio: Shadow DOM introduces a stack of origins; introducing this naively makes it a matrix, which is harder.

Since none of the known use-cases required power over shadow-DOM context – only over specificity – we were able to avoid that issue by moving “layers” after “context” in the cascade sorting order.

This also allows us to easily define layers below the style attribute (and any other element-attached styles) in the cascade.

See issues #5003 and #4984

Variations on important layering

We considered several variations for how cascade importance would interact with layers. There were several basic options for sorting important layers:

All of these approaches would usable by authors to resolve the desired use-cases, but they present different issues, and different levels of complexity.

By making layers work the same as origins – by reversing the order of important layers – we are building on the original intent of the !important flag, and helping teach proper usage. Since authors are in control of the layering order, it should still be possible to generate any overrides necessary.

See issue #4971

Layering with selectors or flags

There was brief discussion of providing this functionality through new selectors or ! value flags.

Since the goal is to achieve some author control of the cascade without being tied to the semantics of selection, that approach didn’t make much sense.

Similarly, the use of a layering flag (!layer-2?) seemed more difficult to manage or define, and too granular for most use-cases.

See issue #4969

Alternative layer sorting

When the Working Group first began discussing this feature, there was a fear that it could add significant confusion & complexity around ordering layers.

We were mostly imagining something like z-index, with each layer assigned an integer. But that raised a lot of issues:

That could have resulted in something like:

@layers {
--default: 0;
--theme: 10;
}

@layer 15 { /* ... */ }
@layer (--theme) { /* ... */ }

In the Sass community there has been a long tradition of generating z-index values from lists – entirely replacing integers with names for the author. A function or mixin is used to return the index (from 1) of a given name in the list:

$z-index: dropdown, sticky-header, notification, modal;

.modal-overlay {
@include z-index(modal); // z-index: 4;
}

By avoiding the association between layers and integers, we were able to improve readability in a similar way – avoiding the temptation to try random numbers, or use extremes like 999999 as an override.

Layers have both a reliable default (source order), and a syntax that allows pre-sorting in cases where the final order is unknown or un-controllable.

Stakeholder Feedback / Opposition

Web Platform Tests

References & acknowledgements

Many thanks for valuable feedback and advice from:

Changelog

2021-10-08

2021.01.29