Understanding CSS z-index Redirect 1

Usually HTML pages can be considered two-dimensional, because text, images and other elements are arranged on the page without overlapping. There is a single rendering flow, and all elements are aware of the space taken by others. The z-index attribute lets you adjust the order of the layering of objects when rendering content.

In CSS 2.1, each box has a position in three dimensions. In addition to their horizontal and vertical positions, boxes lie along a "z-axis" and are formatted one on top of the other. Z-axis positions are particularly relevant when boxes overlap visually.

(from CSS 2.1 Section 9.9.1 - Layered presentation)

It means that CSS style rules allow you to position boxes on layers in addition to the normal rendering layer (layer 0). The Z position of each layer is expressed as an integer representing the stacking order for rendering. Greater numbers mean closer to the observer. Z position can be controlled with the CSS z-index property.

Using z-index appears extremely easy: a single property, assigned a single integer number, with an easy-to-understand behaviour. However, when z-index is applied to complex hierarchies of HTML elements, its behaviour can be hard to understand or even unpredictable. This is due to complex stacking rules. In fact a dedicated section has been reserved in the CSS specification CSS-2.1 Appendix E to explain these rules better.

This article will try to explain those rules, with some simplification and several examples.

  1. Stacking without z-index : Default stacking rules
  2. Stacking and float : How floating elements are handled
  3. Adding z-index : Using z-index to change default stacking
  4. The stacking context : Notes on the stacking context
  5. Stacking context example 1 : 2-level HTML hierarchy, z-index on the last level
  6. Stacking context example 2 : 2-level HTML hierarchy, z-index on all levels
  7. Stacking context example 3 : 3-level HTML hierarchy, z-index on the second level

Note of the author: Thanks to Wladimir Palant and Rod Whiteley for the review.

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