Wardrobe Staples: Why I Promote Black

Fashion Advice personal style

Ever since I wrote my original Wardrobe Staples for Women post in 2005, I get at least one comment or email a week asking, “Why black?” Why do I suggest black suiting, a black dress, and black shoes as the best choice for all women? Black is harsh, black is somber, black washes some people out.

Yes, black can bring to mind funerals and goth kids loitering in shopping malls. Black washes some people out, and is not the best color choice as you age. But black has so many perks and there’s not really any other color that accomplishes all that black can do:

Black is Stylish Every Month of the Year.

Some browns only seem appropriate in fall, others only appropriate in summer. The same holds true with grays, navys, and greens.

Black isn’t Trendy.

Maybe this year it’s a dark chocolate brown that’s hot, next year it may have more of a camel tint to it. Three years from now, both shades of brown can be seen as passé for it’s a gray-brown that’s the hot hue. This never happens with black – black is always chic. Black also hides trends better – a black blazer looks more on trend in five years than one in a color.

Black Matches Black.

Have you ever tried finding a pair of shoes to match a navy suit? What do you do if you damage your gray blazer for the suit you purchased three years ago? What do you do when you have a new position that requires pantsuits (construction, science, etc.) and your expensive perfectly-fitting brown suit only has a skirt? Point is, it’s easier to match black to black. It’s simple to buy shoes, bags, and accessories. It’s easier to match separates to build your suiting wardrobe, and you’re more likely to be able to replace a pair of pants that stretch out or a skirt that is no longer a current silhouette.

Black Hides Stains.

Not only does it hide stains, but it hides your attempt to get rid of the stain with Tide-to-Go, hides sweat, and even hides many creases and wrinkles. Black is a frequent-flier’s friend, and a good buddy of us working women with toddler grubby hands giving us a hug goodbye.

Black isn’t Memorable.

At my last job, I traveled a lot for business. I actually started blogging my outfits to prevent wearing the same thing twice to see a client. I started this… because I went to visit a client in another state and she said, “Oh you wore that cream suit again, it’s so nice on you.” I had only met her three times over six months, and twice I wore the same suit. While I wore different blouses and shoes, the suit was so memorable that I became The Woman in the Cream Suit. That wouldn’t have happened with black. When you have black in your wardrobe, you don’t need to purchase as much to look as though you have variety.

Black is Versatile.

A black gabardine pantsuit can be worn with a crisp button-front shirt and loafers to a client meeting, with a silk blouse and pearls to a business lunch, with a beaded camisole and silk heels to a cocktail party or wedding, with a bustier and red lips for a hot night on the town. You can’t do that with gray, navy, or brown.

Black Looks More Expensive.

Put a $200 black suit next to an $800 black suit, and you will see the difference, but those differences won’t be as visible from a distance. Put a $200 navy suit next to an $800 navy suit and you can tell the difference a mile away. Colors better show the quality of the fabric, the stitching, the choice in buttons and details. Black not only hides figure flaws, but also many manufacturing flaws.

Black Goes on Sale.

My Ann Taylor Triacetate suiting collection was all bought on clearance. A blazer this year, a skirt another year, a sheath on eBay, a pair of pants during a promotion. It’s far easier to buy suiting piecemeal from a retailer if it’s a color they offer season after season. Not only do colors change from season to season, but they sell out faster because they are a change from basic black. If you’re looking to start a suiting collection on a budget, you’ll have more luck with black than any other color.

Black is a Neutral.

I surely hope you’re not heading to a client meeting or a holiday party in a black suit with black blouse, black hose, and black shoes. If you do that, you will give off the funeral/death/goth/sadness/anger vibe, and yes, it may wash you out. However, if you pair a black pantsuit with a shell pink silk blouse, or a cobalt button-front shirt, or a peacock-blue print shell it will highlight your face and take center stage. With a flattering color, black becomes a frame and a platform for your ensemble. My mother regularly tells me that black washes her out, yet she wears it. She wears it with a colorful scarf at her throat, with a cheery shade near her face, with bold jewelry to distract.

Black is Budget-Friendly.

You can spot clean it, you can wear it year from year and season to season. You can dress it up and down. You don’t need a closet full of shoes and bags to accessorize properly for each occasion. Black doesn’t show wear as quickly as a color. With black you can have just one suit, one pair of pumps, one dress, one bag. You can truly buy quality instead of quantity.

***

So what do you do if you absolutely cannot and will not wear black? I recommend gray. Navy is the hardest color on the planet to match, brown can look dated and dumpy if not done correctly, and any other color is too memorable. If you buy gray in a classic menswear-inspired gray fabric, you will get a classic look that will complement pastels, neutrals, and jewel tones. It’s a fabric that will stay en vogue for a considerable amount of time, and you can find at all sorts of price points. However, it won’t be as versatile (can’t wear to a cocktail party, evening wedding, etc.) and may be hard to match later on down the line. But gray is chic, traditional, and classic.

And as with all my posts, these are suggestions, not gospel.  I am not expecting all the world to agree with me.  I just have learned from many years as a personal shopper, visual merchandiser, and employee in Corporate America that black is a great choice when trying to purchase versatile wardrobe staples.


Now I ask you wise readers, what do you choose if you do not choose black? How do you make it versatile, and where do you find quality wardrobe staples in classic but non-black colors?

Follow Me | Twitter | Facebook

  • N. L.

    I’ve worn black all my life and wil never stop. It’s very versatile and black can be powerful and classy too.

  • lexalemmy

    Yes for black with travelling! I have an eight day business trip every May and I bring: 1 black skirt, 1 black pair of pants and one black dress. (And a few other pieces, but these are the foundations.) I then rotate blazers, tops and shells depending on the event and meeting. No one notices if you wear the same basic black pair of pants three times in an 8 day span and it prevents having to pack a mondo bag.

  • Reading “black matches black” made me laugh, because in theatre, I often hear the backstage crew complain about how much their blacks DON’T match. It makes me wonder if that’s a theatre thing or if there are other fields where people complain about their blacks not matching as well….

  • I bet it’s due to the lighting on stage, which will pick up every green tint, pill, and speck of dust on black. 🙂 I know I worked in cosmetics where I had to wear all black and loved how if it was in a similar fabric (matte jersey, poly blend, silk) it usually matched decently well even if from different retailers and years.

  • Patti

    Very well said and explained! Here in NY, it’s become a cliche that we always wear black. We wear it not only because of all the reasons you stated, but NY is a dirty city! I love it, but it’s dirty! Try taking the subway in white pants. Black is king!

  • Katy M

    Amen! I once wore a black suit (Banana Republic) to an interview, I got a second interview, so I wore my brown suit (Kohl’s), not wanting to wear the same suit twice (I only had two). I think I would have gotten the job had I not worn that cheap brown suit to the second interview and would have been better off wearing the black one twice with different shoes, shirt and accessories. You make some great points on the versatility of black!

  • SE

    Alright, I needed to hear this. Good timing. Like your mom, I’ve been telling myself black is too harsh (well, really, I keep hearing other blogs tell me black is too harsh once you start aging) but I’ve struggled trying to upgrade my wardrobe with other neutrals (and on a tight budget). And you’ve laid out the reasons why- other neutrals don’t hold up as well, don’t play as well together and show every little stain and wrinkle. I was trying to go with charcoal gray but I caught myself in the mirror one day and realized that has got to be one of the most unflattering colors on aging skin in the world. Back to black.

  • Lawgirl

    Good points. I disagree on buying cheap suits in black. To me the only thing that looks cheaper than a black polyester suit is a white cheap suit. I think you’re better off with gray pinstripes or a dark, subtle nubby-type tweed, herringbone, or plaid pattern if you need to go cheap… Express and The Limited can take you places when you can’t afford Ann Taylor, Theory, or Tahari. Just my 2 cents… http://www.express.com/herringbone-bracelet-sleeve-peplum-jacket-49983-701/control/page/8/show/3/index.pro

  • Margot

    Gray and Navy are my black. I don’t mind about it not matching because I dress in tones rather than exact color matches. It works for me;-).

  • Bonnie Mann, CPA

    Great post. When I was young, I wore a lot of matched navy suits because I am very pale and black can wash me out. When I changed jobs and matched suits were no longer a requirement, I realized what you stated which is that black is much easier to match than navy and switched. Recently I have felt I was over using black to the point that my wardrobe became boring. Five pairs of black dress pants means you wearing black everyday and after awhile no one is seeing the differences in the cuts and styles only that you are wearing black every day. I have put more grey and navy back into my wardrobe to give it some variety. But I agree that black is still the best way to start to build your wardrobe.

  • This is the people in blacks backstage though! Not the ones on stage! It always cracks me up. One Tech Director I knew broke down her backstage blacks in to “good, okay, and faded” blacks 😉

  • Emily Kate – Capital Style

    I went to a trend report overview thing back in the spring and my favorite thing that was said was “black is the new black.” Ha ha! Also, I am the poster child for black hides stains. If there is drink to be spilled, a pen to leak, a puddle to be splashed, I’ll find it. So many “well at least I’m wearing black” days.

  • Linda L

    Sorry, not to be negative but the overwearing of black is one of my pet peeves. I just can’t stand looking like everybody else so I wear my black only once in a while. Everyone does black bottoms with a colored top – yawn! And in the summer I just wish everyone would put the black away already. Grey and navy are my neutral preferences because I love to wear color and black really sucks the life out of mid and light shades. You are right about the matching being hard, but I also have a hard time matching black jackets with black bottoms if they were not made as a suit. I think there are a lot of variations of blacks and ever since someone told me in my 20’s that blacks have to match I’ve been paranoid about it. Anyway, I love you Allie and your style and wisdom. Different strokes for different folks!

  • You can tell by my wardrobe I agree with you. I am just talking about basics per my wardrobe staples list. An all black wardrobe can be stark and modern if done with strong silhouettes, otherwise it can be boring. I think many feel that black makes them invisible but it really doesn’t. In fact I wrote about this very topic! 🙂 http://www.wardrobeoxygen.com/2008/02/black-doesnt-make-you-look-slimmer-it.html

  • Christine

    I just can’t wear black. I’m a pale redhead and black just dulls my skin, eyes and hair. Since I don’t have an office job, I stick to dark brown. It can be hard to find, it can be hard to match — though for me it’s worth holding out for the right brown piece. I do have a “little brown dress” with a fabulous cut and high quality material. It works well on most occasions, though I think dark colors are wrong for a wedding. If you’re having a beautiful black tie wedding, black is great, but at a lot of wedding I see dull black pantsuits, ill fitting dresses and they all look funereal. This applies to guests wearing any color but I think attention to hair, makeup and jewelry, etc is important to add a festive touch.

    When I did work in an office, I did wear black, and it was not flattering, and people let me know!

    Black is easy and my wardrobe would be much simpler in all black and bless those who can wear it! Allie, you always look great in black!

  • Rebecca

    Add me to the black fan-club. I buy multiple pairs of the same black trousers when the old ones start to wear out because they serve as a base to everything else. I never have to worry about whether this pair of black shoes goes with that pair of pants, because they always do; textured, matte, patent, they all go.

    Not so for grey, navy or brown. I have moments of wanting to move my wardrobe toward browns, but there are just too many shades and variants to keep track of.

    For me, what one person calls boring is what I call grounded; I am far more willing to experiment with other parts of my outfit (colors, mixed patterns, jewelry, crazy purses. etc) when I know I have that one piece of black that grounds the outfit and makes it feel accessible.

  • Angela

    I agree black is good for basics and a starter wardrobe but for me black is dreadful by my face. I am slowly replacing it with navy, and keeping a smaller wardrobe of neutrals. But in the first few years of working, I had the whole black, mix and match thing going on.

  • crtfly

    Allie,

    Today you talked about black clothing with a few comments about navy thrown in. Sallie over at Already Pretty today talked about navy clothes with a few comments about black thrown in.

    Did you two plan that or is it coincidence?

    By reading both of your blogs today, I got quite a few good ideas.

    Thank you,

    Chris

  • I used to be an all black and jewel tones person, but now black almost seems out of place in my wardrobe. The black things live in a little capsule all by themselves. I think if I had to do suiting, I’d try taupe. I’ve always thought of it as a horrible non-color, but it actually looks better next to my face than straight grey.

  • Jo H.

    If you have never had the skin tone, the hair colour, or the aging complexion which makes black look bad, I can see how black would be the best neutral for you and it would be tempting to recommend it. Personally, I will not wear black because it looks very bad on me for all three of the above reasons, and that affects my morale as well as my appearance. Gray and brown have the same effect, so I wear navy as my neutral. I don’t find it any harder to match than black, which is not to say that navy is easy, but to say that black is difficult!

    As you wisely pointed out at the end of your post, Allie, your advice – as good and as experienced as it is – might not work for everyone. I encourage women who might still be unsure to listen to their instincts. Do you feel good or bad in that colour? Your gut will tell you.

  • LOL I guess it’s another situation of like minds, happens often with me and Sal! 🙂

  • Sonia

    To me nothing says professonal, power and class than a black sleeveless sheath. Paired with a cardigan, add pearls and I’m set to go.
    As someone else that works in New York City, I love wearing black and have whole sections of my wardrobe dedicated to this wonderfully go-with-everything color. However, when I lived in Florida years ago, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in black; it was considered too dark.

  • Bridget

    Black is heavy, black is aging. I have eliminated it from my wardrobe in favor of gray and navy. I urge everyone to figure out what looks great with eye/skin/natural hair color, and ignore fashion rules.

  • Mrs.M in MI

    My only problem with black is that I find my black basics limiting in terms of what I feel I can pair them with. To my eye, with my ultra-fair coloring, black looks off-kilter with pastels, dated with bright colors, and starts to veer into the funereal with jewel tones. So I’m left with white or cream (which does look good, I will admit, but is kind of boring), or putting it into an amalgam of neutrals.

    Suits are not required at my office or in my life, but I do wear the pieces broken up, so it’s not matching the blacks that’s an issue but the matching of black with other pieces and colors.

    I’m not saying that I don’t wear oodles of black, because I do, but most days I’m reaching for my navy, gray, or tan basics over black. Everything else you’ve said about black, I definitely agree with!

  • Katelyn Jackson

    I too am a pale natural redhead and black washes me out big time. So does white if there are photos involved. Most grays similarly look dull on me and do nothing for my skin tone. I look good in navy or a dark brown. I can wear black pants fine if my top is a flattering jewel tone. Luckily, I am now a stay at home mom and jeans and a casual top make up my wardrobe needs. I do own a black tank top for the summer but I generally have more color from being outside with my 2 year old then. I’m in the process (it’s a long one with my small budget) of ridding my closet of the black/grey tone and focussing more on browns/blues/greens/deep purples which I prefer and IMO just look better on me. My wardrobe is not as colorful as many, but it works for me.

    I also want to agree that blacks can be hard to match if not made from the same material. It sounds weird but I notice the different “shades” of black. Maybe it’s from fading and wear or the way light reflects differently off of different material, but I can definitely “see” it and it bothers me.

  • DC Celine

    So. I’m currently digging my heels in against buying a LBD. And yet, I agree with literally everything you’ve said – and as a “pale redhead” I have to say that nothing washes me out more than a taupe or light brown. True, everything is relative, but I happen to like the contrast of fair skin, black clothing, and dark strawberry blonde hair. Also, wear makeup. A red lip won’t hurt 😉

  • Erica

    As animal lover and lover of black clothes, I’m always reaching for the lint roller. That’s the only downside in my book. I guess my next dog will just need to be black!

  • DC Celine

    for some reason, this topic is sticking in my craw, so a few additional notes: 1) i’m not sure where the “black washes ‘older’ women out” thing comes from – there are so many famous (and fair) women who rock the black – everyone from Susan Sarandon to Julia Roberts (yes, she’s up there now) to uber fair like Gwyneth Paltrow and Diane Keaton. 2) I wonder if perhaps the trick to all of it is a woman’s own sense of self and how she presents herself: the more confident, happy, and strong a woman appears, the less likely a piece of clothing is to “dull” her. (Though if I reach for a pale pink sweater one more time, I swear my friends will kill me.) Nothing like a demure, mysterious smile (or a broad grin) to make the observer completely forget about what the smiler is wearing.

  • Christine

    I’m not sure if you’re referring to my comments but my self confidence is just fine and black looks bad on me. Yes, other fair women wear it well, and older women do too. I just don’t like it on me.

  • Christine

    Again, not sure if this is pointing to me, but I don’t wear taupe or light brown either. I’m glad you like the contrast you described but I don’t. I’m not sure why you think I’m not trying hard enough…I do wear makeup and red lips are my trademark. I expressed my opinions about my PERSONAL view of black on ME, and didn’t ask for advice. I just wanted to express why I don’t wear black.

  • MamaCheshire

    I am in a field that sometimes requires site visits under less-than-pretty conditions, and I have a not always easily found shoe size, AND a damaged foot that requires orthotics. Since the orthotics, having a base of black shoes, black socks, black pants, sometimes a black shell, and something pretty and colorful that works with black as a top layer has simplified my wardrobe-planning a lot. Before all this, I was trying to “branch out” away from black and ending up with things that just didn’t match anything else very well. Sometimes simplest is best. 🙂

  • laura

    Amen. I have always worn a ton of black. My wardrobe is over half black. I wear grey as well, but not as much. I always buy navy and brown to try and get away from the black and grey but they always end up sitting in the closet for months. So instead I’m starting to throw in brighter different colors with the black to bring in the color – like today it’s a bright pink ponte jacket with the black pants.
    I do disagree that all blacks match. for suiting it really needs to be the exact same fabric and usually from the same store. else you’ll end up looking cheap with a black that has some red in it next to a black that has a green tone. instead I get a patterned piece with black in it to match with whatever item from the suit is still wearable.

  • I wear lots of black- however, definitely need to invest in more quality black. Thanks for all the tips… and the reminders why simple is better.
    http://www.theopinionatedgirl.com

  • Lisa

    Wow, this is so well thought out! This is why I LOVE reading your blog. You are fashionable AND extremely practical! Your understanding of and empathy for the challenges of “real” women is nothing short of amazing. You should seriously consider becoming a fashion magazine editor. 🙂 I’m tired of buying what they’re selling – only one way to be stylish: skinny, young, and rich. And I get your blog for free, but I’d gladly pay for the much more holistic advice I get here.

  • Oh thank you Lisa! 🙂

  • akay

    artists. there are many many different blacks. but in clothes, i get it.

  • Are black shoes ever the wrong choice? I have 2 pair of these very dark wash denim jeans that I wear nearly every day. http://www.christopherandbanks.com/modern-fit-everyday-denim-pant-average-zid9-00707765946/cat-9-catid-100150?vva_ColorCode=438&_t=pfm%3Dcategory I love them, but I’ve started to think that my black shoes look a little funny with them. I thought about finding some white shoes to wear with them instead, but it’s not exactly the right time of year to find many choices in white shoes.

  • I don’t think white shoes would be a better choice. Black can seem heavy in the warmer months and a brown or tan may be a nice alternative in summer, but black is a safe bet, and looks very nice with dark wash denim! Come the cooler months, brown is a good alternative to black if you find black too harsh or a bad choice with the rest of your wardrobe. I suggest a darker chocolate color, but with brown the quality of leather is more visible so you need to be careful with construction and quality. 🙂

  • Thank you! I appreciate the advice! I’ll keep my eyes open for a nice dark brown shoe.

  • Appreciative of your help!

    Late to the post clearly! But it resonated with me; I’ve been shying away from black because I was told it was unflattering but miss it very much for all the reasons you say here, especially the sheer simplicity of it. This might be a stupid question but … how do you know whether it’s flattering or not? I don’t have a great eye for these things. I think it looks fine; I can see navy is a bit nicer on me but not as versatile as you say. But I have had color consultants say I should never wear it. I have dark hair but softer eyes and skin, which is their reasoning. Any tips? Or is it one of those, if you like it, wear it kinda things … thanks so much for any thoughts!

  • I do believe if you like it, wear it! I usually balance it with rosier cheeks or a bold lip in a flattering shade, a lower neckline or an accessory near the face (scarf or necklace) to distract can also help. Also google famous women of your age or coloring and see how they make black work for inspiration 🙂

  • Appreciative of your help!

    Thank you and thanks for your blog … I’m having so much fun going through it and creating capsules in my closet inspired by yours 🙂

  • Marina Doshkevich

    You know, not all black is the same color!!!! I like wearing black, I have pale skin, dark blue eyes, and red hair, and black makes me look very vivid. But there are blacks that don’t flatter my skin tone. I tend to be sort of green skinned, and any sort of green tint looks hideous on me. So a more green based black is bad. The best blacks for me are brown/ navy/red based. Its not like a black shirt is made up out of a black hole or anti matter.

  • Marina Doshkevich

    I wear white jeans all the time, and not much happens. I suppose one day i will sit on some wet pain…but if I get a bit of dirt on them, so what? I own bleach. I love wearing black, but I like wearing white too.

  • Marina Doshkevich

    People do overwear black some. My favorite neutral is grey. And I agree nothing worse then a colored top and black trousers!!! But black trousers and a crisp white shirt are right on the money. I think people just assume that black matches everything, and it really doesn’t.

  • Marina Doshkevich

    Are you sure? I am pale and have red hair, and I love black and white. I love grey too. I also think that blacks of different textures are amazing together. The only color I won’t wear is been, which is too bad with all the lovely green out right now…but then I feel like a carrot.

  • Pingback: Wardrobe Staples for Women - Wardrobe Oxygen()