Going Back to Black

Johnny Cash wearing black
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Earlier this week I wrote about the high percentage of blue-, green-, and orange-coloured clothing I tend to wear. In fact, my wardrobe is pretty colourful all around. I have a weakness for things like fun shirts, madras, cowichans, vibrant tweeds, eye-catching outwear, and some admittedly obnoxious sports merch. I’ve also never quite shaken my childhood gravitation toward brightly coloured shoes, which has translated into some questionable footwear purchases over the years (I am, for example, perennially on the verge of buying every pair of James Harden signature basketball shoes that comes to market despite having nothing that could conceivably be worn with them).

I do, however, also have a pretty strong countervailing compulsion towards the monotone. Every once in a while I’ll have a fleeting impulse to purge my wardrobe of all its colour in order to go the full Karl Lagerfeld or Rick Owens. But while I already wear a lot of white — T-shirts, button-downs, jeans, socks, etc. — for a while there I owned nary an item of black clothing.

Rick Owens wearing a black tank top
Designer Rick Owens wearing his signature shade
Image credit: Myles Kalus Anak Jihem / CC BY-SA 4.0

I talked about the importance of black in the fashion world in an article I wrote at the start of this year about a resurgence in black tailoring. Despite its eminent status among the chic and sophisticated, I’ve long found black to be a trickier shade to work with than one would expect. Black is, for example, famed for being slimming and is widely praised for supposedly going with everything. But, contrary to popular wisdom, I found it clashed often enough to make the black items I owned more of a liability than the wear-it-with-anything staples I hoped they would be. The handful of black winter coats I’ve had over the years, for instance, always felt bland and seemed to weigh down anything I wore underneath, while the ubiquitous black Yankees hat I got given as a souvenir once has gone largely unworn for always seeming at odds with whatever I tried to pair it with. I even still have the black Wallabees I wore as school shoes well over a decade ago, but I’ve never managed to find a proper use for them. Contrary to what I expected, there just isn’t all that much I could do with a pair of black leather shoes. (I’m comforted in this by the fact that Bruce Boyer seems to agree, saying of himself ‘I’m a brown-shoes-with-everything guy’. The only black shoes in his extensive collection are a pair of black velvet Albert slippers he wears with a dinner jacket; my only admittedly far less fancy equivalent is my schoolyard Grasshoppers). 

As a rule, I used to feel that nearly every black item of clothing I tried actually proved less versatile than its white or colourful equivalents. So, over the years, I effectively purged my wardrobe of sable garments. 

But writing about black suits some months back got me thinking about the possibilities of other areas in which it might be worth bringing some black back into the fold. What is that cliché about absence and hearts and fondness? Sure enough, over the last few months I’ve worn black more than I have done in half a decade — and loved it. 

I’ve mostly eased my way in with the classics. I pulled out the one forgotten black T-shirt that filtered from disuse down to the bottom of the pile of tees clogging up my closet. Then there’s an old but unused sweatshirt I hung onto for my guilt at never having worn it. Ditto a pair of black slacks I bought years ago for a job as a museum guide which lay tucked away in a pile of mementoes at the back of my closet. All of these have recently been excavated and put to use for the first time in many years. Even the old school shoes have come back into rotation.

Flat-lay of a black roll neck jumper
Image is my own / All rights reserved

By a mile the most success I’ve had, though, has been in the realm of knitwear. Last year I bought a black crew neck jumper and a turtleneck in the same shade, both of which have now become the sweaters I inevitably reach for in both casual and slightly dressier scenarios. These are, in my experience, among the few pieces that actually deliver on black’s putative promise of versatility. The people over at Put This On agree too. In an article on black knitwear from a few years back, Derek Guy writes: ‘If you’re looking to incorporate the color into your wardrobe […] there’s no better place to start than a simple black sweater. A black knit will go with anything: offbeat Japanese workwear, contemporary labels, and even a healthy chunk of classic men’s clothing.’ 

There’s a lot else that I now have my eye on besides. While I still can’t imagine buying a black coat again any time soon, there’s no denying the strong pull of a classic black leather jacket. Similarly, I still avoid black dress shirts like the plague of that self-same hue, but seeing black rayon shirts worn in summer or chamois ones in winter to great effect online has gotten me completely reevaluating the black button-up. The teenage punk in me also yearns for one of those black hoodies with a metalic zip everyone seemed to wear at the live shows of my youth. The same goes for black jeans, which I haven’t worn in a good few years now, but with some of the selvedge options on the market right now I can already see myself returning to the fold. And while I’m nowhere near being able to afford a black suit that won’t leave me looking like an ill-kempt funeral director, there are a bevvy of black loafers I’d like to sample, not to mention back sneakers, like a pair of Chuck 70 All Stars or some Salomon Speedcrosses. 

So what has been the difference this time around? The trick for me has been using black sparingly; to think of it as an accent rather than a go-to. There was a period in my teens and early twenties when I lived in a moody uniform of matching black skinny jeans, band tees, and Vans or Converse, but in my thirties black makes a lot more sense in moderation. I now think of it as a garnish, rather than the whole dish. 

I find black works particularly well as a useful way of toning down another louder items — a pair of camo trousers, maybe, or a vibrant-looking jacket — or as a means of deliberately drawing attention to a different garment in an ensemble, like a piece of characterful denim or some textured tweed or corduroy

It’s still early days for me, though, and there are sure to be plenty more styles and garments to try out. In the meantime, I’ll take a cue at the end here from the proliferating tint in my wardrobe and fade slowly to black…

Frank Sinatra wearing a suit and holding a trench coat
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

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