I have spent the past few decades collecting what I consider to be a stylish wardrobe — much of which is black in color. While I love black’s versatility and timelessness, I am starting to feel like I am in a rut, and would like to break out a bit. What can I do to change up my cherished uniform? — Sarah, New York City
As someone who has likewise spent a lot of her life wearing black, I understand the problem.
Black is one of those colors that contain multitudes. It is anything but basic. There’s the black of Johnny Cash, the Man in Black. The black capris and T-shirt of Audrey Hepburn doing her weird modern dance in “Funny Face,” and the long black Givenchy of Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The shredded, dancing-on-the-moors black of Stevie Nicks, and the black of Macbeth’s witches. The black of Sargent’s “Madame X.”
There’s the black that makes you think of the little black dress, which is always safe and elegant, and the black of the Beats, subversive and rebellious. There’s sexy black and somber black and scary black. Also: mysterious black, because which one of the above are you? And: seductive black, because it allows you to choose among so many possible personas.
Renoir called it “the queen of all colors.” Dior called it “essential to a woman’s wardrobe.”
But, as with any choice that defines you, black can start to feel limiting; like a cliché or default, rather than a declaration of self (the rigor that an allegiance to all black requires can also be exhausting). The problem is, when you have built your identity around one set of associations — and have invested a fair amount not just of psychological energy but of your budget in it — how do you begin to expand your horizons without losing the core of your self or upending your wardrobe, neither of which are sustainable or practical?
Slowly. You’d be amazed how much small details make a difference.
Karla Welch, the stylist who works with Tracee Ellis Ross and Sarah Paulson and has a styling app, Wishi, says that even a bright red lipstick or some colored socks could make a difference. If magenta, the Pantone color of the year for 2023, seems like a step too far, add some T-shirts in other basic shades like white, which is the obvious first step. (As Coco Chanel said, “Black has it all. White, too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.”) But try camel, too, or even silver. Jewel tones also blend in very easily.
TikTok actually has a term for this: sandwich dressing. It’s a whole trend unto itself. The idea being to pick a garment in what Ms. Welch calls “an accent color,” and then (yes) sandwich it with black. So, for example, a T-shirt in blue under a black jacket with black pants. Or a beige skirt with a black top and black boots.
The net effect will still be mostly black — it won’t shock everyone who knows you into thinking you are having a personal crisis because you look so different — but leavened with a bit of contrast. It’s like inserting a tiny wedge in a wall that then expands over time to create a much larger space. And maybe a sense of possibility.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.
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