Being Intentional with Black

I imagine you folks are getting rather weary of my tirades about the perils of black. I’ve already offered some ideas for adding sass to the solid-top-with-black-bottom workwear separates formula, but allow me to give some more general advice about implementing black with intentionality.

When a color is deemed “neutral,” the temptation is to throw it into a mix and be done. And you certainly can: Blue denim is neutral, and I’d never say that it should always be worn with blue accents. But ANY color, neutral or no, will look fantastic if it appears multiple times within an outfit. Say you’ve got on a red dress and a purple, white, and red printed scarf. Throwing on a pair of supposedly-neutral black shoes may look like a last-resort or an afterthought. Either pick up another color from the outfit and wear red, purple, or white shoes, or do black shoes AND a black belt. Putting black into the mix twice automatically makes it appear stylish and natural.

Here are a few more ways to be intentional with black:


Here’s a more concrete illustration of the example described above. The main colors here are white and cognac brown, with black serving as an accent color. Imagine this outfit without the black belt and black fishnets. It would be fine, but adding the other black accessories back in creates a more finished ensemble.

When using black in accessories or accents, remember that deploying it multiple times within an outfit will tie the pieces together seamlessly.


The pattern on this sweater tunic is mainly red and purple, but it includes some black accents. That means that throwing on a black turtleneck dress, black leggings, and black boots looks organic and intentional. Had the black been missing, or had it been a lighter neutral such as gray, all that black would look far less chic and natural.

Any time an item of clothing includes black in a pattern – even just a smidgen – it will pair beautifully with solid black garments.


Black boots and an olive green dress. Since neutral colors – khaki, brown, black, gray, cream, and olive – often look amazing mixed within an outfit, the boots and dress would have been fine on their own. But adding the black bolero and black necklace create a much more polished look.

Black will look more fully incorporated into an ensemble if it appears in the top half and bottom half, instead of just one or the other.

Do you wear lots of black? What are some of the ways that you make your outfits look intentional and refined? Will any of these techniques work for you?

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  • Nique

    What kind of boots are those in the third and fourth picture? They are awesome!

  • I love all of these outfits!! You did an excellent job…in the first one, my eye immediately goes to the great scarf! In the second one, to the great skirt. In the third one, to the great sweater, and in the last one to the short cardigan! In each one you have a star which grabs the attention from anything drab or neutral…good work!!

  • I have very little black but totally agree with your advice. Colour matching makes things look better, I am obsessed with picking any colour up in more than one place, including black.

  • I am terrible with un-intentional black, although I’ve gotten much better since I started blogging my outfits. It’s my fall-back color to hide in when nothing is working out. I’ve been thinking a lot about alternate neutrals lately. I’m actually going to do a black-out for the month of February (it’s going to be much harder than summer…I think, although if I look at my recent outfits maybe it won’t be quite as hard as I think). I like your suggestions here. When I wear black, I want it to be because I want to, not because I can’t think of anything else.

  • Great post! You are right. Often we just go with black without thinking. I liked the idea of having black or any neutral appearing in both top and bottom halves as a way of connecting the look.

  • 4qtchks

    For a fun layering look, I would put a longer knit black skirt under the dress. This adds more texture and warmth to the ensemble without adding bulk. I would also wear a black shirt under the dress, a black knit vest or shrug as shown and long multi strand jewelry. I can make an entire weeks wardrobe using four or five pieces in black and gray! I like to add a small splash of color in my accessories. I will add a red or green infinity scarf or necklace. Last week my husband wore brown and gray together and it was surprisingly very hip and fresh! We love to look at your pics! You dress very fun and fresh, without looking like you are trying to be twenty! :). This particular picture of you is fantastic. You look like you have lost twenty pounds! I would take that compliment any day of the week!

  • Donna

    Good tutorial on using black/neutrals! Even at my ripe age, I’ve learned something new. In the past I worked for two different interior designers and both those gals wore black, head to toe. Trouble was, it didn’t look sophisticated, just dark and depressing. ;-p I’m not sure I’ve seen you in any monochromatic outfits. What is your take on such a singular color combo? (not necessarily black) Still waiting for your book!

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  • Anna

    Very timely post—thank you! My default attire is either black pants with bright top (which always makes me worry somewhat about being chunked into two) or black bottom plus black top with a bright jacket (chunks not such a problem with this combo). Now I see how I can pull things together more effectively with black accents on top. A search of my closet and drawers reveals very few such items. Oh, dear, must go shopping…what a drag…;-)

  • Amy

    I wear a lot of black! It’s sort of my go-to color and I mix it all the time.

    By the way, the scarf in the first picture is gorgeous and I love the outfit with the bolero! Definite outfit inspiration there 🙂

  • I wear a fair amount of black, because for years it was my favored neutral. Grey has only started trumping it in the past two years. I agree with these tips about picking up on the color multiple times throughout the outfit. I admit that sometimes I am lazy in my application of neutrals, and this post was an excellent reminder of ways to refine looks that incorporate black, grey, or brown.

  • “Do you wear lots of black?” I used to! But I wear much less now. I wonder where I learned that habit? XOXOXOXO

  • maria

    I also want to know what those boots are! They’re amazing.

    • Sal

      See above!

  • Ugh, nothing makes me crazier than seeing SO MANY otherwise nicely dressed women who just whip on black shoes with everything, with no other tie-in to the outfit! It’s insanity! The one of you in the white oxford and cognac skirt is the chicest thing ever!

  • great and useful tips! i call it ‘the power of three’ – anytime you do something three times in an outfit, it looks intentional and balanced. this included using black, but really it works for any accent color or texture (lace, stripes, metal, and so on).

  • I completely agree with your intentional black philosophy! I always try to have at least two appearances of black when I wear it so there’s a visual cohesion. I do the same with denim – I prefer to have some navy or another blue in the outfit to connect to my jeans.

  • I rarely wear black. It just doesn’t flatter me: sallow skin + dark brown hair = not my best look. Also, black itself can be tough: is it a blue-black or a green-black? Does the blue or green-ness of the black tone with whatever else I’m wearing? I know I used to wear black because “fashion”, peers, and laziness (what, doesn’t black go with everything?!?) told me I should be wearing it. I’m not listening to those voices anymore.

  • Hey Sal!! I declared January color month so have been intentional about adding more color.. boy I had too much black in my wardrobe, and I still do like the all black outfit with ie. red boots or something like that… great post on how to mix it up!!! xox oJ

  • You look lovely in all the pics. I loooove the last one. I used to wear way too much black (like the head to toe, I’m in mourning, look). I’ve mixed it up by infusing some of my fav bright colors into simple black items.

  • I tend to really struggle with black. This post has been very helpful.

  • Jessica

    Good advice! I fall prey to the ”meh’ it’s a neutral so it works with just about anything’ slack/skirt philosophy. Thanks for helping me see the other options out there.

  • I’m a New Yorker. It’s mandatory that we wear black.

  • Very funny, I posted about black just today! Wearing it consciously is so much more fun than wearing it as a default.

  • i do tend to wear quite a bit of black- i think it is a hazard of nyc-living, because before, i would never wear black at all (i preferred brown). i like playing with tone-on-tone outfits in general, and mixing up the texture in each piece- like a shiny silk with a really nubby wool sweater. anyway i love all your examples here, but especially using black as an accent, and using black on the top + bottom halves!

    • “i like playing with tone-on-tone outfits in general, and mixing up the texture in each piece- like a shiny silk with a really nubby wool sweater.”

      excellent idea – a great way to add interest to monochrome outfits (my fave)!!

  • rb

    I wear black head to toe all the time and I just brighten it up with jewelry (pearls, usually) or, if it’s cold, a long cashmere scarf in a color that’s flattering to my face. I think wearing intentional black is much more elgant than wearing it as a default with a little pastel twinset, for example.

    I also pair black with other neutrals, mainly gray but in the summer sometimes cream. But I don’t do the cut in half look. I either go for the vertical column (black top, black skirt being the column, and a gray or other neutral topper over) or wear a black cardigan or jacket with a black skirt and a cream or other neutral top peeking out under the jacket.

    In the winter I like wearing black tights, too, with black boots or booties or mary jane pumps.

    In the summer, if I’m wearing a black top and skirt, I would have bare legs and a lighter non-black shoe, most often.

    I love black!

  • Lindy

    Sally, this post was practically written for me! I am a style novice and black is definitely my fallback…in particular the black pant/bright top combo explored in your earlier post. Thanks for the timely and helpful suggestions!

    BTW, thanks also for your helpful advice on the BlogFrog website regarding mom/workwear. I am traveling this week and I had trouble responding on my mobile on that site. Anyway, knit blazers and ponte fabric were completely new suggestions for me. I appreciate your advice there -and here- so much. You’ve got a new, devoted fan! Thanks.

  • I’ll admit I LOVE wearing black. Maybe it was my years in NYC, but I always head directly to the blacks and grays in a store. I like to mix it up with colorful earrings, bracelets and scarf. I also love wearing all black to work when I don’t want to pull my hair back. My hair is so big and curly that having it down with bright colors looks too chaotic.
    I just found your blog a week ago and I must say I love it. So refreshing to see your body image discussions incorporated into a style blog.

  • Your scarf make the whole outfit alive!

  • MLC

    I wear tons of black — it’s part of the standard uniform where I live, and I also happen to love it. So I use a lot of texture to break up my all-black outfits, especially in accessories. For example, I’ll wear patterned tights, and carry a shiny patent tote bag. Or wear suede boots and a sheer, ruffled scarf. And, I find that my black hair is also a good accessory!

  • I completely agree with you, but I am freaking out a bit over your cognac leather skirt! May I ask where you got it? The whole outfit is so polished, I love it!

    • Sal

      It was an eBay score!

  • Danielle

    Great post! I’ll definitely have to keep this in mind.
    I LOVE your olive dress in the last picture! Could you please share where you got it?

  • Great Idea for a post. I really love the white shirt and leather skirt outfit, simple and gorgeous! I love a black waist belt and then black shoes to tie it all together, I do it often. I do have far too much black in my wardrobe, but its just so easy!

  • Hi sweetheart, you look so beautiful! I have been reading your blog for a while, and absolutely love what you are doing. It resonates with me, as I am on the same page my self, loving and accepting our fashionable selves, such hard work, totally worth it. sending you much love from me in Oslo <3

  • Penelope

    I love the outfit with the black belt and shoes.

    When I first started teaching most of my slacks & jackets were black, bought because it seem somehow more “adult” than colors, but I always wore them with my favorite bright greens and blues. A couple of years in a student asked me why I wore so much black. I didn’t really think I did, because all I thought about was the colored part of the outfit. Since then, I’ve pretty much stopped buying black as neutral. Now I have several shades of grey, white, khaki, brown for pants and tops to layer with colors and I find that I don’t ever turn to my one remaining pair of black pants when there’s another clean. It wasn’t a completely conscious decision–I just always feel more put together in grey and color than black, somehow. The black on top and bottom part does explain why the one shirt I always reach for with my black pants/skirts is a blue turtleneck with some black and light blue stripes. I could never figure out why it was always the first shirt I wanted to wear.

  • I looked at the first few pictures and somehow knew you lived in MPLS/MN. May have been the style of houses or the fact you were taking a picture while it was snowing… either way – great advice and thank you!

  • Great post. I tend to wear primarily black. But I try to break it up with texture. Nice ink by the way. Enjoying your blog.

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