How to Be Intentional with White

White, like black, is considered by many to be a tone that “goes with everything.” But in my humble opinion, neither white nor black goes with everything! And just as you should consider how you deploy black in your outfits, it will help your style seem more refined and sophisticated if you learn to utilize white not as a fallback plan, but as an active color.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this:

Using a white top, tank, or tee as the neutral underlayer. Most often, I see a white top with a solid colored cardigan and black slacks. Nothing is clashing when those pieces are worn together, but nothing is unified either. The outer layer, inner layer, and bottom layer all seem completely separate, nothing tying them together. So here are a few alternatives. As you’ll see, they’re mostly pattern-related!


Here is a colorful cardigan, white top, and dark bottom worn together … but they twist on the formula is that magical scarf. It’s got both warm yellows and cool white in its pattern, so it creates unity among the otherwise disparate pieces.

In this variation, it’s the skirt itself that has a bit of white in it, helping tie the entire ensemble together. Either way, making sure to include a garment or accessory that has white in its pattern will make any solid white piece seem like a natural participant in the outfit.


White most often appears in shirt form, but it CAN be worn in other ways. No, really, it can. Here I am again relying on a pattern that includes white – or in this case, ivory – to provide unity. But my additional white item is my boots – unexpected, fresh, and fun. White doesn’t have to be a platform, it can be an accent, too!


White skirts, pants, jeans, and shorts have been trendy for a couple of years now, and creating an all-white base for an outfit is a wonderful way to be intentional with your whites. If the white out look is too much for ya, add a colorful vest, blazer, or scarf.

If you’re a stickler for old-fashioned style rules, this suggestion may seem wildly inappropriate for fall. (No white shoes or bottoms after Labor Day, and all that.) I believe those guidelines are loosening, but if you still abide them just stash this nugget away until Memorial Day!


Despite my preference that it be treated as a color, white is, in fact, a neutral. And that means that it will play nicely with most other neutrals. If you’re working with a cool white – a true, bright white with blue undertones – it’s best to stick to like neutrals such as black, cool grays, and cool khakis. Creams and ivories work well with browns and warm grays, and occasionally with black. All-neutral mixes tend to look chic and intentional, a definite plus.

The more I experiment with and explore my personal style, the more I learn that virtually nothing “goes with everything.” The only exception that comes to mind is denim, but more so for social than aesthetic reasons: Decades ago, we all agreed that blue denim was completely neutral, and we’re all still cool with that even though blue isn’t even REMOTELY neutral. True neutrals like black, gray, and our friend white can also certainly be paired with color and treated as non-entities, but I’ve found that outfits really work, shine, and sing when we’re as intentional as possible with our neutrals.

Do you wear much white? Do you do the colorful cardi, white tee, black pant combo a lot? Do these techniques appeal? Any other suggestions for being intentional with white?

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  • Kat

    I think white looks great on other people. But I have basically given up on it, except where it appears in a pattern–everything white I try to wear ends up looking dingy or getting stained so fast it’s not worth it anymore!

  • White is my all time fave colour for clothing. Because I am reluctant to wear black, white has become my black so to speak.
    I have white shoes (highly controversial, I know) a white coat, white pants and quite recently a white jacket. White full skirts are my all time favourite and I have about half a dozen of these.
    I usually restrict my outfit to one white item, or alternatively white pants and white sandals and then build around it. In the summer, a mariniere top is perfect with that for a relaxed yet polished look.
    White skirts with a random top and coordinating shoes, I like to match the shoes with the top or pick shoes in a contrasting colour. Like a coral top with turquoise shoes, etc.
    White pumps or dress shoes are by far the most difficult, so far my strategy was a print dress with white accents and a colourful accessory like a statement necklace or scarf, the other is a floral skirt with white as a base colour and a top that matches one of the colours in the print. I can’t however make an outfit that would have white shoes and a dark solid colour top and bottom without looking ridiculous.

  • Jen

    White next to my face makes me look ill and white on bottom is just a no for me. I have no white accessories either.

    • Elizabeth

      This is me completely. I routinely have to wear a white shirt to sing with my choir and I’ve gotten more used to it. Lipstick helps. So does a colorful necklace. Also – as part of a choir I realize it’s not about me. It’s about a unified look. So I just get over myself. But the moment I leave church and go out for brunch I throw on a scarf or a jacket.

      Of course, on my wedding day I wore ivory. But I think that’s a bit different. Also – I had lots of makeup on, so I didn’t look ill.

      • Rachel W.

        White near my face makes me look like a zombie! (And, knowing that, I definitely picked an ivory wedding dress, not white! High five)

        My mother-in-law, trying to indoctrinate me into the ways of ‘Color Me Beautiful,’ tells me that stark white really only suits high-contrast ‘winters,’ not ‘autumns’ like myself. I’ve always just written white off as one of those neutrals that I ‘shouldn’t’ wear, but Sal’s advice makes me reconsider. I definitely see how some of these techniques could help me fudge my way towards pulling off this ‘color’!

        • Eleanorjane

          There are whites and whites – as you mention above, you can do ivory and I bet you look lovely in a warm cream.

        • Elizabeth

          My mom used to do that in the 80s. There’s some truth in “Color Me Beautiful.” On the other hand, since they classify nearly everyone with black hair as a summer or winter, that means that over half the world “can’t” wear over half the colors. It really dates back to before stylists were inclined to be multicultural.
          That said, I’m an autumn through and through.

  • I’m a low-contrast kind of woman, so I lean toward the white with other neutrals II love the last look) or white as a base color. Although I will wear my white jeans with many different tops, come to think of it!

  • Anonymous

    I really don’t look good in stark white and rarely wear it. I stick to ivories and cream-tones, and even then I use them sparingly. But, I used to rely heavily on black for my go to color. I’ve been using more color in my style for a while now and am really enjoying it.

  • I own a fair bit of white, but a lot of what I have is off white, or so white it’s not quite grey grey. Living in the south is getting me used to wearing those colors more frequently, but I’m still not as good at it as I am at darks.

  • Cate

    I love white! To look awake, I need white near my face . Plus, I’m a high-contrast gal, so black and white are my mainstays. I’d like to find more white outer layers — jackets/sweaters/wraps — instead of always wearing white as the inside/under layer. I like a real snow/stark white, not ivory.

  • Mary

    I used to stay far away from white or cream because of the fear-of-mess factor (also I sweat a lot and I cannot stand perspiration stains) … but then I got a white top at H&M for 15 bucks and have worn it all summer. I love how it looks with my dark hair and pale-ish skin! And when it gets those stains, I’m not so attached to it or to the 15-dollar investment that I can’t toss it at the end of the season.
    Thus I have decided white and cream on top look great on me. I don’t think I’ll invest in a white jacket or cream silk blouse anytime soon, but keeping it cheap can help me look fresh!
    But Sal, I have found that I usually don’t pair these with bright colors, despite being known among my friends as someone who loves color. Blending it in with neutrals makes for a classy, I’m-finally-looking-my-age look, which in a lot of ways is better than looking like a teenager. So I love your last look up there – esp with the stark white underneath the chunky black necklace!

  • Elizabeth

    I am very very pale and thought I couldn’t wear white. For the most part I don’t. Only under a colored sweater, or with a scarf, for example.
    I LOVE how white looks with darker skin. Makes me want to be a Caribbean lady with dark skin, wearing a white cotton skirt and walking on the beach. (I know life is more complex than that for everyone – even Caribbean ladies.)

    Anyway – all that said – PLEASE PLEASE tell me about those magic white boots. I could totally wear white boots and those appear not to have too much of a heel. I covet them.

  • Devika

    First-time commenter here. I’m from India and want to stop by to thank you for your very thoughtful and inspiring blog! Great job.
    As for the white question, no suggestions, but I look good in white. Lately I hit upon an unlikely combo- a plain white tee with this nubbly, DARK-wine colored cotton skirt. It just works! So now I’m trying to think of more ‘unlikely’ combinations!

  • dina jones

    I wear a great deal of white – bright white, actually. I like to then funkify it with bright colored or bold jewelry, shoes and a handbag. My only problem is that I’m a clod, and invariably, dribble something ::: le sigh ::: But I love the look of a bright white knit dress, paired with red shoes and a red belt. or white cigarette pants and a white, slim button down, with purple heels and jewlery.

  • Anat

    Ha ha, you are so right about pointing out how ridiculous it is that we consider denim a neutral – but that’s so true! It really doesn’t “look” like a color, even though it certainly has its own color.

  • I usually shy away from white, but your style in this post has made me re-think my aversion.

  • Holly

    I confess I am pretty unsure how to wear white and part of that is that my pale, freckled is not also helped by it. This gave me some food for thought because I do long for crisp, clean white occasionally. I love the way you use white in the all-neutral mix especially. And the white dress in the first image of the post is lovely, especially with your new haircut. Your newly ‘renovated’ hair is just so cute and sophisticated BTW.

  • I used to totally do the “throw a white t-shirt on under every cardigan/sweater/blazer thing.” I do try to be more intentional with white these days. I love it for summer (when I get frecklier) but it is a bit tougher for me in the pale, pale winter.

  • Sarah

    Thank you for looking at the camera. I feel like you are always hiding.

    • Sal

      Sarah, I prefer my profile, that’s all. I hardly think that posting daily photos of myself on a public website qualifies as “hiding”!

  • Mia

    I don’t think of myself as wearing a whole heck of a lot of white–I have a few white tops and a few white skirts (usually with some sort of design or embroidery on so they’re not plain white), but I’ve been lusting after a white dress since the beginning of summer, I think. Especially a white dress with a full skirt (I would looove to have the dress you’re wearing here but it’s out of my budget!). There were some beautiful white dresses worn during Freckles in April’s 21 Days challenge, and they seem so pretty and feminine!

    Anyhoodle, I appreciate your tips here since I do tend to find neutrals somewhat stymieing. I think I’ll try to incorporate at least one intentional-white look into my outfits this weekend!

  • Rachel W.

    You’re opening up the world of white to me! I’ll have to try to give it a go again. I love the ‘white accents in an accessory + white base’ idea.

    I wonder, for all those ladies who say that they oughtn’t to wear white, if there are different shades of white available that might open the color up to us again. I know that bright, optic white– the sort of white you see on bleached linen that’s so white it’s faintly blue– and ‘winter white’ look horrible on me, but ivory and cream are a bit friendlier. I really like the idea of trying these techniques out in one of these off-whites!

  • Aziraphale

    I’m not a fan of white tops, mainly because they look good on almost nobody. I love the *idea* of a crisp white collared shirt, but on most people (me included) it’s complexion-draining.

    White bottoms or accents are another matter. White jeans with a black top is all kinds of sharp, and white accents — especially against a black or dark outfit — can look fabulous. I sometimes wear a black outfit with white gogo boots and a white watch, and it’s one of my faves.

  • Secret Squirrel

    Thank you for posting this, Sal! Today I bought a cagoule for our (walking)holiday which may involve lots of rain. I struggle with buying sporty stuff, and ended up buying a white one! I know it will probably get a bit grubby, but it looks so fresh and different – it came in black, but meh. I look terrible in black.

    I need the encouragement though to break out the white, so thanks!

  • JG

    I really needed this guide!! I have an inexplicable amount of trouble with the color white. Thank you for the great tips.

  • I covered Fashion’s NIght Out in San Antonio last night and saw lots of great white looks. I still love the neckline of that first dress…it is fabulous!

  • Cel

    I’m only just learning to wear white this year. I’m always so afraid to stain it, and have a harder time pairing it with things that aren’t also-white. You give a lot of good advice though!

  • I’ve grown to love white much more in the last year or so. I love all your tips — using white intentionally really makes an outfit pop.

  • This is a great post. I definitely wear white, and try to find ways to make it more edgy and cool. White doesn’t always have to be fluffy and sweet.

  • Okay, so this is not the point of your post, but I’ve seen that amazing plaid skirt before and I love it every time! I’m rediscovering my inner sewist and found some fabulous fall diagonally striped cotton that I would LOVE to make a cute skirt out of, but I was wondering if the diagonals would work for a skirt. I’m realizing that if your plaid looks as terrifically fabulous as it does here, then my diagonal stripes have a shot. And hey, I would settle for maybe a third as fabulous as that sweet plaid skirt!

  • I do wear white because it always makes for beautiful outfits. I think it’s the classic quality of this color . Actually the one item I can’t get enough of is my white button down .It can be worn with everything. No kidding!

  • Omg, this article makes me pine away for my perfect white pants, stumbled upon cheap in Zurich in 2007, that are just a few pounds out of my reach this year. Wore the holy heck out of them. Pants are so tricky!! I would pounce on another pair if I could just FIND them. (Same with freakin’ black pants, which seems insane.) I give myself permission to buy any perfect pair of pants because it takes so much work to find them, but damn that is a basic hole(s) in my wardrobe I could use filled. This spring I bought an adorable pair of casual light denim sailor pants thinking they could be my white pant substitue. Great as they are, it’s just not the same.

    Let’s see, I also show my whites with a smart little cardigan, pretty pearl studs, and a couple of delicate sleeveless tops. Still kicking myself for letting a perfect white chunky bracelet get away at Ann Taylor LOFT recently.

  • Belinda Gomez

    You probably aren’t aware of this, but posing with your hands on your hips make your waist look bigger. I know you think you’re drawing the eye to your waist, but with the elbows out–it makes a big horizontal line, which isn’t what’s wanted.

    You might take a gander at some classical statues and works of art to study up on flattering poses. Professional models do pose in awkward, “broken” poses, but they’ve got a different mission that you do. You want to look as attractive as possible, not sell a garment.

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