Reader Request: The All Black Wardrobe

all black wardrobe

Reader Jen e-mailed me this request:

I write to you because the dress code at my [beauty] school is all black. I like black but don’t wear it very often because color makes me happier. I would love if you could do a reader request post about a few basic, reasonably priced black items that can be used to comprise a couple of different outfits. School only goes through February so cool weather clothing is ideal. Leggings are not permitted, except under dresses, and neither is denim. If you had some recommendations for a couple of outfits I would be very grateful.

As you can imagine, Jen is trapped in my nightmare. OK, I love black for fall and winter, but all black all the time? Including shoes? And most accessories are gonna get in the way? BLEARGH! Exquisite torture! But exquisite torture that is inflicted upon many restaurant servers, beauty school students, theater techs, and countless other workers and learners. So well worth examining.

I already sent Jen a few suggestions for actual items, so we’ll focus on techniques today. Let’s dig in.

Seek embellishments

Since jewelry and accessories will just be cumbersome, try for tops, bottoms, and dresses with some built-in flash. My guess is that most dress codes will give you a pass on studs and grommets so long as they aren’t super shiny, and sequins, embroidery, and draping will usually slide by, too. Mixed media garments are great bets, too!

Choose interesting shapes

A black crew neck sweater with black trousers and black flats will look pretty staid. Try for asymmetric hemlines, moto detailing, eye-catching neckline shapes, and fun skirts. Any fun shapes that catch your eye can help spice up all-black outfits.

Mix textures

In my humble opinion, the best way to do all black is to mix textures: If you’re wearing woven black pants, pick a nubby black sweater or embellished tee – something with depth so you don’t look flat all over. If you’re wearing a fuzzy black tunic, opt for leather-look leggings to create contrast. Black patent shoes are a great way to add shine to an all-black mix, as are onyx and jet earrings and jewelry. Three or more textures may work, since you’ll be head-to-toe in a single color.

Avoid complete coverage

When you layer an all black outfit, show little bits of skin. If you do a black blazer, pick a tank or tee with a low neckline and add a necklace. If you’re wearing long pants and a long-sleeved top, consider scrunching your sleeves to show your wrists. When it’s warm out, cuff your black skinnies to show some ankle.

In terms of a shopping list, here’s what I’d seek if I were in Jen’s position:

  1. Amazing black flats
  2. Flat black boots
  3. Black leggings, ideally both matte and shiny versions
  4. A couple of eye-catching black tunics
  5. Embellished and/or draped black tops and sweaters
  6. Moto style jackets in tweed, leather, ponte … anything I can find
  7. A black jersey dress that looks and feels great
  8. Black patterned tights
  9. Several pairs of interesting black earrings

I told Jen to thrift. School isn’t forever for her so spending big on this wardrobe isn’t necessary, and thrift stores are absolutely BURSTING with black. Of course much of the thriftables will be classic and basic, so adding a few fun, arty items from somewhere like ASOS will keep the mix from getting too blah.

So! How many of you are confined to all black for part of your lives? How do you keep your outfits interesting? Other suggestions for Jen?

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  • http://notdeadyetstyle.blogspot.com/ Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    I would like to dress just this way for a month! To see if I could pull it off – an experiment in black. Great ideas, thanks Sal!

  • http://www.fashionistastyle1.blogspot.com Londyn

    All black dress code? Wow – that was a good question! I adore the looks you put together and your tips are fabulous. Great post.

  • http://lanalouwho.wordpress.com lanalouwho

    What a nightmare! These are great suggestions; I imagine it would still be difficult to express your personality with a dress code like that.

  • A.B.

    I would suggest looking for stills (or watching video from) Tabatha Takes Over. Most of her stuff is far out of the price range for a student but she combines texture well while keeping within an all black wardrobe.

  • Patricia

    Thanks for this post! I’d love to see more specific outfits in a follow-up post– “concert black” (all black, relatively formal, material at least to elbow and ankle) is a pretty standard concert uniform in the classical world, and I’ve always thought it would be interesting to see your take on it. I usually only have to pull this out every 2-3 weeks or so– favorite mix I’ve found so far is a really well-fitting pair of black slacks, a 3/4 sleeve cowl-neck top, some black Oxford pumps, and some tasteful dangly silver earrings if the particular concert allows jewelry.

    • Cindy M

      Concert black is tough! It has to be comfy and not binding, to boot. I prefer dresses to pants, but here are some ways I’ve made the ‘concert black’ guidelines more interesting in the past:
      - textured tights (our conductor allowed skirts that covered to the knees)
      - shoes with interesting details (two materials, buckles, ribbon ties, etc.)
      - top of ‘appropriate’ coverage under a black dress of ‘inappropriate’ coverage (for lack of a better term!)
      - scarves (extra handy if the venue is chilly!)
      - dark colored sparkles like marcasite or blackened silver
      - boots instead of shoes; very few of my ensemble-mates wore boots
      - belts
      - cardigans with details like lace or waterfall hems
      I hope this helps!

      • Patricia

        Thank you so much Cindy! I’m wondering if you’ve ever found any floor-length dresses or skirts that aren’t too matronly– I prefer dresses too but it’s a tough look to pull off without looking Amish or like a high school orchestra uniform (ours were horrific… I still have fashion nightmares). What I find tough about it is that different ensembles tend to have different guidelines: I have one conductor okay with knee-length skirts and tasteful jewelry, another who insists absolutely no jewelry or skirts above the ankle, even performed on a student recital where we were allowed (in the director’s words) “edgy” details… sometimes it can get confusing.

        Not clothing-related, but out of curiosity what instrument(s) do you play?

      • http://birdybegins.blogspot.co.uk/ Eleanorjane

        I’m in a choir with an all black dress code for concerts. I like a floor length formal skirt (mine in a matte fabric with ruched bits around the skirt – a long A line shape) and a top with an asymetric neckline and 3/4 length sleeves.

        We’re not supposed to wear ‘sparkly’ jewellery so I tend to either go with a classic pearl necklace or a slightly more gothy black and steel necklace with ribbon ties.

        I always wear reasonably strong makeup ‘cos we’re miles away from the audience and possibly in reasonably dim lighting.

        Comfy shoes are essential for hours of standing – no heels for me!

        And yes, a scarf, jacket or cardigan as it can be reeeeeally cold in a cathedral or concert hall.

        Personally, I find our concerts to be formal evening events so I wish that the dress code insisted on long skirts for women as I don’t find trousers look as formal or graceful as we’re walking on and off stage. Our female soloists are always in evening gowns, I think we should be a toned down black version of them.

  • Jasmine

    I definitely second black patterned tights – layered over sheer black tights (or even opaque) adds warmth for winter but is still interesting.

  • Susan in Boston

    Sally, I think this is also an interesting strategy for working with a single color. I have a lot of green, and I cannot seem to steer away from it, so perhaps I should just surrender and work with it differently.

    As for suggestions for Jen, I’d focus on textures and fabrics that reflect light or otherwise sparkle. There’s a lot more shiny stuff that you can wear to the workplace out there than there once was.

  • alice

    I really love this. Black is a little too harsh for me, but I do own a lot of blue items and gray items, and now I can see a way to create a single color look that appears intentional.

  • poodletail

    Thanks for this post, Sal. One more suggestion: if you’ll be wearing all black make sure to wear a black top while you apply your makeup. You’ll need more color on your face than when you’re wearing a white shirt or a pastel sweater.

  • Amy

    For the last year or so I have been intentionally “Frenching up” by wardrobe by focusing on a neutral palate of black, grey, navy and cream with just small splashes of color. This post is very helpful to me! Thank you!

  • http://sololisa.com Lisa

    You nailed it with the advice, Sal. Mixing textures and experimenting with silhouettes can make an all-black look more interesting.

  • Jen

    Thank you so much, Sally, for all of this information. I took a lot of your advice to heart and have been basically wearing outfits like the ones you posted (I think I even own that exact skirt!). I did find out that we can wear colored accessories if we want, which includes belts and scarves. However, because of the work we are doing in school, scarves and large jewelry aren’t practical. Mixing textures has been the best thing I can do to “mix things up” and I think it’s even helped me in putting together outfits with actual color.

  • http://dashingeccentric@blogspot.com mrs. eccentric

    ah, nothing i love more than the freedom of discipline :)

    excellent article, just a few hints/guidelines. First, black is fantastic for showcasing silhouette, so feel free to choose pieces with dramatic shapes – slouchy skinnies under an oversized, asymmetric crop top; tiny shrug over balloon skirt, etc.

    Add some details that telegraph your style – Sal’s capsule would be perfect for an artsy/rocker type. If you’re a romantic, velvet and lace come in black, too. For glam girls, metallic lace, tiny waist, heels….whatever does it for you.

    Black dye. Also, hair and makeup. And don’t forget gritandglamour.com to observe the queen of all black in action.

    While at first look these rules seem so restrictive, it’s a thing of beauty to grab the first clean things that get you covered on a hectic morning, then later in the day catch a glance of a really stylish lady – and realize that’s a mirror, not a window. :)

    have fun, steph

  • Rose

    I had a discussion with my stylists one time about her work wardrobe. She told me that it’s hard on her clothing – things get splattered with dye, shampoo, styling products and always need to be washed after she’s worn them. The salon gets hot sometimes from all the blow dryers running and she likes to wear short-sleeved or sleeveless tops. It’s a profession where throw-away items make sense – no need to purchase expensive clothing that will get ruined. Still they have room for quirky fashions. I think the idea of thrifting work clothes is probably a good one.

  • Lexi

    I would suggest checking out the blog sea of ghosts for inspiration (I know Sal also did a profile on Alicia awhile back) she does amazing things with all black and recently Alicia started jewelley school and had to do all black on a budget :)

  • broderie

    Nadia from The Animal Orchestra wears all black by choice – good for some stylish examples.

  • SeaweedBurger

    Would absolutely love to do this, ála Anna Wintour. Timeless and classic. Unfortunately, (1) I don’t have the right skin tone to pull off all black (makes me look pale and tired) and (2) conservative business environment.