In the early 1980s, while I was attending SFSU as a Psychology major, I entered a particularly significant chapter in my life. Punk and New Wave were big then, and although I didn’t see a lot of African Americans sporting that aggressive and sometimes androgynous style, I gravitated towards it out of necessity.
For the majority of my last year at the school a stalker was making my life unbearable, causing me a lot of anxiety and eventually resulting in a return back home to Los Angeles. My look subsequently went from an ultra-girly ’80s imitation of Edie Sedgwick’s miniskirts and dresses, colored tights, pointy-toed vintage flats, 1960s go-go boots and heirloom vintage jewelry to a more masculine style of tight Levi’s, men’s pants, button-down shirts, vintage men’s blazers, sweaters and coats and high-topped Converse sneakers.
Due to the stress, from the experience, my hair also started falling out and my weight dropped to 110 pounds. I finally decided to solve my coif issues by cutting all of my hair off into a Grace Jones-esque cut. The bad news is the stalker forced me to leave a city and school I adored, but the good news is I transferred to CSULA where I changed my major to Fashion Merchandising, earned my BA, and became a professional fashion/feature writer.
I wish I could tell you that my experience with stalkers ended at SFSU, but following my graduation from CSULA, while working as a Circulation Page at Santa Monica’s Main Public Library I attracted a homeless stalker who caused me additional stress and grief. I finally took steps to legally stop him with restraining orders and regular police reports, then emerged stronger emotionally but permanently disabled with SLE Lupus. Still I was free and that’s all that mattered.
Throughout my trials with these two toxic individuals I was often told the way I dressed attracted others. Often imitated at SFSU, a day didn’t go by when one of my fellow students didn’t come up to me and ask me where I bought my clothes, ask to borrow something, or say I inspired them. San Francisco and Los Angeles had vastly different clothing scenes then, because stylish people abounded and strove to look unique and always wear something no one else either had or had discovered yet.
Today, especially in L.A. while I still loved dressing stylishly, the majority of people I see daily and work with as a Special Ed Instructional Assistant for LAUSD seem to lean towards conformity and hyper-sexuality in uniforms of all-black, skinny jeans and tight t-shirts and leggings with bra tops, tight skirts and sky-high heels.
Bringing Back the 1980s
Lately I’ve seen a reprisal of the ’80s look online, courtesy of model Kaia Gerber, and in Elle magazine. Feeling nostalgic, and a little motivated to inject some personality into two redone looks, I rewrote their visual scripts with color, print and texture. The first one, of Gerber, in a black leather shirt, black top and black joggers or sweatpants I re-did with a forest green trench coat from Forever 21, a pink pullover sweater from Target, and a pair of burgundy joggers from Fallas Stores. Her only spot of color, a pair of navy-blue Converse high-tops I replaced with a pair of multi-colored Harajuku Lovers high-tops. Comfortable and easy to move in, it was the perfect outfit for my doctor’s appointment at Kaiser-Permanente.
The second look, a variation on the Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shorts, white button-down shirt and black blazer, I re-did with a black and white pinstriped Norma Kamali blaze from the Goodwill Thrift Store on Crenshaw Blvd., a black and white striped button-down shirt and a pair of denim capris from Thredup.com. Dressy, but fun, it was just the ticket for my solo field trip to see Sting’s musical The Last Ship at the Ahmanson Theater in Downtown Los Angeles.
Priced at about $50 for each outfit, the best part of copying these two looks was I did it on a budget and I got to re-visit a time in my life when I wasn’t as empowered or wise as I am today. I’d like to think my openness to change and grow, despite adversity, had something to do with it.
I wanted to clarify my reason for writing about the beautiful black skirt I bought at H & M in the light of their current troubles over the blatantly racist sweatshirt that’s been recalled by their company. I’m an African-American fashion/feature writer, in a field that doesn’t have a lot of representation from my culture, so I’ve faced my share of racism. Instead of refusing to wear or buy their clothing I want to show them, and others in the industry, the real face of their customers to further educate them about who we are and what we really represent and look like. For me, the only way to confront racism is head-on with unflinching assertiveness. If they learn from this and become a better, more inclusive company, the effort was worth it.
The Ultimate Separate: The Black Skirt
In 1979, when my mother bought a gorgeous black skirt suit by BIS for my high school graduation from Westchester High School from Bullock’s Wilshire black skirts were easily accessible.
But when I wanted to buy the retro boho multi-tiered black skirt from H & M, a couple of years ago, that was featured in a Vogue editorial ad it was a trial. Why?
It couldn’t have been the price, since my BIS suit was $300 and this skirt $19.99. It couldn’t have been the style, since both have classic silhouettes.
Recently, when I bought a stunning green, brown and white vintage 1970s maxi dress from etsy.com for $40, from a dealer in Poland, instead of at my local Goodwill Thrift Store I realized what it was.
Despite the plethora of fashion bloggers, journalists, stores and websites promoting excellent designs and killer buys, the consumer isn’t receiving the message. There seems to be a big disconnect. The clothes that need to be worn as representatives of intelligence and good taste languish un-bought while inexpensive, passe trends are displayed briefly, then discarded on random bus benches and trash cluttered streets.
Anyone who’s paying attention knows by now that needless sartorial waste is a no-no the fashion industry’s trying to correct. Of course we have other problems to deal with besides finding the perfect black skirt, such as the closing of over 130 LAUSD school libraries, homelessness, and the sad reality that L.A. is now the second worst dressed city in the country, and 44th in education. But if a woman does make the decision to purchase one it can solve her immediate wardrobe problems by becoming a reliable staple item that will never let her down. Paired with a crisp white shirt it can take her to work and dinner with a change of shoes and layered over leggings it can easily be worn for dance class.
Looking Back to the 1940s
Edna Woolman Chase (1914-1951) editor of American Vogue in 1942 really understood the magic of a black skirt. “They are as great a standby as a black sweater,” she wrote in the article Skirt Story. Meant to purchased as an “investment piece” it served the same purpose then as it does today by being versatile and long lasting. Compared to trendier fare, ubiquitously worn by everyone who has a pulse, it has the flexibility of hamburger without undue flash.
Blessedly, all-black is no longer as pervasively popular as it once was, making room for the black skirt to make a come back as part of an ensemble that can include a floral print blouse, funky statement tee and vintage embroidered cardigan sweater for work 9-5. After 5, that same blouse and cardigan can be accented with a multi-strand necklace for a fancy dinner date or concert.
For retailers, who mistakenly thought “corporate dress or all-black” would help their sales staff increase their sales and customer service skills with a uniform instead of individual style, the black skirt would help them teach their female employees how to coordinate their work attire appropriately, easily and inexpensively. Since a major component of fashion retail is based on helping consumers buy items for their wardrobe the sales staff that reflects an attractive appearance, from their own imagination, is more qualified to improve a company’s image than a conformist who wears a uniform.
A Wardrobe of Black Skirts
In between my Undergrad years, at CSULA, to my Grad years, at Academy of Art University online, I’ve collected 15 black skirts that have steadfastly helped me look pulled together whenever I wear them. For my day job as a Special Education Instructional Assistant for LAUSD at Leo Politi Elementary School in Koreatown, I’ve regularly worn the long black skirt I bought at Ross Dress For Less with either a cool tee from snorgtees.com or a lightweight pullover sweater from Forever 21, my beige trench coat from amazon.com and a pair of sneakers. Comfortable as a pair of jeans, it’s perfect for my long walks to and from the bus stop, before and after work, and a long six hour shift in the classroom.
I’m just as well prepared for my off-duty social life, with a vintage velour bubble skirt I bought at my favorite Goodwill Thrift Store, and a retro self-belt taffeta one I bought at Ross Dress For Less. Combined with a lovely vintage top and pearls they’re an evening stand out.
The Perfect Black Skirt for Today
“There are few women who can wear every type of skirt,” wrote Christian Dior in The Little Dictionary of Fashion. Personally, I’ve found that to be true of every garment, and despite my thin frame, I still have to work hard to find the right clothes for my budget, lifestyle and body.
Caught between my obligation to always “dress and represent”, as a requirement for AAU, and a need to be comfortable at LPES I wanted to find another black skirt to fit both worlds. My hunt officially started after I’d bought a pair of black sneakers from H & M online. They were too big so I had to exchange them at their store in the Westfield Century City mall. I thought while I was up there, I’d buy the black boho multi-tiered skirt I saw in the Vogue ad.
Everything was going great-they had a pair of black sneakers in my size and the blue and white/floral shirt I’d had my eye on was on the Sale rack. Then when I showed the cashier the ad and asked about the skirt things got shaky.
“I’m not sure we have any left,” she said. “If we do it’s a Petite.”
“May I see it please? I’d like to try it on anyway,” I said.
She asked another clerk, who was working on the floor to see if they had any more, and if they did, to bring it to me. When he found it, he carried it to me, holding it with the delicacy of an Egyptian artifact. He then repeated what the cashier said, “It’s the last one and it’s a Petite.”
“Are you planning on stocking any more soon?, I asked. “No,” he said. “We’re lucky we have this one, because as soon as it was featured in the magazine ad it shot off the racks. Editorial items always sell out quickly.”
“Okay, I understand that, but why was this particular skirt so popular?,” I asked.
“It looks good on almost every body type and it’s versatile enough to be worn with a tucked in or loose fitting top,” he answered.
“Well, I usually wear a Medium, but you never know with sizing, so I’ll try it on and see if it fits,” I said, taking the skirt from him, and heading for the fitting room.
Doubtful, and holding my breath in anticipation, I slipped it on then exhaled with relief when it fit perfectly.
It’s been more than a year since I bought this skirt, and although I haven’t worn it yet, I know its timeless silhouette makes it a worthwhile addition to my collection.
Fashion Coordination Tips for Black Skirts (2019):
Work:Power Separates The Easy Way (Pair a mid-calf A-line black skirt with a white button-down shirt, striped short-sleeved Breton shirt, or plain crewneck pullover sweater, then top with a mini trench coat and accessorize with a structured bag, colorful scarf, shades, and ballet flats or sneakers.)
Casual: Fun, Fun, Fun Days (Pair a long straight black skirt with a t-shirt then top with a cotton, army or denim jacket and accessorize with sneakers or sandals, shades, a baseball cap or bucket hat.
Formal Evening: Swanky Times (Pair a mid-length retro full black skirt with a sequined shirt and decorative cardigan or bolero jacket and accessorize with black decorative pantyhose, pointy-toed flats, a turban and clutch bag.
Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons, Japanese Designer. Sweater and skirt, 1984.(Berg Fashion Library)
Bernhard Willhelm. Black with multicolored diamond design sweater, headpiece and skirt, 2002-2003. (Berg Fashion Library)
Junya Watanabe for Comme des Garcons, Japanese Designer. Black ensemble. “Linen blend jacket in the style of a man’s 19th-century tailcoat; wool skirt resembling a deconstructed trenchcoat.” Spring/Summer, 2016.
Woolman Chase, Edna. Fashion: Skirt Story. Vogue; New York, Vol. 99, Iss. 11 (Jun 1, 1942).
Dior, Christian. The Little Dictionary Of Fashion, Abrams, 2007.
"Black and white always looks modern, whatever that means."--Karl Lagerfeld
The color combination of black and white has always had special meaning for me. Racially its existence has defined most of my life as an African-American female, educated then employed first in a predominately Caucasian environment then a resegregated Hispanic one. Yet even among my own race the duality of my interests, and confusion about my lack of conformity, has forced me to carve out my own niche.
On one hand, I love soul food, am a great dancer, and a sharp dresser, but on the other hand, I’m equally passionate about books, writing, art, and antiques. Within this ridiculous quagmire, a sartorial rage bubbles beneath the surface whenever I’m confronted with racial issues causing frustration and confusion. To bring perspective and mental order back into my life I reach for the simple clarifying palette of black and white.
Classic dark shades and white and black tote from H&M
Classic dark shades and white and black tote from H&M
Classic dark shades and white and black tote bag from H&M
For the Spring/Summer 2018 season, the combo reigned again and even showed up online on Forever 21‘s website. Faux Mod styles looked graphically delightful and caused me to add the following to my wishlist for fall: 1) a black and white Gingham Cabby Hat ($12.90), (2) a Houndstooth Boxy Crop Top ($12.90), (3) a Striped Ribbed Mock Neck Tee ($10.90) and (4) a pair of Gingham Cropped Pants ($19.90). Fresh, young, but also versatile, they reminded me of Swinging London and ’80s New Wave.
“Black and white clothing is an age-old signal of servitude and humility,” wrote Jess Cartner-Morley in How to dress black and white (The Guardian, Fri. 19 April 2013). Traditionally worn by waiters, waitresses, priests, and nuns, it was my choice too as a salesperson during my brief stint with The Limited at the Century City Plaza in the 1980s.
Openly racist, I was told the first day, by the manager not to be offended if the White customers didn’t want me to touch their clothing because I’m Black. “Oh I understand,” I told her with a smile, letting her think I’d let it go. Inwardly seething, every time I helped a customer who was clearly prejudiced, I waited until she paid for her selection at the counter and touched everything. I even held them up to her saying, “You have great taste. This really suits you.”
Regardless, my black and white wardrobe then was far from subservient, and with a little updating, could easily be worn today. It consisted of five pieces: a straight white mini skirt, a straight black mini skirt, a white t-shirt, a pair of black cotton pants and a black shirt dress. Now, besides keeping the white tee the same, I’d replace the minis with an A-line tiered skirt and the straight pants with palazzos.
In 2015, black and white inspired designers again to go bold with “Op Art Stripes,” “Chessboards” and “not for the shy mixed prints.” Since black is defined as “evil” and white as “the color of maximum lightness” in dictionaries like Merriam Webster’s Pocket Dictionary it’s comforting to also know the Taoist Yin/Yang design is the culmination of these opposing elements.
Pearls on a hanger
Flipping the Trope
An outdated trope that’s equated black with negativity and white with positivity can easily be flipped when they’re used to symbolize the opposite. Earlier this year, a freshman student at Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy (LAUSD) chose to wear full Ku Klux Klan regalia to school for his final History project on racism. The white color, of the offensive clothing, subverted it from a shade of “purity, innocence, and brightness” into one of “confusion, emptiness, and isolation.” Like the character Don Fanucci in The Godfather, whose white suit represented pure evil, this student’s display also signified provocation.
When photographer Peter Lindbergh and fashion editor Grace Coddington, shot the layout Light Brigade for the March 2015 American Vogue the choice to use an all-Black cast of models in white garments, ala Picnic At Hanging Rock, was brilliantly inclusive. Back in 1975, when the film was directed by Peter Weir, and in 1900 when the actual crime occurred, you’d rarely see Blacks portrayed with such beauty in a magazine or film. By subverting the definitions of black and white, Lindbergh, Coddington and the models, Malaika Firth, Leila Nda, Imaan Hammam, Tami Williams, and Kai Newman, rewrote the trope for a new generation.
Victoria Moore in vintage black and white wool top
Black has it all,” said Coco Chanel. “White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.”
Is Color Important?“
“Research on the psychology of color consistently demonstrates that colors evoke emotional, behavioral and physical responses,” writes Carole Kanchier in What the Colour You’re Wearing Says About You (07/13/2012, Huffington Post). On a Sunday, during the last week of my Mad About Musicals online class, I wanted to do it up a big and take a personal field trip to the Cinemark Promenade Theater at Howard Hughes Parkway to see West Side Story. Inspired by the racial theme of the movie, and my own conflicted thoughts about the Klan sporting student at Harbor Teacher Prep, I chose a black and white outfit that aptly expressed my inner turmoil.
Black and white outfit
Starting with the black and white houndstooth coat I’d bought at Forever 21 for the Shen-Yun dance concert I’d seen this Spring, I then added a black and white checked Who What Wear shirt I’d just bought at Target, a pair of wide-legged pants from T.J. Maxx, a rhinestone necklace from Fallas and a red, black and white Hello Kitty bag from Pink Memories. More distinctive, and clear-cut than my Shen-Yun outfit-a long black and white swirl print dress from Ross, black leggings, black and silver print Ked’s and a black and white African necklace-it nonetheless reflected my mood.
Betsey Johnson unicorn print purse
Classing It Up for Fall 2018 on a Budget
After doing preliminary research, in various top fashion magazines and online, I went to my local mall and shopped for Fall. First I went to T.J. Maxx and bought a pair of black and white glen plaid stretch pants, with a yellow stripe detail, for $14.99, and a gray and white striped button-down shirt for $10.00, then I went to Forever 21 and bought a black and white houndstooth scarf for $5.90, a five-pack set of black and white socks, and a pink crystal ring for color.
While this version of black and white is more sophisticated and retro than my previous incarnations, it’s still classic enough to be coordinated with my other pieces, and earn a place in my wardrobe and growing collection.
“Pearls were the perfect accessory for the little black dress,” wrote Debbie Sessions in 1950s Pearl Jewelry.
Fun Ways to Wear Black and White
White button-down shirt + black pants + black ballet flats + black purse.
Black dress + black and white cardigan + black tights + white and beige pointy-toed flats + white vintage Chanel purse.
Black and white print blazer or coat + white top + white capris.
White lacy dress + black leggings + black Ked’s + straw hat.
Black and white houndstooth coat + black floral dress + ankle boots.
“Stylist’s Tip: Punctuate a graphic look with bold red extras.”–Harper’s Bazaar “Check Please”
Here’s a link to an article I wrote for http://www.medium.com, Are African-American Women An Endangered Species?. I was inspired to write it while reading the book the book The Grim Sleeper: The Lost Women Of South Central, by Christine Pelisek.