"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 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”
- Forever 21 (Forever 21)
- Morley, Jess-Cartner. How to dress in black and white, Fri. 19 April 2013, How to dress in black and white
- Kanchier, Carole. What the Colour You’re Wearing Says About You, updated 07/31/2012, What the Colour You’re Wearing Says About You
- Lindbergh, Peter and Coddington, Grace. Light Brigade, American Vogue, March 2015.