"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 combination
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.
There are so many brands and styles of jeans on the market you could spend a whole year trying them on. Despite my fondness for the Mossimo jeans I bought this Spring at Target, the white skinny jeans from Ross, and the Blue Desire Midrise with the distressed hems from T.J. Maxx, my all time favorite type are pre-owned and vintage. Soft, worn in and characteristically inexpensive their main attribute is timelessness.
Paired with a feminine Ralph Lauren blouse they’re “shabby but chic” or with a pristine white tee and menswear blazer, they’re ’80s street. In homage to one of my prized separates, today’s post is all about how to coordinate them five different ways.
Mixing It Up with Florals and Stripes
Painter’s jeans are considered serious work pants when worn with a flannel shirt and steel-toed boots, but they can also be playful when worn with a blue floral jacket and a navy-blue and white Breton (sailor top). Perfect for a quick jaunt to your neighborhood Farmer’s Market or local art gallery, museum or used bookstore they’re tidy and chic.
The Museum of African-American Art: Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza (Macy’s 3rd Floor, 4005 Crenshaw Blvd., Thursday-Sunday:12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.,maaala.org). Please call about exhibits and special events.
The Whole 9 Gallery: 3830 Main Street, Culver City, CA. 90232, 310-836-4600. Please call for more information about hours, exhibits and special events. thewhole9gallery.com.
Cool Errand Gear
Distressed and faded Levi’s can still be stylish and versatile when mixed with a vintage white cardigan, statement belt, and shades. The patina and wear of both items also give them a modern elegance. Slip this outfit on when running out to McDonald’s for a quick lunch, bank for much-needed funds or the cleaners with your suit for a job fair. Comfortable enough to be laid-back, but not so sloppy you’ll have to hide behind a nearby bush if you run into an old boyfriend, the structured lines of the jeans and sweater prevent it from being slovenly.
Baggy Hip-Hop Swag
Loose, baggy jeans add an extra saucy edge when coordinated with an oversized white Ralph Lauren shirt, vintage Levi’s jacket, and suede sandals. Then accessorized with a vintage red, white and black print vintage 1940’s doo-rag and oversized shades, it exudes a feminine allure to an ensemble comfy enough for a morning matinee at the Cinemark, artsy afternoon at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) or craft and school supply haul at the Dollar Tree, JoAnne’s or Michael’s.
Distressed But Louche
If you buy a naturally worn and paint splattered pair of jeans from Timeless Treasures or another local thrift store, you can always dress them up with a knock-off Chanel-esque blazer to give them that high-low appeal that’ll take you to school and studying at the library afterwards, or dress them down with a grey retro Aerosmith tee from Ross, for a personal field trip to a Saturday yard sale. Brimming with lively backstories, if you’re lucky enough to find ones this authentic and beloved, they may soon accompany you on your own adventures, and collect tales picked up along the way, for the next owner to ponder over.
Sometimes it’s not just nice to comingle prints and patterns, but layers too. A cropped cardigan can be very smart when placed over a striped blue and white blouse then accented with a navy-blue and white polka-dotted scarf tie and cuffed vintage Levi’s. If you work somewhere semi-casual, arduous, yet with exposure to the public in a school or library this combo is just right for long shifts and hard physical tasks that would render nicer duds torn and tattered in minutes.
As you can see, the ways to coordinate vintage jeans are as varied as the occasions they can be worn too. With a little ingenuity and self-analysis, you can easily include them in your wardrobe and use them to add uniqueness and classical styling any time you need to.
The True Story of Jeans
1) “What textile are they made from?”
They are made out of a material called “denim”. Its name comes from the French term “Serge de Nimes” where they originated in Nimes, France.
2) “How is denim created?”
Denim is created from the weft of the “cotton twill” which goes beneath the warp “threads” before they’re woven together. To get the distinctive blue and white shade of traditional jeans, the warp is “dyed indigo” while the weft is left white.
3) “When were jeans first invented and by whom?”
Jeans were first invented in 1873, by Jacob W. Davis a Reno, Nevada-based tailor and Bavarian native, “businessman/entrepreneur” Levi Strauss.
4) “Which group first wore “blue jeans” and why?”
Cowboys and miners were the first groups to wear “blue jeans. They wore them because they were sturdy and held up well over time.
5) “How did they become so popular with the mainstream?”
James Dean in the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956) made them popular and okay for anti-establishment males to adopt them as an alternative garment that signified youthful rebellion and allegiance to a sub-culture separate from their 9-5 fathers. Marilyn Monroe in the 1961 film The Misfits did the same for females.
- historyofjeans.com, History of Jeans and Denim
- www.racked.com/2015/2/27/8116465/the-complete-history-of-blue-jeans-from-miners-to-marilyn-monroe, Wright, Jennifer. The Complete History of Blue Jeans, From Miners to Marilyn Monroe
Places to Buy Vintage Jeans in Los Angeles, CA.
- Goodwill Southern California Store and Donation Center, Culver Junction, 3340, 8950 Venice Blvd., L.A., CA. 90034, 310-845-9327. Hours: Sunday (10 a.m. to 8 p.m.), Monday through Saturday (9 a.m. to 9 p.m.), www.goodwillsocal.org. Online store (www.shopgoodwill.org), Ann Taylor Loft, Tommy Hilfiger, Lucky Brand, etc., (Under $50).
- Etsy.com, Levi’s vintage jeans (Various prices, under $100), www.etsy.com
- Timeless Treasures Thrift Shop, 9441 Culver Blvd., Culver City, CA. 90232, 310-559-8338. Hours: Tuesday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
- Out of the Closet Thrift Store, 8224 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, CA., 90046, 323-848-9760. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.