In Praise Of Black, The Forbidden Color

Black is the verboten color of Tradsville. It is castigated in “The Official Preppy Handbook,” even though Lisa Birnbach at the time wore black Lacoste polos while working at The Village Voice, just to show that she could be preppy and Downtown, too.

In “Try For Elegance,” the 1957 novel centered around a men’s shop based on Brooks Brothers, a customer requesting a sweater is asked what color, and when he replies black, is given a supercilious glare by the protagonist. It’s a wonder the store even had the color in stock.

And stop in a J. Press store today and you’ll scarcely find the color beyond shoes and belts.

On Tradsville’s blogs and forums black is routinely despised, and there’s a strong correlation between the fervor of condemnation and the number of duck decoys in the decrier’s home. The lone exception is a black knit tie for Ivy purists, and black bit loafers for the prep set. But beyond that, the color is generally regarded as suitable only for a dinner jacket.

When I was in my twenties I wore black often, especially turtlenecks. I was reading a lot of French literature and smoking cigarettes at the time, so you can kind of see why.

Then for many years I too banished it from my closet, but over the past year or so it has gradually crept back in. A lot of it had to do with my interview with Alan Flusser for The Rake, in which the former advocate of a ’30s Apparel Arts approach to dressing revealed his new modern sensibility. Black has a strong element of chic to it, Flusser stated, “and guys who are into tradition… are generally not into chic.”

The above photo shows an array of items I have in black, including tassel and penny loafers, cotton v-neck and cashmere cable sweaters, neckties in silk knit and grenadine, nailhead socks, polka-dot and houndstooth pocket squares, alligator watch strap and belt, and a black and white rep-striped tie bar.

There’s no need to embrace the color black the way I have, but it’s a good idea to forge your own style free from fixed genre parameters. Only then can you be β€” to use a contradicting metaphor β€” a parrot among the crows. β€” CC

40 Comments on "In Praise Of Black, The Forbidden Color"

  1. Chelsea Drug Store | September 23, 2012 at 12:27 pm |

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you started a ‘movement’ with this article! Great montage btw.

  2. My aversion to black started in my Little League years, having been coached by a slick Italian that wore peak lapeled- black suits to work. As I was raised in New Jersey for 19 years, you can imagine a loud, chain-smoking, Snooki-esque New Jerseyan in black. Nowadays, I consider my distrust of black lends itself to two concepts: the innate casualness of Ivy formality, as well as the simple versatility brown provides. A grey sack suit, blue OCBD, and navy knit tie are grounded in the Preppy practice of “a more formal casual and a more casual formal.” I believe that’s why the GQ column that found its way on to Ivy Style recently (regarding button down collars as ‘middle management’) rang true with that particular columnist and enraged the Trad community.

  3. Nothing wrong with black, dead bugs and motorcycle oil barely show on it. That’s why “road pirates” wear so much of it. I’ve been known to wear it when I ride. But in my “normal” life my style only allows me to own one pair of English made cap toes, one black belt and one black lizard banded tank watch to be worn with charcoal suits on formal occasions. Although decades ago, I did occasionally go for that Calvin Klein look. you know, the black Polo, black surcingle belt, black Weejuns and khakis, chicks dug it.
    Be careful, once you go black………., also you might be mistaken for a Guido or a tasteless movie star. πŸ˜‰

  4. With a grey tweed jacket and charcoal trousers, Δ° wouldn’t dream of wearing any color of turtleneck other than black. Needless to say, with that particular combination, the loafers have to be black as well. Cordovan/burgundy/oxblood loafers would stick out like a sore thumb.

  5. Chelsea Drug Store | September 23, 2012 at 8:19 pm |

    Looks like I was right. There seems to be some excitement over ‘black’ on one of the Trad message boards!

  6. Charcoal is ivy black. Grey goes with any color. Oxblood goes with any color with maybe the except of purple or orange, that’s why if a young guy is on a tight budget and only owns one pair of dress shoes oxblood is the way to go.

  7. I didn’t have anything in my fairly substantial wardrobe in black until a few years ago, in my late 50s. But in the last few years especially in shoes I’ve added a few things including Cleverly side gussetts. Although brown and green remain my favorite colors for clothes, there’s a place for stylish and/or formal black as well.

    Portland, Oregon

  8. I agree with Mac. Charcoal is definitely the ivy black, but I wouldn’t mind having a pair of black longwings.

  9. I agree with MAC 100%. Charcoal….rather than black. And the only black shoes any guy should wear are with a tuxedo.

  10. @ AEV- Perhaps a “guy” should wear a “tuxedo”, but a gentleman wears black tie. (You of all men here should know better!) Best wishes to you and Mrs. AEV.

  11. No black. MAC is absolutely on point.

  12. @Hilton – …have my wife and I met you before? In any event, the terms ‘black tie’ and ‘tuxedo’ are not interchangeable. Tuxedos come in a range of styles (and colors, even) and are increasingly worn to a wide range of events and across a range of times. ‘Black tie’ on the other hand – while not as closely regulated as, say, ‘white tie’ – refers to a very specific dress code.

    “Gentlemen” do wear tuxedos in compliance with ‘black tie’ guidelines. Gentlemen also wear tuxedos in many non ‘black tie’ settings. My point/opinion, which was clear, is that men of any variety should only wear black shoes when wearing a tuxedo. If a traditional/compliant tuxedo is being worn during a ‘black tie’ affair, great – the same ‘rule’ applies. That said, historically, ‘black tie’ ensembles and guidelines have allowed for (non all black) Albert slippers, button boots, and opera pumps – shoes that are typically not worn with a tuxedo in non ‘black tie’ settings.

  13. I’d say charcoal is the Ivy charcoal. Saying it’s the Ivy black dodges my point, I think. Charcoal is certainly the darkest shade of gray in the canononical trad wardrobe, but I sang black’s praises not for its darkness, but its chicness, though certainly its chicness comes from its darkness, so the two are interrelated.

    So actually there is no “Ivy black” because there is no spirit of chic in the Ivy wardrobe. The wearer, if he is so inclined, must provide that himself.

  14. So my sin wearing the CK , black & tan, look back in the 70s was an an attempt at “chicness”, who knew? Guilty as charged, I’m sorry, but chicks still dug my “chicness”. OK, well the disco girls did. :-)

  15. More than merely an attempt, apparently!

  16. No, I have not had the pleasure of meeting you and Mrs. AEV. You once made mention to your betrothal and I merely wished the best for you both.

    Did I imply that ‘black tie’ and ‘tuxedo’ are interchangeable terms? I most certainly did not. A gentleman does not wear a ‘tuxedo’. He wears a dinner jacket. And for god’s sake do not refer to it as a ‘tux’. (Yes, I am aware that tuxedos are offered in orange and purple.)

  17. @ AEV- Perhaps we will run into each other at Vineyard Vines. ; )

  18. @Hilton – I’m not following you. ‘Gentlemen’ don’t wear tuxedos? A “dinner suit” is a near synonym for tuxedo…and a dinner jacket itself is simply part of a fomal outfit….whether it be a tuxedo of some variety or part of a black tie ensemble.

    You (and many others before you) strain to critique the use of the term tuxedo – I get it, but it has always seemed odd to me… large part because the first recorded written reference of the term ‘tuxedo’ predates that of “dinner suit/jacket” (and refers to an elite NY country club of the same name where the style first became popular in the US in the late 1800s)….and, less so, since the semantics are all over the map. (e.g. some Brits use “tuxedo” to refer to a white suit jacket, continental europeans {and others} refer to dinner jackets as ‘smoking jackets’, the white jacket is commonly referred to as a dinner jacket here in the US, the French have different, specific terms for shawl and peak lapel varieties, and so on…)

  19. Is Vineyard Vines still in business? I assumed they started over as Southern Tide….

  20. My concern is with what ‘tuxedo’ and ‘tux’ connotes here in *the States*. (You are clearly a gentleman of good taste, so I do not wish to quibble with you over semantics.) I recall a holiday party with a ‘dress up theme’ that I found myself attending several years ago . One particular ‘guy’ arrived by ‘limo’ wearing a tux/tuxedo with ‘cane’ in hand in which he wished to give off the impression of a pimp to all ladies present. Additionally, I imagine that you must have heard stories of ‘guys’ renting the purple or orange tux/tuxedo from a shopping mall in order to attend their high school prom, therefore I must inquire: do you wish to be confounded with this sort of thing? No. Most certainly you do not. You are a gentleman of distinction and with to remain so.

  21. NaturalShoulder | September 24, 2012 at 1:31 pm |

    I don’t own any black clothing save for formal wear, but have a pair of captoe oxfords and tassel loafers. I was a bit ambivalent about picking up the loafers, but have really come to like them. They work well with charcoal trousers.

  22. I think part of the reason that black is not really part of the PITA canon is that it simply does not flatter most Caucasians. Another may be as a reaction against the traditional appropriate attire of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in which black coats, black hats, black shoes, and black accessories ruled the day. After more colorful options became available and acceptable, the PITA crowd chose them and never looked back.

    Tuxedos and dinner suits aside, it seems to me that at the very least, men need to have one pair of black shoes and a black tie to wear with their charcoal gray suit for funerals. Anything beyond that is personal taste.

    With all his black apparel, I wonder if Christian isn’t channeling his inner dandy πŸ˜‰

  23. @Henry:

    And flashy GTH colors flatter most Caucasians?

  24. Didn’t say it was the whole reason. And actually, the GTH colors are more flattering to a broader range of Caucasians than black. But GTH is another de gustibus non disputandum est area.

  25. Interestingly, the Yale dress code from the early 60’s, at least as quoted in Take Ivy, states both that “A black, and therefore versatile, knit tie is essential,” and “You can go anywhere in a pair of penny loafers…In addition to a staple pair in black, try to add pairs in black and tan.”

  26. Correction: “…try to add pairs in brown and tan.” Thinking about beer again.

  27. @Henry

    Actually “de gustibus disputandum est”, if you ask me. Taste (or lack of taste) is what we’re debating about most of the time, in our comments sent to this and other style blogs.

    I would argue that those GTH colors are far more becoming to non-Caucasians.

  28. Chelsea Drug Store | September 25, 2012 at 4:44 am |

    I see the ‘boys’ on some of the other Trad message boards are quivering with excitement over the unicorn horn in the assemblage.

  29. I think that black goes great with all shades of grey wool trousers and cotton khaki pants in the color stone. I’m referring to sweaters, polos, tees, and not dress shirts unless you are entering an Al Capone look alike contest!

  30. Ram, not a unicorn.

  31. Accessories in black (including footwear) and polos are it, in my opinion. I notice non trads assume they are dressed well when they wear black trousers that mommy or the wife purchased for them. Thank god I’m a trad!

  32. Chaz Van Hooglesniffer | September 25, 2012 at 8:39 am |

    Looks more like an African Antelope of some kind. Maybe a springbok, Impala or perhaps Lechwe.

    But the horns suggest an Oryx????

    Very puzzling.

  33. Yes, my mistake: It’s an antelope.

  34. Chelsea Drug Store | September 25, 2012 at 8:57 am |

    @ Christian
    It’s so true that one needs to free one’s style from ‘fixed genre parameters’. A failure to do this is the mark of both the fuddy duddy and the juvenile and indeed many of the clothing tribes in between.

  35. So as not to be a “fuddy duddy”, you guys are all good with me wearing my black leather armored riding jeans with my grey ground tweed jacket? i’ll have to pick up some black Weejuns. πŸ˜‰

  36. For me, black has nothing to do with chicness. I look great in black and terrible in all browns save taupe. It would be a godsend if more Ivy clothing was made in personally suitable colors. Sorry to keep squawking about the same point.

  37. Not surprised with the comments here.

    Prepsters, especially of the pale-white variety, look ghastly in black, Ever seen a blonde white guy in a dark suit?


    Keep your dayglo green and nantucket reds.

    Because for the rest of us, we look good in black.

  38. Nothing wrong with black – especially with black Longwings, they look great combined with charcoal or grey herringbone. And, to be honest: what looks better with a navy blazer and grey trews than black Longwings (except burgundy Weejuns?)… although I think smoking cigarettes and french literature combined with a black turtleneck is kind of – cheesy…

  39. Well, there’s a big difference between People Who Wear Only Black and having a few Ivy items also in black. I hate burgundy, olive, rust, dried-up-oatmeal, and some other boring standard colors. A favorite from college was a long-sleeve “Alligator” shirt that mom bought one Christmas from the Cable Car catalog. Just bought a black knitted silk tie with multi-color polka dots.

  40. Forgot to mention I also have a J. Press sack coat from the mid-80s in heavy black cashmere that was specially made for a long-gone Old Blue.

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