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 — to use a contradicting metaphor — a parrot among the crows. — CC

59 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. 😉

  4. With a grey tweed jacket and charcoal trousers, İ 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.

    jrandyv
    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. 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.)

  16. @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…..in 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…)

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

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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 😉

  21. @Henry:

    And flashy GTH colors flatter most Caucasians?

  22. 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.

  23. 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.”

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

  25. @Henry
    @OldSchool

    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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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!

  28. 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!

  29. 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.

  30. 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. 😉

  31. 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.

  32. 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?

    Exactly.

    Keep your dayglo green and nantucket reds.

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

  33. 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…

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. In the winter months I wear black moc and turtle neck shirts under my OCBD shirts. They form a platform to set off the color of the OCBD shirt and a warm undershirt.

  37. From the TV show Welcome to New York (2000):

    Marsha Bickner (Christine Baranski): “This is New York, Jim (Jim Gaffigan), we wear black; and that’s only until something darker comes along.”

  38. Charlottesville | December 15, 2020 at 3:51 pm |

    A solid black suit would not be for me, but I have a good bit of black in the closet, and not just formal wear, belts and shoes (cap-toes, long-wings, pennies and tassels). In addition to the classic black knit tie, I have a couple of repp striped ties from Brooks and Press that have black as the primary shade, and an old BB ancient madder with a black background. Black also figures in some Tattersall shirts and a vest, and shows up in several POW plaid and herringbone-patterned suits and sport coats.

    I think it makes a nice accent, but tend to agree that solid black is usually not the best choice for tailored clothing. I am not sure about knits, but I recently gave away a black cashmere v-neck, so that must mean something. Generally, I prefer navy and gray for dark solids, but that doesn’t make it right, by any means. Just a preference.

  39. Vern Trotter | December 15, 2020 at 4:39 pm |

    The majority of New Yorkers, especially women, wear black coats in the winter and wear almost everything else black, men not so much. In normal times, there are tourists and they are easily recognizable because they do not wear black. Our type, Ivy, I don’t see black often. Shoes, belts, watch bands, gloves do not really count as they have always been black worn with grey. Black overcoats, yes but again always have been with us. Neckties not that many of any color these days. In reality, I do not see Ivy often. 21, the former speakeasy, just announced it is closing, perhaps for good. Likewise the Cliff House in San Francisco. Woebegone times.

  40. Charlottesville | December 15, 2020 at 4:56 pm |

    Mr. Trotter – I am very sorry to hear about 21. There is so much history there, and lots of good memories for my wife and me. The art work alone is worth a visit from anyone with an interest in old New York. What a loss. I hope someone finds a way to rescue it.

  41. Old School Tie | December 15, 2020 at 5:41 pm |

    I have a fair number of black items of clothing in my wardrobe, mostly from the 1980s I hasten to add and rarely worn apart from the odd jacket. Black is very redolent of school for me, our lower school uniforms were black as were the masters’ robes and all the Jesuits there wore black too. Dreary. The upper school permitted relatively flamboyant choices of uniform and you associated that with the upcoming freedom of university. For several years I had an aversion to black shoes and would avoid them at all costs unless they were strictly necessary (cured when I bought a pair of black Dexter’s longwings). However, there was a lot of black at university in those days and inevitably one would end up experimenting with black denim, leather and suede. Being medical students this look was limited to frequenting the bars and clubs at night…..during the day we were pretty conformist with black banished in favour of colours, albeit a subdued palette, and standard college-boy garb. To this day black formal attire makes me feel like I am in school uniform again and black casual wear like I am prowling those bars…

  42. I seem to recall about reading about some recent survey that suggested that black is the color that most people prefer for suits. It doesn’t work for me, but if a significant majority of people disagree with my personal tastes, I’m willing to accept the fact that it’s my opinions that are the unusual ones.

    I currently have a bit more than 100 suits. As I guy at work once told a new hire he was introducing to me, “he has one of the biggest collections of clothes that were fashionable in the ’80s.”

    Not counting the tuxedos, I think that I have a single black: a black Corneliani with orange pin stripes that I tend to wear around Halloween. But probably 80 percent of the black that I wear comes in the form of a tuxedo. (No black-tie events is one of the worst aspects of the current pandemic. They’re the excellent networking events. Far better than industry trade shows.)

    And don’t forget the the Official Preppy Handbook was meant to be funny, not an instruction manual. And it’s only a snapshot of prep culture. Lots of people sneer at Vineyard Vines, for example, but my prep school has their own custom VV tie and students actually wear it, making it, by definition, “preppy.”

  43. A gentleman from England wears a dinner jacket.
    A gentleman from the United States wears a tuxedo (because the term is old and originated here).

    Both may wear “black tie”.
    Neither may wear “a tux”.

    The only American that wears a “dinner jacket” is a gum-smacking guy from New Jersey that used to say “tux” but read the term “dinner jacket” in a magazine, and thinks that saying it makes him “claaasy”.

    Also – black shoes with suits, otherwise you look like some unshaven guy from a Mens Wearhouse ad with a dark navy suit and light brown shoes who forgot his tie. Brown shoes with sport coats and blazers. Also, oxblood shoes with pretty much anything.

  44. I feel like women in New York could embrace more optimistic colors (in a tasteful way, of course!). Black doesn’t look good on everyone. Speaking of classic menswear, black corduroy looks good, maybe black moleskin, although both only look better in dark charcoal and navy, so what’s the point in picking black? Currently, I own a black Barbour waxed jacket, which is one of my favorite coats, and looks great in urban setting, where I live (New York City). It seems an olive Barbour only looks right in Central Park or some old school cheap bar on the Upper East Side. Also, I only wear black shoes in the city. Again, aggressive New York architecture, industrial design, our Subway — all scream that brown shoes are out place. Although, I make an exception during summer. Summer in New York is quite tropical, people barely any clothes (forget about style), so, even linen pants and a soft sport coat make you look extremely overdressed. So, light brown shoes are perfect for summer. But colder weather arrives, and I switch to navy, grey, charcoal, black, wardrobe and black shoes.

  45. People barely wear any clothes*

  46. Chelsea Drug Store | December 16, 2020 at 8:22 am |

    Interesting that 8 years since this thread produced hate on a certain site, this topic is still deemed worthy of discussion.

  47. One of of my all-time favorite colors is Midnight Navy. Almost/nearly Black, but not quite. It may be a few black yarns are probably used in the weaving. I have a Shetland Tweed hopsack blazer of this shade, as well as a flannel (Minnis) blazer– 510049 here:

    https://shop.hfwltd.com/collection/47

    Many of the favored tartans include a bit of black, including this Holiday favorite:
    https://www.lochcarron.co.uk/stewart-black-ancient-heavy-weight-tartan-fabric/

  48. Paul Winston (Chipp) confirmed that the dark navy Hardy/Minnis flannel blazer was one of his favorites–and one of his best-sellers for years. I’ll venture a guess that J. Press used Hardy/Minnis for their West-of-England flannel suits and blazers throughout the Heyday…and beyond. Along with Hardy/Minnis Fresco, most definitely Fogey.*

    *Royal Warrant, granted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

  49. SE
    Thanks for the link. In the mid-west mid-night blue is referred to as ink, although true navy is very dark.
    I might have mentioned this before, Corbin during the 70s and 80s produced a suit that was called “parson grey”. It was so dark charcoal it looked black in low light, but walk out in the sunlight it was obviously grey.
    Just to clear things up, older post of mine are “Mac”, newer “MacMcConnell”.
    As always you provide great links, thanks.

  50. With a darker suit, black shoes and belt (dark oxblood might also work), or a black turtleneck beneath a sports jacket, sure. But a black suit? Besides for formal/evening wear, priests/ministers, chimney sweeps, and undertakers, isn’t the fascination with black suits a fairly recent phenomenon? It just screams Daniel Craig in a suit that’s slightly too small.

    In normal times, I enjoy wearing a suit once or twice a week (with necktie). But give me a nice navy or charcoal number. Even better, a subtle pattern for less formal occasions, say a gray glen plaid, baby houndstooth, or windowpane, or a light tan or linen for the warmer months.

    Parenthetically, for the two of the three weddings of relatives and friends that I have been roped into (white tie affairs), our morning coats were charcoal gray. Very dark to be sure, but definitely charcoal gray.

    Best Regards,

    H-U

  51. Henry Contestwinner | December 16, 2020 at 4:21 pm |

    Whenever I see a man wearing a black suit, I think “fashion victim.” While black patterned suits have been around for a while—not an Ivy thing, of course, but present in the culture—the solid black suit for non-parsons/funeral directors is a more recent phenomenon.

    I remember Agent Cooper on Twin Peaks proudly announcing he had purchased a fifth black suit (at least Kyle MacLachlan actually looks good in black). I wouldn’t say that that TV show was the tipping point for black suits, but it was part of the zeitgeist that trended in that direction.

    Living as I do in Kasual Kalifornia, suits are few and far between, even more so in this dumpster fire of a year, so it’s hard for me to judge how common suits, black or otherwise, might be. Back in the day, when I actually went in to work, I would often wear black shoes & belts with suits, and sometimes with a blazer. I also wore my stroller* on Easter Sunday and a few other occasions, but other than that, no black (except, of course, for the half-dozen or so black tie events per year I enjoyed—until 2020 came along and took so many pleasures away).

    I have long regarded CC’s Ivy Chic as a harmless idiosyncrasy. Given his coloration, he’d look better in other colors, but where’s the harm in his wearing his clothes the way he likes to?

    *Stroller: traditional men’s daytime semi-formal wear. Black or gray jacket with peak lapels; patterned shirt with contrast collar & cuffs; wedding tie; patterned trousers; plain black shoes. Waistcoat (gray, buff, black, or robin’s egg blue) optional. See here or here.

  52. Andrew Summar | December 16, 2020 at 4:31 pm |

    I have heard that black was unfashionable at one time due to the color’s association with Italian fascist and German SS uniforms in WW II.

  53. Henry Contestwinner | December 16, 2020 at 6:14 pm |

    Good point, Mr. Summar. While black goes in and out of fashion, notice that it remains a perpetual favorite amongst fascists, as seen by its use by the amusingly misnamed Antifa.

  54. I rarely wear black anymore. Almost never. Got rid of almost all of it.

  55. “Only six things can be made of black leather without causing class damage to the owner: belts, shoes, handbags, gloves, camera cases, and dog leashes.” – Paul Fussell

  56. Henry Contestwinner | December 20, 2020 at 9:28 pm |

    Interesting that Fussell did not include watch straps in his list.

  57. You can only get away with wearing black — or whatever you want, really — if your title/surname precedes you. After all, plenty of European aristocrats and American scions get away with breaking “the rules,” and that’s because they can. What you’ll never see them do is look as though they’re trying to impress.

  58. Duncan Kinder | July 7, 2021 at 5:50 pm |

    Black has something Byronic about it.

    No it doesn’t fit in.

    But then, perhaps, we are not always inclined so to fit.

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