Privilege Blog

A Black And White Outfit

In case you have a busy day ahead of you, let’s cut to the chase. Here are the secrets of wearing black and white clothes together.

  1. Mix textures
  2. Include at least one higher end piece
  3. Stand near a whole bunch of  bushes

But seriously, or at least more seriously, somewhere in passing I read midlife women shouldn’t wear black and white together. That as we age, the high contrast and lack of hue starts to wash us out.

This seemed to counter the laws of physics. How could something so simple, black + white clothing, be off-limits to an entire demographic segment? I thought we deserved a little deeper research.

The commercial web offers little of use. Funny how that is so often true. For example, any article that posits a white fur vest as the solution? Hmm.  Glamour does point out the dangers of looking like a waiter, in a piece entitled,  Chic New Ways To Wear Black and White Now. I sense they aren’t all that worried.

I think we should turn to our advice stalwarts, Sal of Already Pretty, and Imogen, of Inside Out Style. Neither addresses black and white specifically, but Sal has this to say about wearing white intentionally, and this similarly to say about black. Imogen in turn points out that all shades of white are not created equal, and that we’re well served by choosing carefully.

So, on to my personal experiments. Above I’m wearing a summerweight black tweed Étoile Isabel Marant jacket, black J. Crew bootleg cords, a new looong white Splendid shirt that I don’t have to tuck in, and Beautifeel shoes. The outfit wears better than it photographs, as the shirt is light and fluttery, and the layers therefore less messy than they appear here. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Love that long placket.

You won’t risk looking like you’re wearing a rented uniform as long as you beware of black gabardine and twill. Rely instead on textures like tweed, corduroy, and velvet. Add a ruffle or some flutter. Better an 18th century highwayman than a trade show minion.

Some day remind me to tell you trade show stories. But I digress.

The real secret to wearing black and white well? Accessories in a neutral or muted shade, suited to  your skin tone. Black and white are very high contrast. Very few people have the kind of coloring to support bright colors in the mix as well. For us minimalists, or, in my case, those who persist in carrying laptop backpacks and wearing comfortable dark shoes, I have one word.


The photo above is not to show you that I am 55 and have lines on my face, nor that I need a haircut, nor that I wear pearl and diamond studs with two neck diamond solitaires. No, I have far more respect for you than that. We are focusing on the Giorgio Armani Pink 500 lipstick, which single-handedly returns us blue-toned sorts to the land of Those With Face Color. I layer on a little Burt’s Bees lip balm in a paler pink, just because I can.

And then I pick up my heavy backpack and stomp off down the street to work. As one does, in comfortable shoes, feeling just a little bit like Captain Jack Sparrow, except quite secure in one’s choice of lipstick.

57 Responses

  1. The bushes work well with the black & white, don’t they? I think monochrome clothing is eternally chic, whatever your age. And that Etoile Isabel Marant jacket is very cool. I’m quite envious.

  2. Lipstick, oh I only wear it about once a year, I alway feel it make she look so overdone, through it looks marvellous on others. Your hair is glorious.

  3. Isn’t it amazing how much lipstick can wake up one’s face? That shade is lovely on you!

  4. I think black and white is always classic and love a white cotton ruffled blouse–I’m planning to wear one for the rest of my life! Where does sweeping fashion advice come from? I guess the same place that makes those fashion roundups for women in their 20s,30s, 40s, 50s, etc. I can’t stand those–I always end up liking the stuff for 20 and 80 year olds! I’m so glad you pointed this out Lisa.

    xo Mary Jo

  5. Great ideas on wearing black & white Lisa. They can look spectacular together or, as you say, a waiter’s outfit. I wish I could wear the white blouse you have as it looks fabulous on you.

    So glad to find another Bert’s Bee lip balm fan. I thoroughly enjoy the tinted shades.

  6. I love that you give tips for how not to look like trade show staff! I wore white and black together once. I was asked for a menu, a diet coke, and the check by three different people whilst walking to the restroom of the restaurant I was eating at. I have never ventured out in that combo since!

  7. You are of course absolutely right about lipstick being the key to wearing black & white when you’re a woman of a certain age, although since my coloring is different from yours I wear lipstick with no blue in it. Working as I do in NYC, about half my wardrobe consists of black & white, so I had better not be too old to wear them.

  8. I read somewhere that the key to summer black and white was white bottom/black top, to avoid the cater waiter look.

    You’ve made that statment a lie! Great look.

  9. Your outfit look very business casual and perfect in my humble opinion. Nut it’s no secret that I applaud black and whites.
    My first job required me to wear a black and white uniform and the fabric was ghastly cheap twill ugh!
    Today you will find me wearing cashmere, denim, linens and silk.

    You look great btw, and yes lipstick is a very important item, I feel that it lights up our face which in mid life seems very important.
    I like to think of it as an accessory to a smile!

  10. Great outfit. Fully agree about your points of mixing textures, including one higher end piece, and most ESPECIALLY standing near a whole bunch of bushes. I think I would only amend that in case there was someone who needed something along the lines of a flowering tree or the like. Although I have to ask, if one is doing a black and white outfit and is wearing, lets say, a floorlength black dress in say, jersey… how would you add texture? A colorblocked shoe? Or maybe a white chunky necklace?

  11. I’ve recently come back around to black and white, and agree 110% about texture. I think it also helps to have at least one piece a bit softer to avoid the dreaded trade-show look. I LOVE this outfit on you, just love it. And yes, lipstick helps.

  12. This outfit looks great. I think depending on your colouring the trick is to balance the black and white. It you are dark you can wear more black, and it you are fair more white. Especially near your face. The same for black and white patterns. If you are statuesque a larger pattern with more white if you are fair and more black if you are dark. Smaller patterns if you are petite.

  13. Of the two, I prefer black, but could wear white pants ( not black ones ) with something black as a top.
    You seem to manage shirts in different colors, white included.
    For a casual look, some makeup is needed. Red on lips is ok.

  14. I think that high-contrast outfits are not a good idea for a woman of a certain age with light, low-contrast coloring. Namely, me. I think this looks great on you. I especially love the preponderance of white in the outfit. We should all remember that we are the most attractive when wearing what we love.

  15. I’m beside myself with excitement cause that’s variegated pittosporum growing in back of you and I’ve never seen in in action before.

    V. satisfying. And I love your shirt.

    xo Jane

  16. Close fitting corduroy pants, a long white shirt, a long-sleeved tweed knit jacket, your feet completely covered in wrap-around leather, all worn together in the middle of July. This is about to kill me I’m so jealous, and I’m so hot. I’m glad to know your skin is blue, somehow that helps. Carry on, divine one…

  17. I’m stuck with a white labcoat at work, so I almost never would wear a white shirt/top to work. Black near my face prompts expressions of concern for my health – “you look pale – are you feeling OK?” I went for years with zero black in my wardrobe – no black pants, no shoes or bag. Gray and navy are my dark neutrals. I do own a LBD and a black suit, but rarely wear them. I can do a black print.

    I also was under the impression that black was not particularly favored by high WASP women for day?

  18. Hmmm. I always think the biggest thing about wearing black and white together is that the pieces can’t be faded even in the slightest. Then it just ends up looking lazy.

  19. a hint: white looks great at night on anyone. the light is different and works even for me (who gets washed out by white in daylight).

    And of course with a tan (for those who dare…)

    as others have said — white pants, shorts or skirts are also great in summer — as long as it’s away from the face it can work. and nothing says summery like a white skirt or pair of pants.

    but an accent of creamy off-white – as in a tank top under open shirt or sweater — for me adds the best touch of light. without looking “flourescent” and glaring the way bright whites do.

  20. I agree with you on the texture thing, but for me what takes the b&w combination out of the ordinary is definitely statement accessories. They don’t have to be colourful (in some cases that actually defeats the point of black and white), they just need to lift the look. Be it a string of baroque pearls or a long strand of beads or a silver pendant, you just need something to take the outfit from the plain and mundane to the intentional. Make it work for you.

    And I agree on the lipstick. Everyone should wear it. It makes you look so much more polished.

    K xx

  21. Oh trade shows. Where they order logo-ed shirts for everyone to wear and the smallest shirt is a man’s small because “our vendor doesn’t make women’s shirts.”

    Because there are almost no women in the workforce.

    Fortunately, a pair of scissors and the bottom 12″ of that shirt disappear so that when it is tucked into the nasty khaki pants one is supposed to wear, one’s ass does not increase by four inches.

  22. Thanks for the link Lisa. Keeping the white close to your face is the best way to keep the aging affects of black away (double chinning is common with black close to your face). Plus you have a high contrast as your eyes are dark and that makes light/dark combinations a great choice for you.

    1. So interesting. I never thought of myself as high contrast, because I have blue eyes, but they are dark blue. You are right, of course, and that makes a lot of my clothing instincts clearer. Thank you.

  23. I adore white shirts, have been wearing them a lot this summer, usually with a black cardigan and a scarf for a pop of color. White often doesn’t look as good in photos as it does in person. I find this to be true of people too.

  24. I LOVE outfits of black & white in the summer. Partly because I think the contrast is crisp, and partly because I am color-blind and this is a combination I can at least see. However, I do like the non-waiter variations of wearing white on the bottom and all black on top. I also really like a black pant or skirt, with a black top and crisp white blazer.

    Oh and can’t wait to try the lipstick as I need a blue pink!

  25. Black and white is the go to uniform for most female lawyers of a certain age. I do disagree, however, as to the need for neutral accessories. A black suit and white blouse wakes up with silk magenta scarf tucked under the jacket, bringing color to the face. In fact, my black lab Sarah never leaves the house without her red collar and leash!

  26. Faded shades of black are hard to put together. Mixing up favorite things that might not be perfectly black anymore with texture or patterns is a good way to keep them in play.

    I never imagined you as a booth babe, but i guess it goes with a stint in sales.

  27. Somehow I missed the memo about black and white! I think you’re right though about the mixed textures. And I laughed out loud at the rose bush remark. Now, about those trade show stories…and the color of the backpack?

  28. You look very chic! Working in New York in the design field, black is my winter uniform. having to attend many function, little Prada dresses always come to the rescue with great shoes and jewelry. I never dress according to age (i share the same years as you do) but according to style and love to dress funky, mix a great Chanel jacket with jeans, love stella mc Cartney and Dolce.. As women, we must find our style and be secure about our choices. your style is fabulous and you wear it very well indeed!

  29. Love the long shirt under the shorter jacket. I wear that look often and think it gives a bit of an “edge” to what otherwise could be boring. you look terrific.

  30. Absolutely! I have high-contrast coloring (dark hair and eyes, light skin) and often the only color in the outfit is on my lips. Lipstick is crucial to the success of a black and white outfit.

    I agree about black not looking so nice as it fades — that’s why I regularly re-dye my black cothing. Works like a charm!

  31. Do like the longer shirt/tee under a shorter jacket,a look I often use,my white has a touch of cream +neutral jacket.

    As usual you look terrific.Ida

  32. Lipstick is everything. I tried to sample a few at the MAC store today while my two daughters looked at eye shadow, but felt that I really needed to do it by myself (So, another day.) I buy lipstick maybe once a year, in the summer, and have recently moved from Bobbi Brown to Laura Mercier. (I like brown tones. It’ll take a lot for MAC to win me over.) Do you consider Armani your go-to lip line?

  33. I think you look fabulous. Your outfit looks edgy w/ the shorter jacket and longer shirt. It’s a look I love. I’m your age, same height and perhaps weight. So why is it you look so much slimmer? Is it those JCrew bootcut pants? I must try those!

    Might you give us a closer look at your necklace? I am fnd of the two diamonds on the delicate chain. I’m moving away from the chunkier/clunkier jewelry and crave a delicate piece like yours.

    1. Thanks. Yes, the J. Crew bootcuts makes me look slimmer than I am. I weight 122-125, BTW, and am 5’5″+, so you can judge. I wear 26 in J. Crew pants, they are tight, but I’ve learned not to buy baggy from you wonderful people here. And yes, I will show the necklace.

  34. This is a good look on you. I wear black and white, and, in fact, just purchased a long cowl necked black/white sweater for fall/winter. I bought it mostly because I can wear it many places in my casual lifestyle. I’m five years older than you–and I think I am blessed with naturally colorful lips–but I do at least leave the house with lipstick on.

    By the way, we are returning to CA on vacation a week from Friday. Big Sur is our ultimate destination with a few other places at the front end of our trip. What a great state you have!

    1. I love Big Sur – the Post Ranch Inn may be the most beautiful hotel spot I’ve ever been in. Enjoy your trip. If you come to SF, let me know if you’d like to say hello.

  35. SO true about shades of white not being equal. I can wear a white that is true white or close to it, but not an off-white that has yellow in it. I have fallen in love with many off white pieces and always have to leave them in the store. Your choice is nice. And I think lipstick is a must for us as we age and our lips disappear. Not only do our lips become less prominent our our face due to their shape, but the color seems to fade away. I wear lipstick EVERY day whether I am leaving the house or not. It just makes me feel better.

    You put this outfit together nicely.

  36. I went to a smart dinner once wearing black silk trousers with a matching black silk mandarin collar jacket. Guess what the waiters were wearing (male and female)? Yup, black trousers and mandarin collar tops. and they looked rather more expensive and better cut than mine. that outfit went straight to the back of the wardrobe.

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