17 January 2007

Professional black

In a given work week, it isn't unusual for me to wear head-to-toe black four out of the five days.

In my closet, I have thirteen black skirts (including my current goal skirt at right), six black turtleneck sweaters, four black scoopneck sweaters, two black squareneck sweaters, three black cowlneck sweaters, two pairs of all-season black trousers, two pairs of winter wool black trousers, one pair of black jeans, four black cropped jackets, two pairs of dressy black bermudas, two pairs of dressy black short-shorts, fourteen black blouses, three black work shift dresses, five black cocktail dresses, two black evening gowns, twelve pairs of black shoes, two pairs of black boots, five black headbands, two black leather daybags, a black leather clutch, and a black satin clutch.

I say this not to impress but to make clear the point that if there is one thing I know how to do well, it is the art of putting together a fabulous all-black ensemble.

Knowing my deep affection for this color, you can understand how difficult it is for me when I come across women like the two I spotted yesterday at the intersection of ConnAve and L Street who were wearing black as awkwardly as Michael Jackson.

I'll start where I always do.

Their shoes were not good. I generously coughed up a point when I noticed each had chosen heels of a respectable height, but then I saw them from the side and realized my kudos were premature -- both were sporting the square-toe (see left). I'm going to be honest, the square-toe perplexes me. I'm perplexed by the shoe companies that design them; I'm perplexed by the stores that sell them; and most of all, I'm perplexed by the women who plunk down their hard-earned money to puchase and wear them. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression we as a gender agreed sometime in the early-'90s that square-toed pumps were...well, ugly.

And matronly.

Perhaps it was comfort that drove these women to the PTA President look. If that was the case, they and women everywhere should know about the much cuter, much more stylish and much more comfortable round-toe option. Even smarter is to purchase a shoe that can both dress-up and dress-down like these Vera pumps by Pedro Garcia ($328.95 at zappos.com). Shoes made of matte leather and suede are the most versatile, but as long as your all-black outfit is flash-free, you can safely trade up for patent leather, matte satin, or a very subtle brocade. Anything more, regardless of how casual your office environment is, crosses the line.

Onto their below-the-belt looks. The shorter one on the right was wearing some sort of Winter wool capri that tapered and clung to her pale, untoned, bare - not to mention dry and unshaven - calves in a way that I really don't want to describe further. The lankier one on the left fared better (or so I initially thought) with a pair of slightly too big but not bad full-length wide-cuffed black trousers. In my first failed attempt to pass these two, I crept close enough not only to see their matching greasy parts but also the sad, sad shape the taller woman's trousers were in. Two inches too short and covered in pills and loose threads, these poor pants were faded to the point where they looked more gray than black. Without question, I was looking at a woman guilty of multiple counts of first-degree machine-washing a dry-clean-only item.

I'm not saying this woman should - or even could - love her clothes as much as I love mine, but she should respect them enough to abide by the dry-clean-only rules: don't wear dry-clean-only clothing when it's dirty, wrinkled, or smells like the Penang chicken curry you had the night before at Thai-Tanic; don't throw dry-clean-only clothing in the washing machine; and for the love of Jayden James, DON'T subject dry-clean-only clothing to the dryer. She may not have seen much decline after her trousers' first bout with the spin cycle and low-heat tumble, but it certainly shows now. What was also evident from the massive amount of pill-age was her mixing of delicates with non-delicates. Just as pink and brown lace boyshorts, a black wool pencil skirt, and a sweaty sports bra wouldn't mingle in a single outfit, these items should also remain separate during the cleaning process. Black, ivory, or any other single-color pair of boyshorts would be fine with the pencil skirt; I just like taking vanity to the next level with both strict over and under-the-covers coordination.

If dry cleaning is an expense on which you don't place primacy, don't buy clothing that requires it. Plenty of trouser, skirt, and dress options are available in nice, office-acceptable machine-washable fabrics. The Lindsay Ponte full-length pant from Ann Taylor pictured above left ($98 at anntaylor.com) and the slim stretch oxford from J. Crew pictured at right ($59.50 at jcrew.com) are perfect examples of good looking, good quality articles of office-worthy clothing that can be washed at home. Matte jersey is another material to look for, especially if you're like I am and think the hair-dryer passes muster as an iron substitute.

With every advantage comes a disadvantage, though, and in the case of using the washing machine, the bite in the ass comes in the way of premature black-to-gray fadeout. Even if you religiously use cold water, twist to the delicate cycle, buy a specialty dark detergent (try Woolite Liquid Dark Laundry, $6.69 for 50oz at Safeway) and boycott the dryer, your blacks will inevitably pass on.

As tough as it is to accept the death of a favorite black item, even Britney knew when to cut love loose. Britney.

From their waists up, it was difficult to tell exactly what was going on, because both women were wearing enormous coats. The shorter woman wore a two-sizes-too-big black North Face puffy coat, while her friend wore the kind of shapeless black barn coat you'd see your Mom dog-ear in an L.L. Bean catalogue. Put delicately, neither was flattering. First of all, a cropped puffy coat and capris? I never even realized this look existed in nature. Second, a puffy coat in DC? Unless it's 10 degrees outside and you're a junior at the University of Michigan, I would say "good day" to this look. The only major problem with the barn coat was how ill-fitted it was. Again, the dreaded sandwich-board look. I knew this woman was thin, because I looked for her telltale signs and found them: thin fingers and thin ankles. But if I had to judge from her silhouette alone, I would have guessed much heavier. Even if a woman doesn't care about fashion, it is embedded in her woman-ness to care about weight miscalculation.

The best way to avoid looking bigger than you are but still have armor with which to battle the cold is with a heavy wool-blend dress coat that cinches in the waist. This cinch can come either from a coat's tailored cut or from a belt. This mid-length Via Spiga cashmere coat at right ($216.99 at bluefly.com) is both functional and stylish and would be flattering on any number of female frames. If it's really cold outside and you truly favor the more urban, more Brooklyn stlye - and you're under 30 - try this Kenneth Cole chevron quilted coat in a full, not cropped, length ($135.99 at bluefly.com). The length and toned down volume of this coat makes it almost professional. Almost.

At the end of the day, these two women were style challenged independent of their failures to execute successful all-black outfits. The cuts were wrong, the fabrics were old and abused, and one only need look once at that picture of the square-toed pump to see their tastes in shoes were plumb-awful.
That being said, their biggest offense wasn't their choice of clothing so much as their transparent since-I'm-wearing-all-black-I-must-look-okay attitudes.

To be fair, it wasn't completely their fault; myths of "basic black" and black as the ultimate slim tonic have been perpetuated forever and are as commonly accepted by Oprah's viewers as they are by "Nightline's." Ultimately, however, black as the fat woman's savior is just that --a myth. If you carry 20 extra pounds in your belly, a black dress isn't going to buh-bye it any more than a bright-colored one would.

Where the magic is made is in a garment's cut and fit. On equal playing fields, if both the black and the bright-colored dresses had spot-on cuts and fits, then and only then, would black create a more slimming effect.

When you do all-black, you have a few more considerations of which to be aware, or at least more aware than when you rock a multicolored look. These considerations are:

1. resilience of color: don't mix blacks of different tones; if you can't tell, solicit a friend's opinion; if they can't tell, don't wear it.
2. cut: just because your blacks match doesn't vitiate the rule about keeping drama to a minimum. If you wear a billowy bubble skirt like the one at right from Banana Republic ($29.99 at bananarepublic.com), pair it with a very slim, simple black shell to temper the volume on bottom; likewise, if you wear a blouse with a scalloped neckline or a poof-sleeve, wear a more conservative, straight-edged skirt.

3. fabric: don't wear heavy wool pants with a heavy alpaca sweater with a heavy tweed pump -- lighten it up somewhere in the ensemble so people can see you don't in fact have an extra inch of insulation around your entire frame.

4. texture: if you opt for texture in one article of clothing - a ribbed turtleneck, for example - that's it, don't wear any more. Treat textures like prints and avoid the mix-and-match.

And remember, when the black boat-neck 3/4 sleeve top you fell in love with in 2000 has faded to the point where you don't recognize it anymore, you need to trash it cheating-boyfriend style. Out of sight, out of mind. The second you start rationalizing ("oh, it isn't that bad...") is the second you'll integrate it back into your rotation.

As my Father always tells me after a breakup - or in two cases, years before - "Johanna, there'll be others."

I've found this notion applies just as aptly to those hard-to-let-go-of items of black clothing.

No comments: