Why the Black and White Fashion Trend Doesn’t Look Good on Most People

Black and white fashion trend Everyone is talking about the black and white fashion trend for spring 2013 as the hot color combination that we’ll be seeing a lot of.  From news outlets to the Wall Street Journal reporting on this trend to celebrities being seen wearing this bold combination at Fashion Week in Paris and London, everyone is singing its praises, but nobody is talking about the fact that black and white as a color combination is flattering on a extremely small group of people.  The likelihood that black and white worn together will look good on you is slim to none.

Therefore, before you run out and stock up on black and white clothes heed my advice, please!

As a color combination, black and white is a very optic and creates a high amount of contrast.  Contrast is the arrangement of opposite elements (light vs. dark colors, rough vs. smooth textures, large vs. small shapes, etc.) in a piece so as to create visual interest, excitement and drama.   The colors white and black provide the greatest degree of contrast and is often used as a tool to to direct the viewer’s attention to a particular point of interest.

The contrast created when you combine color is an important thing to think about before you wear it.

Personal Coloring

Black and White Fashion Trend

When choosing color combinations, it is important to consider the color contrast found in your own personal coloring, in particular, the contrast created between your hair, skin and eyes.  The photos above explain this.  On the left, we have a woman with fair skin, light eyes and light hair.  Because of the lightness of all three of these features, the woman has a low amount of contrast in her coloring.  The woman on the right, has dark hair and eyes, yet fairer skin, which creates a hight amount of contrast in her coloring.  The woman in the middle falls into the category that most people fall into; she has medium contrast because while her hair and eyes are dark, her skin tone isn’t as fair as the woman on the right.

Let’s take a look at some more examples: 

Black and white fashion trend

Given the descriptions above, can you guess which woman has more contrast in her coloring?  Answer: The woman on the left does.  While her hair and skin are very close in color, her eyes are very dark, which creates a lot more contrast in her personal coloring.  The woman on the right, however, has hair, skin and eyes that match much more closely.  Generally speaking, African-American women are usually medium to low in contrast.

Black and white fashion trend

Now, let’s talk about these two women.  Believe it or not, they both have medium contrast in their personal coloring.  It may seem weird that two women who look so dramatically different fall into the same category, but they do.  The woman on the left has darker hair and eyes, has a medium skin-tone. When you combine all three features it puts her in the medium contrast category.  Meanwhile, the woman on the right has fair skin and lighter eyes and auburn hair that also puts her on the medium contrast category.

What Personal Contrast Has to Do with The Color Combinations You Wear

Black and White Fashion Trend

I have used this photo in talks and speaking events on this topic for years because I think it explains (in a super exaggerated way) what can happen if the contrast found in the color combinations you wear is too bold for your personal contrast.  As you can see in this photo, all you notice is the houndstooth print.  Editorially speaking, this is a beautiful photo, but, when it comes to real life, do you really want your clothing to overpower you?

Here are some more realistic examples

black and white fashion trend

While we can’t see her eyes, looking at her skin and hair color, she would be categorized as someone with low contrast coloring.   By choosing to wear a black and white dress, the contrast found in the combination is so bold and optic that you see the dress, not her.  When getting dressed, the goal is always to have you get noticed, not your clothing.  Unfortunately, the low contrast coloring that this woman has cannot stand up to the high contrast of black and white and she is completely drowned out.

A word of caution: Now, if wearing black and white as a color combination doesn’t work when you don’t low contrast coloring  has you wondering why it’s presented that way in fashion advertisements and catalogs, well, there is a very smart reason for it.  Advertisements and catalogs are selling you the clothes, not the person.  Therefore, it makes sense that they would put a low contrast person in a high contrast outfit.  The woman becomes invisible and the clothing stands out.  In life, you want it the other way around.

When the Black and White Fashion Trend Works

Black and White Fashion Trend

Here is an example of how beautifully black and white as a color combination works when it is on the person with the right coloring.  This woman has a higher contrast in her personal coloring which can stand up to the boldness created in the color combination she is wearing.  Can you see how your attention goes right to her face and doesn’t get lost in the outfit?

Side by Side Comparisons

Black and White Fashion Trend

The photo on the left is the original.  Due to the medium contrast coloring of the model, our attention gets totally focused on the sweater, which is a brilliant selling tactic.  Yet, by changing the stripe shade on the right to a color contrast that better matches the model’s medium color contrast you get less caught up in the sweater and you notice her face.

Black and White Fashion Trend

On the left, the medium to low contrast coloring of this woman is overpowered by the black and white color combination.  On the right, when her color combination of her outfit is softer, and matches better to her personal coloring, her personal coloring and the outfit she is wearing becomes seamless.  You notice her, not her outfit.

Black and White Fashion Trend

While your attention may first be pulled to the left because the black and white color combination is so bold, consider the fact that your attention is being pulled for the wrong reason, to focus on the outfit, not on the woman.  On the right, you see all of her.  The truth is, if you wear a color combination that is too high in contrast compared to  your personal coloring, you will have to work twice as hard to be heard or seen.  I don’t know about you, but I just don’t want to work that hard.

Does This Mean You Can Never Wear the Black and White Fashion Trend?

If you’ve read this blog post, have looked at your personal coloring and now fear that you’ll never be able to wear black and white as a color combination again, I’m going to give you the same advice that I give all my clients: Fashion is all about making informed choices, which few of us actually make when getting dressed, simply because we just don’t know.

My goal with you, just like with my clients, is to teach you so that you can make educated choices and know why something may or may not work.  I don’t believe in throwing out the baby with the bathwater, nor do I believe in being restrictive about what you can and can’t wear.  If you can’t wear the black and white fashion trend, but want to, then do it.  At least now you know the consequences whereas before you didn’t.  However, what I usually tell people who can’t wear black and white is to do it mindfully.  Now that you’re armed with knowledge, choose the times you will wear black and white when you’re not in a situation where you need people to pay attention to what you are saying, speaking publicly or interfacing with clients, for example.  In those cases, it is imperative that the person listening to you doesn’t get doesn’t get distracted by what you are wearing.  Yet, for fun, or just because, you can do whatever you want.

So, don’t worry, I’m not raining on your parade, I’m just giving you an umbrella.

  • Hollis

    You original article on color contrast was one of the most helpful I have ever read, and this one adds to it. Season-based color typing did not work well for me, but your method does. Thanks, Bridgitte!