How to stop basics looking boring
The simplest way to make outfits look more interesting
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As Johnny Cash knew, all-black outfits can look great. They’re distinctive. They’re flattering. They lend you an outlaw air. And best of of all, you don’t have to worry about whether your colours clash. Which makes wearing all-black easy, right? Well, not quite.
“There’s a difference between dressing in black and wearing an all-black outfit,” says Thread stylist Alexander McCalla. The issues which plague multi-tonal outfits are even more virulent when you ditch colour completely. “That means your outfit can look flat and boring. If you get it wrong, you look less like a rockstar, more like an undertaker.”
But it's worth the risk. If you get it right, dressing in all-black is a great way to give your style some edge while avoiding many of menswear's biggest challenges. “It’s good because it’s simple,” says Alexander. “It’s always in style, it matches any skin tone and it looks good on guys of any proportions.” Follow the advice below to make all-black looks your own.
To look interesting, an outfit needs contrast. If all the pieces are too similar, you look like you’re wearing a uniform. Ordinarily, you’d achieve this with colour, but in an all-black outfit, that technique’s not available. “Texture lets you create points of difference,” says Alexander, “so that an all-black outfit feels put-together, rather than just thrown together.”
By texture we mean fabrics that you want to touch. “It’s half feel and half look,” says Alexander. The subtle bumps and hollows that make wool and suede interesting in your hands also reflect light in unexpected ways. That creates a sense of depth. The opposite’s true of a cotton t-shirt, which looks the same at every angle – flat. Ditto for shirts, sweats and chinos, which is why looks that work in colour don’t always in all-black.
“If you put textured layers together you create areas of light and shadow, which stops you looking two-dimensional,” says Alexander. “It’s also good to contrast flat and textured fabrics, like a shiny gilet under a suede jacket, because it heightens the difference between the two.” Next to something glossy, your textured fabrics will look – and feel – even richer.
An all-black outfit offers you less leeway for anything unexpected. Black is a blank canvas and anything that deviates from that its lack-of-colour palette stands out. This can be a tripwire. “If things like zips or button fastenings are different on separate layers, they can clash,” says Alexander. “It’s a subtle thing that in an outfit with different colours you might not notice, but which really stands out when you’re wearing all-black.”
The plus side is that if you keep things consistent, even simple looks step up a level. “If you can match the metal in your watch to the eyelets of your shoes, the rivets in your jeans and the zip of your jacket, that’s a pro style move,” says Alexander. “They become the hero elements of an outfit because the eye’s drawn to them. It enhances the entire look.” In the quest for depth, details add little areas of interest that stop you looking like a black hole.
In an ordinary outfit, shadows create the outline of your body and your clothes. When you’re in all-black, that definition disappears. “You can start to look like a big, black blob,” says Alexander. The solution? Cheat. “Little areas of white act like an anchor. They draw the eye to different areas and give your outfit shape.” White becomes the background and shifts the black elements of your look front and centre.
You don’t need much white to make a big impact. In fact, less is often more. “Keep it to little details,” says Alexander. It’s particularly effective as a base layer that defines the edges of garments, so that each black piece doesn’t bleed into the next one. “Things like socks, t-shirts or the soles of shoes create definition. They make the outfit feel more complete.”
One of black’s big strengths is that it’s slimming; the lack of shadows masks curves that lighter colours only accentuate. However, this strength becomes a weakness when paired with one of the biggest misconceptions in menswear: that baggy clothes hide what’s underneath.
“If you’re a big guy and you wear clothes that are too big, you’ll just look even bigger,” says Alexander. “If you do that in all-black, you can look like a monolithic black box.” Slimmer fits will create a smaller outline, but you’ll still benefit from the fact black smooths over anything you want to mask. Stick to pieces that follow the contours of your body and trust black to do its job.
Almost everything looks good in black, but there are some exceptions. “It’s tricky thing to wear in summer,” says Alexander, “as it absorbs heat. That means it can look odd on things you wear when it’s warm, like shorts.” It’s not just about comfort; summer clothes are largely made from cotton, which lacks texture. The result? You’re sweaty and look boring. “Instead, try lighter shades with black accents, like your accessories.”
Black is equally ill-advised at the other end of the smart-casual spectrum. “Black tailoring can look like a tuxedo,” says Alexander. Best to avoid doubt and keep the darkest shades for your most dressed-up events. Anywhere else, stick to navy or grey. “Shirts also rarely look good in black, especially if they’ve got white buttons. The fabric tends to be shiny and the whole look can feel a bit tacky.” White is a better base layer and creates that all-important definition. Plus, it makes the blacks you’re wearing elsewhere look even blacker.
Don’t default to black and grey. These three go-to combinations will make any outfit more interesting