I grew up in Oregon, where folks wear a lot of color. It’s pretty natural to match your surroundings, and on the left coast of my childhood, you’d see a lot of browns (earth), greys (sky) and blues (water, which is everywhere).
So it makes sense to me that New Yorkers also want to blend in. Their shiny skyscraper windows are black. The wet pavement is black. And as we transition from fall to winter, the night sky becomes blacker then black. I’ve lived in this city for almost 20 years now, and like my fellow urbanites, I’ve started to blend in, to reflect my environment.
But each year when I pull out my winter clothes, I get a little depressed. It could be the leftover habit of back-to-school anxiety, could be related to September 11, could be that I just hate cold weather. But I think there’s something else a little… grey. Actually, darker than that. It’s black, and I don’t like it.
I don’t like black and I’ve decided not to wear it anymore.
A black wardrobe connotes a lot of meaning: power (or the perception of it), sophistication, impermeability, sleekness, otherness. Black is never curious, naïve or goofy; it’s self-aware. It’s the color of important meetings. It’s the color of cool, and death.
In my teens — like many women my age — I shielded myself with my punk-y black uniform: ripped jeans, combat boots, too much makeup, dyed hair. High school in a rural town was awful, but an anarchist’s uniform helped to hide my fear (at least I hoped) and spackle over the angst-y cracks to declare my otherness: “I’m not like you. I’m ANTI-you.”
In my early 20s, when I moved from Seattle to New York, black was a welcome camouflage: my casual, grad-school demeanor morphed into a sleeker, more sophisticated version of myself. I figured if I looked like a New Yorker, I would act like a New Yorker and most importantly, blend in. And it worked. I met people; I partied; I lived a crazy, young life. I also started to understand the flaws in the logic: it wasn’t my black pants that were so “slimming”, it was the fact that I was broke, and dinner and a night on the town was sometimes a bagel and a 32-block walk home from my crappy job.
Lately, in my corporate life, I’ve revisited black. I worked in an office where the LBD was de rigueur and accessorizing (is Botox an accessory?) was a given. Here is where black failed me. I bought some cute black dresses but only had brown heels. I wore my fancy earrings but shoved my hair into a dirty and unflattering bun. My daughters stole, then broke, my long, pretty necklaces. I’d leave at the end of the work day and feel like a J.D. Salinger phony — this costume wasn’t working any more. The Wizard of Oz curtain was parting.
There are times in your life that are about power, whether you have it or don’t, whether you’re feeling separate or needing to blend in. There are times when you need to be cool or invincible. There are times when it’s really useful to have a barrier between you and the world — a cloak of invisibility you can throw over your head. Especially in a big, fast city that’s so full of people that the only “alone time” you get all day is among hundreds of other people on the subway.
But there are also times when you want to soften up. You hear a news story that catches your breath and drives you to run home and hug your children. You see a younger version of yourself in the office and realize how hard you worked and where it got you. Sometimes, especially these days, you want to be honest and earnest. And to wear a nice pink sweater that puts roses in your cheeks.
I’ll most likely go back on my word and wear black again; I still have so many phases in my life to go through. And maybe that’s one reason I hate black right now, because I want to stay fixed in a happy place as long as I can. I don’t want power struggles. I’m done with cool. I don’t want to deal with the deaths that are surely in my future. I don’t want to work a job that doesn’t suit me. I don’t want to be angry.
On the other hand, you never know. I might get cool again. I might buy my first motorcycle jacket when I’m an old lady. I might become a ninja.