I Broke Up With the Color Black
After decades of a brooding wardrobe, Anne Slowey learns to favor fashion's good vibrations.
BY ANNE SLOWEY
I've always been drawn to color. As a child in the postmodern '60s, I loved wearing psychedelic prints and neons. Growing up in the '70s, I sported blue-tinted prescription lenses in supersize square frames with Indian-print paisley dresses or shimmering glitter disco dresses. My favorite outfit in high school was a cherry-red poplin mechanic's suit that had a drawstring waist and a gazillion zippered pockets. When I moved to New York in the '80s, I dressed in head-to-toe monochromatic purples, rusts, and pea greens. I painted the walls of my first solo apartment a bright Ellsworth Kelly yellow, until I dated an artist who told me living with the color yellow can drive you crazy.
Then came a career in fashion, beginning with the era of grunge and goth, when Kate Moss was sporting Calvin Klein slipdresses under oversize sweaters (note to Raf Simons: Bring back slipdresses!). I've since spent nearly half my life dressed in the monastic palette of fashion's front line. Until about a year ago, that is, when I vowed never to wear black again. My new multihued persona has a lot to do with not wanting to look like an extra from Night of the Living Dead in front of my kids. But in reality, it all started with the blown lightbulb in my walk-in that I have yet to replace (note to Karl: Chanel night-vision goggles!). What was born of necessity—color being the only thing visible as I pawed through the dark morass of my closet—ended up transforming not only my shopping list but my philosophy toward life.
For a woman who, for decades, considered color to be clownish, and who was once described by culture writer Guy Trebay in the New York Times as a "dark bird" thanks to my late '90s–era uniform—back then, it was all Ann Demeulemeester oxfords and asymmetrical silks, utilitarian Helmut Lang coats paired with elaborately feathered Comme des Garçons skirts, velvet-embroidered or pleated floor-sweeping Prada dresses, and draped Yohji conundrums—forswearing black was a revolutionary decision, right up there with deciding whether to have children or get a divorce. For years, writing about the Antwerp Six or the Japanese designers I so faithfully bought, I'd reference the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire to capture the romanticism I associated with what was, I now realize, a protective, if expressive, psychological cloak.
In my mind, my moody garb telegraphed my soulful, artistic self to the outside world. It hinted at my unrealized desires and the person I hoped to become, and shielded me from betraying how insecure I felt both as a person and in my profession. In black, I could appear mysterious and interesting while shrinking into the background—relatively speaking, that is: My dark clothes looked radical next to regular folk but, among the shimmering tableau of fashion cognoscenti, served as a safe haven in which I felt I wouldn't draw too much attention.
"FORSWEARING BLACK WAS A REVOLUTIONARY DECISION, RIGHT UP THERE WITH DECIDING WHETHER TO HAVE CHILDREN OR GET A DIVORCE."
Since embracing color, I haven't been placing quite as high a value on how what I wear reflects who I am. Or maybe it does reflect me, but a different version, more carefree in general and specifically about clothing. Instead of giving in to judgment, I try to follow the lead of fashion innovators such as Diana Vreeland ("Think pink!") and Bill Blass, who thought wearing red was the greatest cure for sadness. I couldn't have picked a better time to spin the color wheel, considering how upbeat designers have become in their mixing-and-matching experimentation. There's nothing to fear in spring's sophisticated, kaleidoscopic chorus: With dusty pastels at Rick Owens, neon brights at Sies Marjan, highly saturated prints at Chanel, buttercup yellows at Dries Van Noten, and Yves Klein blues and mints paired with cranberry at Céline, it's impossible not to pick a winner.
And with fashion letting loose with the spirit of a Pantone palette jacked up on steroids, it begs the question: Why has color gotten such a bad rap, at least among high-minded types? Its shady reputation goes way back: Plato found color too potent and seductive, hence its banishment from the Republic in favor of the less deceptive white. Even the Latin term colorem has its etymology in celare, which means "to hide or conceal."
WHY HAS COLOR GOTTEN SUCH A BAD RAP, AT LEAST AMONG HIGH-MINDED TYPES?
In fashion circles, however, black has always been held in high esteem. When Louis XIV lured prized Venetian dyers—known for their exquisite blacks—to his court in the seventeenth century, it effectively shifted the seat of fashion to Paris. Queen Victoria, having vowed to wear only black following her beloved husband's death in 1861, created a craze for mourning dress. Even in the twentieth century, despite the dusky pastels of the Art Deco period, modernists such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius considered color frivolous. Le Corbusier, who preferred to delineate his structures in stark white, decried that color is "suited to simple races, peasants, and savages." Jeez, what a chromophobe!
In the wake of the Enlightenment, late-eighteenth-century philosophers like Goethe and Kant got turned on to color, riffing on Copernican theories of subjectivity in physiological processes—e.g., an apple may appear red, but that's only because it's reflecting red and triggering a biochemical reaction in the eye. (Goethe went so far as to take drugs and stick needles in his eye to enhance his color experiments.) Bauhaus painter Josef Albers pointed out that if 50 people viewed one shade of red, they would, in fact, see 50 different reds. Truth really is in the eye of the beholder.
Haider Akermann spring 2017 collection
Fun fact: If you find yourself arguing about whether something is gray or blue (remember the blue-versus-gold "dress challenge" that went viral in 2015?), you're 8 percent more likely to be arguing with a white man, since that's the percentage of Caucasian males who are red-green color-blind. According to media studies expert Carolyn L. Kane, PhD, author of Chromatic Algorithms, an academic tract on color in computing and digital art, about half as many African and Asian men are color-blind, while only a fraction (.4 percent) of Caucasian women have the condition. Some women have even been found to have a fourth color receptor in addition to the typical three (red, blue, green). Though, to put this into perspective, mantis shrimp have 12 to 16 color receptors.
I'd like to think that after all these years in fashion, I have more receptors than shellfish, at least, to rejoice in the finely nuanced shades so popular these days. My own take on wearing color is to avoid rules about what's complementary and what's not. I mix yellows with pinks as well as '80s-era pea greens, rusts, and jewel tones—currently in favor with Gen Z–ers and late-spectrum millennials who are co-opting "bad taste" values as the new cool quotient. (Is it any coincidence that the poster boy of '80s excess, Donald Trump, is now our president?)
About five years ago, I remember rejoicing at the sight of a little old lady walking down Avenue A in the East Village, wrapped up like a mummy in polka dots and stripes. "I want to be her!" I cried, knowing I lacked such wild fashion abandon. I've yet to embrace such cartoonish garb, but I have learned that if taking risks can bring a smile to someone's face, instead of asking why, I now ask—why not?
Given the political climate, the only color I've been shy of (if momentarily) is red. I quickly got over that with the purchase of a cherry-tomato Comme des Garçons motorcycle jacket. I even went so far as to wear a Caron Callahan red boilersuit—not unlike the one I cavorted in at 15—set off with bright red lipstick, to boot. Add a pair of Céline African- inspired red-and-black platforms, and there was no chance of being mistaken for anything but the left-leaning liberal I am.
WHILE DRESSING WELL MAY FEEL LIKE THE BEST REVENGE, DRESSING WITHOUT FEAR PROVIDES THE GREATEST JOY.
Maybe it's the confidence that comes with age, but all this color has made me feel like I have nothing to lose. I just wish it hadn't taken me all these years to break up with black. The benefits of having fun with fashion far outweigh the security and secrecy afforded by hiding out in that color. While dressing well may feel like the best revenge, dressing without fear provides the greatest joy. So if you see me in stripes and polka dots, know I'm braving the future with my happy-face wardrobe. Or, as my mother used to say, "Better off red than dead."