Fade to Black

Save the color that rescued women from bowties

The New York Times | Op-Ed

By Jessica Seigel

Gray is the new black. Blue is the new black. Wearing cell phones...is the new black.

For years, nothing could push out basic black despite persistent attempts to sell women other colors as wardrobe fundamentals. That's how we got the witticism about the ''new black,'' which mocks seasonal style pronouncements while admitting that we want to be stylish.

Last spring, pink was the new black. Seriously. Along with lime green, banana yellow and pumpkin orange. Brightly colored clothing sold so well last season that market analysts are crediting sartorial fruit salad with reviving the fashion industry after a three-year slump. Next spring, according to the Fashion Week shows of the last few days, ''flame'' will replace bright pink, while white will contend for ''new black'' honors.

The pressure to lighten up is getting even to New Yorkers, long lampooned for dressing in head-to-toe black. Cheerful magazine spreads on ''how to wear color'' for rainbow-challenged Manhattanites make it sound simple. No thanks. This is color war -- and it's personal for a generation of women who adopted this no-fuss, always-chic answer to the problem of career dressing two decades ago.

Black has so dominated the urban woman's closet -- allowing endless combinations of black pants, black shirt, black jacket, black skirt -- that it is hard to remember that it was once the color for frumpy matrons. When women began climbing the executive ladder in the late 1970's, what to wear to the office was a cause of anxiety. Women were advised to ''dress for success'' in clothes imitating male business garb, like floppy bowties and boxy blazers with huge shoulder pads. The look obscured the feminine so women could compete like men. But playing ball in a borrowed uniform never felt quite right.

That changed in the 1980's when designers like Donna Karan popularized black for the boardroom in figure-hugging styles. Even while revealing their curves at the office, women felt protected in the color of night.

After all, it's slimming, doesn't show dirt and looks good even in cheaper fabrics. It never changes tint, escaping the spectral shifts that make colors look dated from season to season. (Goodbye mustard, hello aurora.)

Most of all, black carries a power that has evolved over centuries, from the aloof authority of the dowager in widow's weeds to the erotic mystery of the femme fatale in the ''little black dress'' (seen rarely so far in spring 2005 collections). Satan and villains, Puritans and preachers, bohemians, Beats and Goths have worn it to express danger, conservatism and rebellion, as historians Anne Hollander and Valerie Steele have said.

Working women with no time to shop or worry about trends made black their uniform, so much so that it became the symbol of feminine resistance in the recent remake of ''The Stepford Wives.''

''We're in the country now, so no more black,'' the long-overshadowed husband demands of his burned-out executive wife after they flee New York. ''Only high-powered neurotic castrating Manhattan'' career women wear black, he proclaims.

Crumpling under the black-lash, the wife switches to girlish florals and baby pink. Then, she bakes cupcakes wearing a yellow pinafore. Terrifying.

As seen in ''Stepford,'' it is difficult to stand alone against the crowd. Nothing imbues black with the meaning of chic, arty and powerful instead of funereal, dowdy and self-effacing except the zeitgeist.

The old black repeatedly beat predictions of its demise because women resisted the style masters. We can defy them again, holding on just as men have to their stalwart gray and blue suits. As in any battle between the forces of dark against (dry-clean-only) light, though, we must be cunning. I'm suggesting a double-agent strategy, one used by Donna Karan herself, who for a second spring showed no black on the runway, but plenty to store buyers. ''I will never say anything against black,'' Ms. Karan said.

Like Ms. Karan, many designers wear black in their Fashion Week bows even while sending out orange dresses -- surely a secret message to New Yorkers and fellow travelers to stay strong: so buy the kelp-green bag, coral-reef scarf and turquoise shoes. Mix and match. The rest stays black.

Jessica Seigel, who teaches journalism at New York University, reports as the ''Countess of Culture'' for the NPR program ''Day to Day.''
Date: September 14, 2004