In fashion history, black and white are an eternal classic. Learn about the origins for this evergreen style.
- Black and white is a fool proof classic
- Black and white clothing in Europe’s history
- Europe has a long history of fashion laws
- BW in the 20th century
- BW were associated with funerals and widows
- Black and white as festive clothing
- The 1980s made BW a Do
- The 1990s were black-everything for West German fashionistas
- Goth fashion tribe
- My look of the day
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Black and white is a fool proof classic
Yes, black and white (BW) can be very elegant, very interesting, very boring, casual as well as anything in-between. One would think wearing this combination is a no-brainer because it’s a classic. But exactly that makes it so tricky to not look like wearing a cookie-cutter outfit. This post provides a short glimpse on the European history of this color combo and some outfit ideas how to wear black and white trend in midlife in a fashion-forward, modern and professional way. Who wants to look yesteryear, yester-decade or even last century?
Black and white clothing in Europe’s history
Like Americans’ wearing white in summer, there is a long history related to black clothing in Europe.
Europe has a long history of fashion laws
They are not like “don’t wear white after Labor Day or before Memorial Day” or “don’t wear denim on denim.” The laws prescribed which social and age group was allowed to wear what.
For example, take a look at the big ruff in the first painting of this post. The tint of the collar would even indicate your political view and religious faith. The ruff was worn by men, women and children alike. First, it was just small piece of fabric building a ruffle when fastening the drawstring at the neck of a shirt. However, once starch was invented, the fabric became larger and larger over time. It forced the wearer to stay straight with the head upright. Thus, it was unsuitable for anyone who had to work in the field, store or crafting. Starch gave the ruff a slight dye in a pinkish, yellowish or bluish hint. Queen Elizabeth I of England prohibited the wearing of bluish ruffs because blue was the color of the flag of Scotland. Thus, if you loved your head to be attached to your torso, you better followed the law.
Black was hard and expensive to make. It would be the darkest when made from silk velvet. Thus, the color reserved for special ceremonies and the Courts. The dominance of the Spanish and Italian courts as well as the close connection of the Dutch dominated the color choice in the 16th century and well into the 17th. Read more on everyday luxe and sumptuary laws.
BW in the 20th century
Fashion has changed in the last 80 years at fast pace. Still today, black clothing is the favorite everyday goto outfit for many women in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
BW were associated with funerals and widows
In the West-Germany of the late 60s to early 80s, black was reserved for grievance and festive or official occasions. The only color to wear with black to these occasions was white. However, the dark shade had to be the dominant color of the outfit. In the village where we lived, widows would wear black for a year after their husbands’ death. In summer, a black dress with white print was accepted.
When I was a kid, my mom had a white polka dot blouse and a black skirt suit. She would always wear these items when she had to go to a furenal. The only other time, I can remember her wearing the outfit, was the baptizing of my brother in 1968.
Black and white as festive clothing
When I graduated from high school, we were supposed to wear festive attire. Thus, I chose a long black velvet skirt with white button-down shirt and borrowed my brothers velvet blazer. Note in Germany, you don’t wear regalia for graduation.
When I became a Ph.D. student, the study and examination regulations still stated that the candidate had to show up for the oral examination in a black suit, white button-down shirt and silver tie. I had planned on doing that. But they “lifted” the dress-code to “appropriate professional attire.” Nevertheless, I wore the black and white suit that I had bought for my sister’s wedding in the year before.
The 1980s made BW a Do
In the 80s, black conquer the everyday fashion. Black and white outfits with red shoes or a black skirt with pink top were fashionably stylish looks at the office. Sheer black pantyhose became a Do. I still hear the comments of women in their 50s and older when I wore these pantyhose in the tram the first time.
White tennis socks were a Must-Have with dark denim pants for men and women in their twenties or younger alike. It was the time of Steffi Graf and Boris Becker being the tennis icons winning Wimbledon and Grand Slams. White sneakers met the black power suit. I wore a black and white suit to my PhD graduation. This suit was also my choice to dress for the civil wedding of my sister.
The 1990s were black-everything for West German fashionistas
Black-everything was my uniform. Think nail polish, pumps, sandals, pants, jeans, T-shirt, coat, bag, underwear, but no pantyhose at all. The darkest color there is from head-to-toe was It for women in their 30s or younger in West-Germany. A noir Movado watch and a raven-color Mercedes Benz 190 were the status symbol of the 30-something career women from West-Germany.
At the same time, women from East Germany preferred to wear embroidery/embellished clothing, mules and bags. Patchwork-leather bags were their It statement. Crystals and sequins on colorful sweaters, blue jeans and mules. No women from West-Germany would have worn mules outside the house at that time. The nation had been divided for almost 40 years which also let to cultural and fashion-preference differences.
Goth fashion tribe
Leipzig was the meeting for the Goth fashion tribe every Pentecost. While many people found them scary, I enjoyed seeing this sub-culture’ young persons’ unique personal styles. The Victorian area mourning gowns with veils had inspired their Goth dresses. However, the prude high neckline and floor length made way for plunging necklines and/or thigh length (see example photo below). The cleavage was full of amulets, skull, charm and/or Celtic-inspired jewelry. Their pale often white faces were in stark contrast to their blue-black long hair and dark clothes. Sometimes hair would be purple or green. Color was rare and if, provocative sexy like the red in the photo below. Goth fashion still strives in Europe, particularly in Germany.
My look of the day
My outfit of the day features a floral BW-print top and cropped pants as a casual office look. In the mornings, it is already quite chilly here in the Interior of Alaska. Thus, I added a cardigan with waterfall collar to stay warm on the commute to work. My blue and turquoise satchel takes up the blue of the jacket. To add or not to add a pop of color is no question this fall.
Don’t let the right outfit be a random thing. Wear the right look in every situation by looking up what to wear when in How to Dress for Success in Midlife. Buy my book now.
Wear the BW-trend with a pop of color other than red. #fashiontrends Click To Tweet
P.S. Like these outfit ideas? If so, please feel free to pin them to your own Pinterest board.
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Döbler, Hannsferdinand, 1972. Kultur und Sittengeschichte der Welt – Kleidung, Mode, Schmuck. Bertelsmann Verlag, München, Germany.
Robinson, Julian, Calvey, Gracie, 2015. The Fine Art of Fashion Illustration. Francis Lincoln Limited. London.
Smithsonian, 2019. Women: Our Story. DK Publishing, New York.
TASCHEN (Editor), 2015. Fashion History from the 18th to the 20th Century, Bibliotheca Universalis.
Young, Caroline, 2016. Style Tribes, Frances Lincoln Ltd.
Photos of me: G. Kramm
Other photos if not indicated otherwise: N. Mölders
© 2013-2021 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved
This Post Has 4 Comments
What an interesting history of black and white. You can never go wrong with the combination and then adding any color as an accent always works. I love this shade of blue on you!
I prefer colour as all black is draining on me.Or black with colour Love the history.
I love wearing black and white together. I think it’s always so chic!
I am actually wearing black and white today with accent color in blush earrings and sneakers!
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