How to Wear Black in Classic Menswear

Black and menswear have an interesting relationship.  For a start, black is necessary for conservative and formal dress: menswear experts will tell you that you need a black pair of oxfords for business suits, your tuxedo, bowtie (which must be black as well), and so on.  They will also say to avoid other black pieces like the plague. Black dress shirts look cheap, black suits are never appropriate (except at a funeral), black odd trousers don’t go with anything, and I’ve even heard that black loafers are antithetical to the concept of black or loafers (as in loafers are casual, but black is formal).
As a result, for the longest time guys avoided incorporating black into their outfits. However, that seems to be changing.

Scott Fraser Simpson in black shirt:shoes and olive slacks.
Scott Fraser Simpson in a black shirt, shoes, and olive slacks.

Let’s get this straight first: black is a damn cool color.  In fact, it used to be the color of choice for suits in the early 1900s, with steadfast “rules” coming much later.
Now, the greater world of fashion largely ignores classic menswear’s predilection of black, with it being prominent in facets of streetwear like SLP, techwear, or “high fashion” brands such as Rick Owens or Yohji Yamamoto. 
Because of the aforementioned menswear’s rules, its use (mainly in casual styles) comes off as rebellious or even edgy or punky, which makes sense considering black jeans and band tees are incredibly common in those circles.  Funnily enough, there are quite a few gentlemen in menswear who have that past (or at least have an affinity for it) who are bringing it back.  

Obviously the use of black (and other dark outfits) in classic menswear isn’t going to be the same as in other style communities. The appeal, from what I’ve seen, isn’t about skinny suits or avant-garde details, but instead two-fold: making black look easy and slouchy or adding in some edgy details to otherwise conservative outfits.  To me, the idea is to exude those vibes from other styles and just approximating it with pieces from classic menswear. Here’s what I’ve noticed. 

The first time I’ve heard about casual black suits wasn’t about its use in fast-fashion, but rather from a vintage collector who found a black Palm Beach fabric suit.  He said that it probably wasn’t done at the factory, but there was a small trend back in the Golden Era when guys would dyed summer suits.

Fast forward to today, and we can see a few guys rocking black suits made up of casual fabrics.  I remember visiting the Armoury last summer and seeing their store manager wearing a perfectly wrinkled black linen suit. He didn’t wear it with a tie; just a plain white shirt and suede black loafers. I’ve also seen black seersucker suits done well. They both call out for fun rayon shirts (like alohas), similar to how SLP relies on the same shirts to be worn with their black jeans and leather jackets. 

It’s such a cool spin on a formal color since it goes against many of the standards of classic menswear.  The goal isn’t to use black to look as formal as possible but to add the commanding color to something easy to slip on and wear, hence the use of casual fabrics. The fabrics will also interact with the light differently, instead of being a huge block of darkness (as in a plain weave worsted).  Obviously, outfits using black suits will give you fewer options in footwear and shirts, but perhaps that’s the charm; it takes any extra thought out of it, allowing you to lean into minimalism. Think of it like trying to exude the avant-garde aesthetics of high fashion, all-black outfits but using classically tailored garments.

Black shirts are the way to go if you don’t feel like going with a black suit, which admittedly is a big commitment.  I actually find black shirts extremely versatile and not at all constrained like a black sportcoat or odd trouser (though I do down one of the latter, in seersucker).  No, I’m not talking about the infamous black dress shirt, but rather more casual ones like black polos, sportshirts, linens, and alohas. Hell, even black sawtooths are becoming popular thanks to the guys at Bryceland’s. 
Like with the suits, the trick is to lean into the dressed-down nature, despite the connotations of the formal color. It also helps that I think of it as exuding the rocker vibes of SLP but done differently, since it’ll be used with full-cut trousers instead of skin-tight jeans and jodhpurs.

It’s easiest to wear black shirts with grey or navy since the colors play together for a minimal, dark-tonal look, but I definitely like them with brown suits for a more interesting/subversive choice.  Wearing a black shirt with indigo jeans or chinos is also a great way to remove that corporate or dad aesthetic that I normally get when I wear my regular shirts.

If black suits or black shirts aren’t your jam, then perhaps you can try to achieve that edgy look with black accessories. Black leather jackets are a no brainer, so I won’t discuss them.  But one of my favorite black accessories is the beret, which I love wearing because it is inherently slouchy, being a bit like an oversized beanie. Using it as a finishing piece adds something interesting to an outfit, whether it’s with milsurp, ivy-inspired attire, or regular suiting.  It’s got intellectual vibes with a dash of rebelliousness since no one really wears it. Perfect as a beanie/knit cap alternative in winter.

Of course, black shoes will always be a good choice.  I like them because they do have that sense of edge coupled with formality.  In response to the earlier quote about penny loafers, I have to say that their arguments against them are exactly the reason I like black loafers.  Brown pennys might be the “right” choice, but a black penny will be the punk choice. Think of artsy/punk types in LA who wear Doc Martens with everything in order to look edgy:  I think you can do the same thing with tailoring, perhaps by using black pennys with jeans or khaki chinos or even opting for slick Chelsea boots. 

And let’s not forget black casual jackets.  Again, leather jackets are a no brainer, but things like chore coats lean into the dressed-down vibe, exuding the slouchy style of high fashion.

And if all of the above is still too edgy for you, don’t forget that black knit ties are literally recommended as one of the most versatile pieces you can own.  For a long time, I felt like that thought process was incongruous with the hate for other black pieces, but I quickly learned that a black knit tie really does go with everything. 

Hopefully, my words will help you open up your minds to classic menswear attire that incorporates black.  To be completely honest, I don’t even think that you need to go full black to nail that attire. For example, I like wearing my navy suits with other dark navy pieces to achieve a similarly “dark” vibe (and of course accessorizing it with black shoes or berets helps). It is all about introducing something new. 

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Ethan Wong lives right in the middle: he’s too modern for the vintage scene and yet too vintage for classic menswear. When not at work, he spends his time writing and taking pictures for his blog, Street x Sprezza, which is all about bringing vintage style into the modern day. With a large collection of thrifted vintage and contemporary clothing, he often wonders when his closet will finally implode.

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3 thoughts on “How to Wear Black in Classic Menswear

  1. Great article Ethan…Actually, “There is nothing new under the sun”. Ecclesiastes: 1:9. “It’s only new, in some variation, to those who are too young to have experienced a past”.

    It is refreshing to see a revival of darker colors in menswear, although, for some of us who are aged it’s been continual, as our closets bear record of our stubbornness and resistance to change. LOL

  2. Great post. To me, the general denunciation on black is a myth that’s been around the place for too long.

  3. Having lived in NYC for over 20 years, it’s hilarious being told by a menswear authority that it’s now ok to wear black. This is like telling a midwesterner that it’s ok to eat corn.

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