As one of three principals at the helm of a design and communications consultancy, I often engage in debates about aesthetic philosophies. One such philosophy, which both of my partners espouse: when in doubt, wear black. It’s a rule that serves them well. In all black, they look elegant, stylish and a little bit dressy. It serves me less well: in all black, I look funereal, even nihilistic and just a bit clerical. Why the difference? It’s simple: my partners are women, and an irrefutable fact of style is that women can wear all black and men, typically, cannot.
For most men, the question of all black is most relevant in its application to suits. Black might seem like the optimal, neutral colour for a suit—formal enough for all occasions, versatile enough to go with any colour and neutral enough to endure countless fashion seasons. After all, the show isn’t called Orange is the New Charcoal Grey. And Versace certainly did not have navy blue in mind when he said, “Black is the quintessence of simplicity and elegance.”
Still, the black suit is not the little black dress. Contrarily, for men, a black suit is a uniform. If worn at the appropriate times, it helps men blend in; the rest of the time, it’s an easy way to stand out. To wit: a black suit is ideal for funerals, as the ultimate expression of sombreness. This harkens back to Roman times, when mourners wore a toga pulla—a black toga. The tradition has been robust: in Victorian England, rules detailing the tone of black, corresponding to the month of mourning, were in place. Black suits are also ideal for black-tie affairs, as a subtle tux alternative. On both occasions, the objective is to blend—either to keep the focus on the deceased, or the women.
I owned a black suit for years before I bought a tux, and it served me brilliantly at many formal affairs, where I wore it with a white shirt, white pocket square, thin black tie and black cap-toe oxfords. (To channel a tux-inspired look, opt for a bow tie and a placket-front shirt; you’ll only be missing the satin lapels and the trouser stripe.) This leads to another important point: although you might think your black suit goes with everything, the contrast with any colour but white can be jarring. It is, after all, a perversion of the uniform.
On nearly all occasions, a navy or charcoal grey suit works; both are sufficiently neutral, elegant and sober for the boardroom, ballroom or burial. So, a black suit has a worthy place in any man’s closet, but it’s understandably near the back, alongside the seersucker and windowpane options.
Am I being too rigid about all this? Perhaps a black suit is merely a uniform for conformists like myself, but a blank canvas for bolder men. Certainly Johnny Cash, Jack White and the Blues Brothers made black suits work brilliantly. Then again, they’re all rock stars. That always helps.