How to replace black in your wardrobe

I used to joke that my closet looked like a cat burglar’s lair, 🦹‍♀️ there was so much black in there. Over the last three years, I’ve managed to replace the black with colors that are more flattering to my complexion. If you’re looking to replace or reduce the amount of black in your wardrobe, here are some tips…

How to replace black in your wardrobe.

This article was published at an earlier date and has since been updated.

Look, I get it. Black is easy, black is sophisticated. Black is chic. I’m never going to be the person who tells you not to wear black. If you love it and love how you look in it, wear it and enjoy!

BUT, for some of us black is a habit we just can’t seem to kick. Perhaps we know it’s not our best color and periodically take steps to replace the black in our wardrobes, but it just keeps creeping back in. If that’s your dilemma, here are some tips to help break a sartorial stalemate with black.

How did black get to be our default setting?

When I was growing up, I don’t remember anyone wearing black except for clergy, police, Wednesday Addams, or Beatniks in TV sitcoms. 😆 Black was reserved for funerals, and sometimes for evening wear. (I’m sure this was different from region to region…New Yorkers please chime in.)

I never wore much black until the late-1990’s, but after that it took over my wardrobe pretty rapidly. There was the ease of it, and also the fact that so many basics I needed for the office were mostly offered in black. It traveled well. And I’ll admit, it felt a little edgy and cool.

It’s hard to pinpoint one single reason that brands began producing so much basic black clothing. I suspect it was an easier sell; and perhaps cheaper to produce. There was also the allure of the iconic Little Black Dress, and the interest in French women’s style that seemed to favor so much black.

Moving toward more color

By the time I left my corporate job in 2016, I knew I wanted to introduce more color and fun into my wardrobe. But I struggled to find colors and styles that didn’t wear me, instead of the other way around. It wasn’t until I had a color and style analysis with Red Leopard in 2019 that it felt like I finally “clicked” with color. (And I could definitely see how black was not my best choice.)

I was determined to put what I’d learned into practice right away, but I knew the process of replacing the black in my wardrobe would take some time. It’s now been a little over 3 years since I began the “turnover,” and I rarely miss or want to wear black.

How to replace black in your wardrobe

Very few of us have an unlimited budget, or would be able to replace an entire wardrobe in one fell swoop. (Even if we wanted to, what’s available in any given season isn’t always what we need.) Here are the steps I’d suggest to help break dependence on black.

Start where you are…

Get a sense of your best colors. If you are able to have an expert color analysis (either in person or online), you’ll probably be provided with a “palette” or chart of your best colors. If that’s not possible for you now, here’s a downloadable color guide from Red Leopard with tips to help you get started.

Go through your wardrobe. What items do you wear the most or least? If you have black pieces that you rarely wear, clear those out first. How much you clear out at the start will depend on your needs and comfort level.

And while you’re at it, bid farewell to any other pieces that you know are the wrong color for you. 😉

Rebuild your foundation first…

Neutral wardrobe basics in grey, brown, navy.

I still believe that the key to cohesive wardrobe is a core of neutral basics. These are the clothes you reach for most often, and that can mix easily with other pieces in your wardrobe. You’ll find that other neutrals pair just as well with colors as black (if not better!).

Aside from black, neutrals can be various shades of navy*, grey, charcoal, tan, brown, taupe, ivory, white, or olive. Every seasonal color palette also includes neutrals. If you don’t know your best neutrals, try different shades and see what works best.

Many people ask, “can’t I just keep my black pants/skirts and wear my colors above the waist?” You can, but you may find over time that black looks harsh or incongruous with the other colors in your palette. (The exception of course would be those with a Winter palette, which includes black.)

replace black trousers in wardrobe with other neutrals.

Above: black pants
warm neutrals: tan | olive | brown
cool neutrals: grey | charcoal | navy

*Navy is one of the more universal neutrals, and there’s a version of navy for every season. (Mine’s a brighter, clear navy.) Navy can be a more gentle stepping-off point for many of us. And yes, navy can be just as “slimming” as black.

And in my book, denim is always a neutral. 😉

Don’t forget accessories…

handbags in black and other neutral colors.

If all of your bags and shoes are black, you’ll probably want to replace them over time too. I find a tan or cognac bag is the most versatile in my wardrobe. If your palette is cool think grey, burgundy, or even various shades of blue. And metallic can be a great goes-with-everything option.

Above: black bag
Warm bags: tan | ivory | cognac
Cool bags: similar blue | burgundy | similar gray

Gone are the days when you HAD to match your shoes and bag, or shoes and pants (though if you prefer to do so, that’s fine). Shoes are such a huge topic that I think they deserve a follow-up post, so look for that in the near future.

Instant gratification…

Susan B. wears the Emma J. Shipley Odyssey long silk scarf in Spring pink colorway.

Wear your best colors near your face! You don’t have to wait until the rest of your wardrobe is sorted, just add a scarf. (Or a sweater, top, or tee in your best colors.)

Above: wearing one of the gorgeous Odyssey scarves from Red Leopard x Emma J. Shipley. They’re offered in 4 seasonal palettes. Use code SUSAN10 for 10% off Odyssey scarves!

Here’s a quick video to show how it can be worn with your favorite hat…

Be patient…and selective

It may take several seasons to rebuild your wardrobe, especially if there’s a lot of black you’re trying to replace. Hold out for fits, colors, and styles that work for you. You may find fewer choices in one season, and more in another. Take advantage when your preferred colors and styles are available!

And especially with your core basics, buy the best quality you can afford. Think fewer, but better pieces. (The bonus of sticking to colors within your palette is that the pieces work together; you’ll find you need fewer pieces to create different looks.)

This is just a personal opinion, but one of the reasons manufacturers have leaned into so much black is because it can hide cheaper fabrics and construction. The lighter you go with your neutrals, the more you’ll want to pay attention to quality and fit.

Give yourself time to adjust to a wardrobe without (or with less) black. Your eye may need time to adjust, and if you’ve been wearing a lot of black for a long time, other colors will feel unfamiliar at first. Stick with it, though, and you will adjust.

Starting points…

J.Crew Cecile sweater blazer navy.

This J.Crew sweater blazer is a perfect transitional season piece, and easy to throw on over anything. It’s available in several cool and warm neutral shades, and marked down for a limited time. If you prefer an open front style, this one is also good. Both are available in sizes XX-Small to 3X.

J.Crew twill cargo pants olive.

These twill cargo pants are a relaxed-but-polished jeans alternative. Available in four colors, in Misses, Petite and Tall sizes. (Also included in the promotion.)

Everlane day ballet flats in burgundy.

Ballet flats are a classic style that’s also currently on trend now, so selections are good. Instead of black, why not opt for this “Andorra” (which looks burgundy on my monitor)? I’ve always found Everlane shoes to be good quality at a reasonable price, and this style is offered in several colors, sizes 5-11.

Come visit my SHOP page for more options

Have you shifted your wardrobe away from black (or made other substantial changes)?

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  1. Love your article on getting out of a black fashion rut! I have way too many black pieces, especially the beloved LBD. I probably have 10 LBD in various styles, lengths, brands, you name it. And guess what? I DON’T LIKE BLACK ON ME! It find it too harsh. I love soft browns and tans. If I must wear something close to black, it would be navy.

    The problem? Most of the time when I am looking online or in stores, the predominant color choice for a neutral is BLACK. At least in years past, you could not find a similar style in a soft brown or tan color. I don’t know why a soft tan/brown is not more popular.

    I’ve spent so much $$ on black pieces that it is hard to just get rid of them, even one at a time. But you have motivated me to start purging just a piece at a time, one black dress at a time. I do have several black dresses that are not solid – black with big white polka dots, black with beautiful burgundy/green flowers all over – so I will keep those and instead start donating the solid blacks to Good Will.

    I think I will start with going to J CREW today and picking up one of the sweater blazers in either navy or tan. I love blazer that is not as structured so that it doesn’t feel as much like OFFICE/WORK clothing!

    Thanks again for your wonderful tips and articles

  2. I will never replace black in my wardrobe. It is one of my colors since I am a Winter in the color wheel. I do wear a lot of bright pink, navy, and white. And sometimes turquoise. I love a black top and white slacks or shorts in the summer! And I wear shorts 9 months of the year since I live in Florida! I do however, like how you changed your color scheme. You did have too many dark colors before!

  3. I commuted from Connecticut to NYC for years. Everyone on the train wore black, except for beige (Burberry) raincoats. It was considered to only color if u to ou wanted to be taken seriously. If someone came to a meeting in a navy suit, we knew they were out-if- towners. They were ignored.
    Once I stopped the 4 hours per day commute, I held the same job but in suburbia. Lots of black, gray taupe and some black. If anyone always wore black it was assumed they really wanted to be in the city (for New Yorkers, there’s only one city!).
    I’ve switched to navy or gray as my goto colors; It’s more flattering against my aging winter skin. And I can wear softer makeup.
    And my naturally dark brown hair ( which was going very dingy gray) is mow a lighter brown. Softer colors, softer hair. I seem to be more approachable, although I sometimes miss the edginess of a fitted black suit.

  4. Wow, I love those Everlane ballet flats with their square toe and higher vamp — thanks!

    As a Winter, I have a lot of black in my wardrobe; however, I’ve noticed lately how much it drains my face of life. I think I’ll focus on adding more color near my face, i.e., scarves. As a long-time Eileen Fisher aficionado, all of my coats and jackets — ALL of them — are black. Time for a change, thank you!

    1. PS. As a wearer/lover of black, my #1 pet peeve is the many shade variations one finds in “black” clothing. Even though my closet is full of black items, many of the pieces cannot be worn together because of that. Another reason to expand my horizons.

  5. After reading your closet detox post last week, I went to work de-blacking my wardrobe. I was shocked at how much I had, many EF pieces still with price tags awaiting special occasions. They are headed to a consignment shop tomorrow where I hope they find happy new homes. I’ve reorganized my closet around my autumn -focused neutrals. Thanks for motivating me to take a fresh look. It’s too easy to let black and other unflattering colors hide in plain sight!

    1. Chris, I have not formally gone through what season/color I am, but I feel I look best in Autumn colors – soft browns, taupes, sage, gold. I prefer muted colors too, nothing bright which is very different from what I liked years ago! I am going to work on “de-blacking” my closet too.

  6. I needed this reminder not to let the black back in. Thank you. I managed to find a blue winter coat in the spring sales. Winter coats sold in stores here are usually black. I’ll keep looking for non-black winter boots, but they are even more elusive than non-black winter coats.

  7. I work with color in a creative field. I “get” color. I have to be honest, I watch the YouTube draping videos and I can’t see the difference. Is Jane better in cool colors? muted? light? I choose the “wrong” answer all the time. It’s fascinating, but I’m not sold.

    1. Hi Lily, I get that. What I find the videos mostly show is the *changes* in how the skin looks when adjacent to different colors. What I see in person is often more obvious, for example how a color makes the skin look either clearer or more blotchy, or whether it makes dark circles under the eyes more or less apparent.

  8. I’m a summer that just missed being a winter according to the color me from the 80s. Now that I am retired, I’m revamping my wardrobe weeding out the office pieces plus looking at what colors goes better with my medium brown hair that is turning gray. My gray thankfully is the silvery kind. Can you address how the gray factor weighs in on your color palette, any changes or not….also any tips on makeup changes. I did notice looking at different color sites that not too many address the ladies who are turning gray or who are completely gray. Could be another way to differentiate your site from all the others. Thanks!

  9. A black cashmere turtleneck makes me feel like a million dollars. My everyday wardrobe is full of bold colorful prints that I love to wear. But if I want to feel truly “dressed up” I reach for black. (Even as a Spring, my Inner Audrey Hepburn is hard to shake.)

  10. I rarely wear black, and I ALWAYS make sure to have a warm color next to my face when I do wear black. So, I don’t have to worry about getting rid of black pieces from my wardrobe, there are so few of them.

  11. I don’t know where all the color went! When I was in my twenties I wore lots of color until I was turning 60 and grew my hair out. I have pure , cool white hair and so many of the colors I wore were warm and it really stuck out they did not look good on me. I am a bright cool and definitely not soft. I’ve added lots of gray to my black. I have purposely looked to add color but I still like black. I have added scarves in jewel tones which goes well with my black and gray. It’s a start at least. I make most of my clothing and there is bright pink, red and navy in my fabric collection. Waiting to be made.

    1. I would grow my hair out “naturally” if I had natural white/silvery hair! But my natural hair still has lots of dark in it, which leaves it a natural pepper/salt look and is not attractive 🙁 So I guess I am stuck coloring it for a while. I did go bak to a softer/lighter brown with some gold highlights. No ash blonde for me, not good with my coloring.

      While I am going to purge some of my solid black dresses, I am going to hang on to 1 or 2 solids that have beautiful style. I was thinking I could add a pretty scarf which will soften the harshness of the black.

  12. I have to agree with Nancy regarding the growing out of my hair. My color is very much the same as Susan’s and I absolutely love it. I get tons of compliments regarding style and natural color. But at times I do feel some colors wash me out. But I am trying to incorporate a few more colors other than black.

  13. I have to agree with Nancy regarding the growing out of my hair. My color is very much the same as Susan’s and I absolutely love it. I get tons of compliments regarding style and natural color. But at times I do feel some colors wash me out. But I am trying to incorporate a few more colors other than black. Love your blog!!

  14. Susan , I don’t seem to be able to download the
    colour guide from Red Leopard . I have tried it several times without success ( live in Canada).
    Love your hair plus each and every email . I always
    find positive advice or something beautiful to view.
    Keep on rocking !

  15. Black is so available and easy. Lately, I have been trying to wear skirts instead of pants to church and dress up more. It is easy to find black skirts. My favorite “color” is navy, it is easy to wear and looks much better on me than black. I remember looking at season colors in Home Ec class in the mid-1980s, but I am unconvinced that I am a true season and like to experiment.

    1. I totally agree! The main reason I have so much black in my closet is that it is the main color I see – so many items that I would prefer to buy in a soft taupe or brown, are only in black. I love the styles but I wish more browns/taupes were offered along with the traditional LBD etc. I also love golds, and soft mustardy brown colors but don’t see these hardly at all, and that’s my favorite color on myself. I’d have a wardrobe full of “LMD” little mustard dresses if I could find them!

        1. No! Thanks so much. That “goldenrod” is my favorite color of all time. If I could find more wardrobe pieces in this color I would be thrilled. Paired with soft browns, taupes and it is perfection. I think I am an Autumn in my colors 🙂