How To Transition Your Wardrobe

Navy pants outfit with warm tones. Details and more tips on transitioning your wardrobe away from black at une femme d'un certain age.

Many of you have asked about wardrobe transitions, either to incorporate a new color palette, or accommodate major lifestyle changes (such as retirement). Since the topic of transitioning away from a black-based wardrobe came up recently, I’ve used that discussion as the framework for this post. But the steps outlined below would also work for any major wardrobe update.

Above: Scarf | Sweater | Sweater-Blazer | Bag | Pants | Shoes

First, let me say that I’m not here to tell you not to wear black. Even if it’s not in your color palette. I certainly understand the appeal; for many years I relied on black as the core of my wardrobe. (I’ve often joked that my closet looked like it belonged to a cat burglar. 🦹‍♀️)

Why Wear Black?

There are valid reasons that many of us have come to rely on black in our wardrobes:

  • It’s easy to build a cohesive black-based wardrobe. Matching (usually) isn’t an issue.
  • It’s sophisticated, cool, edgy, dramatic.
  • Black says “take me seriously.”
  • But it’s also a bit anonymous.
  • Black is often associated with artists and other creatives.
  • It travels well.
  • Black (and other dark colors) recede, therefore are perceived as more “slimming.”
  • We often associate black with French chic.
  • It’s often the most widely available color for clothing, bags, and shoes.
  • Did I mention that it’s easy? 😉

And I also found that wearing black felt powerful and grounding. Until it didn’t. I’ve actually wanted to add more color and brightness to my wardrobe for a few years now, but kept retreating to black. It was comfortable and reliable.

That’s one of the reasons I took the plunge on a first-rate color consultation. And once I did that, it was impossible to “un-see” (as my friend Lisa from The Sequinist says) how draining black could be on me.

How To Transition Your Wardrobe

Navy pants outfit with cool tones. Details at more tips to help transition your wardrobe at une femme d'un certain age.

Necklace | Top | Cardigan | Bag | Pants | Shoes

If you want to transition away from a primarily black wardrobe there are a couple of ways to go about it.

The Leap of Faith

I knew that if I didn’t make a “clean break,” I’d continue to fall back on black as a convenience. So I came home and cleared out my closet. (Almost) everything that wasn’t in my Spring palette was culled. Much of my wardrobe was from Eileen Fisher so those went back through her Renew program. A friend has adult daughters who are around my size, so they got next pick, then what was left was donated to a local charity thrift. (If you’ll be letting go of any work wear in good condition, please look into Dress For Success. They provide interview and work clothing to women to help them achieve economic independence.)

I knew that it would probably take several seasons to rebuild my wardrobe. I work from home and our lifestyle is casual, so I could make do with limited choices for a while. It’s frustrating at times, and I’ve made a couple of “desperation” purchases that ultimately didn’t stick. But I don’t regret the choice to take a big leap; for me it was best process.

Slow and Steady

If you work outside the home, or have a lot of commitments that you need to dress for, or need to budget carefully, you may wish to take a more gradual approach. Here are the steps I’d recommend:

  • Go through your closet and clear out any duplicates in the color(s) you’re phasing out. Do you really need 6 black jackets? Or tee shirts?
  • Make note of what you wear most. Those are the pieces you’ll want to replace first. Factor in your lifestyle, activities, special requirements.
  • What will your “new” neutrals be? Navy? Brown? Camel? Grey? Think in terms of building a neutral capsule first; this will be the foundation of your wardrobe.
  • BUT if you come across a piece that’s one of your best colors and suits your style, grab it, even if it’s not a basic or a neutral.
  • As you find replacement pieces for your black items, consign, donate, or give them away.
  • It really helps to work from a set palette, either from a color consultation or one that you choose. It’s key to building a cohesive wardrobe, which means you can focus on fewer-but-better pieces.
  • Keep silhouettes in mind. Long over lean? Fitted over full? You may be transitioning to a different silhouette (e.g. from structured, corporate pieces to softer, looser styles) but consistency will help you build a workable, cohesive wardrobe.
  • Scarves are my favorite way to add color near the face. (You can check out a couple of my scarf tying tutorials HERE and HERE.)
  • Give It Time. You won’t be able to reinvent your wardrobe in a single season. Have patience, be focused and discriminating. Re-assess your needs and shopping list every few months.

Many people have asked, “why can’t you keep the black pants and just add color above the waist?” As an interim measure, I did keep a couple of pairs of black pants to wear for dressier occasions, until I can replace them with something in my palette. But many of my warm, bright Spring colors look harsh paired with black, so I stick to wearing black pants with navy or ivory tops.

Unless you’re wearing an actual suit, don’t worry if your navy or other neutral pieces don’t match exactly. As long as they’re in your color palette, they should complement. Use textures to differentiate pieces (e.g. a soft sweater over twill pants) and run with it!

It’s true…some women look amazing in black: Winters. During my color consultation, I mentioned to Annie how we often associate black with classic French chic. “But so many French and Italian women are Winters,” she replied. “That’s why they look so good in black!”

But if you’re not a Winter and you still love wearing black, I’m not here to pry it out of your hands. Our wardrobes should serve us, not the other way around. And we’re each the final judge of what serves.

Have you done any major wardrobe transitions? What were your biggest challenges?

More Neutrals, Not Black

Stay in touch.

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48 Comments

  1. Gail Johnson
    January 28, 2020 / 4:23 am

    Such a relevant post for me, Susan, as I am also transitioning to a light spring wardrobe. I’ve done the closet clearout and am now in the careful restock phase using many of your excellent posts as a base. Have you looked at Kettlewell Colours for inspiration ?- They do wardrobe items by season. I wish there were similar North American sites to order from.

  2. Téa
    January 28, 2020 / 5:21 am

    YES! I had a professional color consultation done 5 years ago by a stylist I read about in the Washington Post. I learned I was an Autumn and it really has put my wardrobe in order. It’s almost like “garanimals”…my colors all work TOGETHER, and I look better than ever! Especially when I wear one of my power colors! Do I still have black pants? Of course, but I don’t seem to reach for them…I even gifted my daughters and their BFF’s a consult as they graduate college and start honing a wardrobe for their next chapters!

  3. January 28, 2020 / 5:31 am

    When i was a young singer, I lived in black. There was a planned strike by the orchestra about 25 years ago, and the chorus was told to wear black in solidarity. I looked down at my outfit for the day and said, “How would that be any different?”

    When I became a teacher, I had a few adult students who found my wearing black to be off-putting (of course, I was living in Milwaukee at the time, and the response seemed to be, “You think you’re so fancy and east coast, doncha?”).. So I started introducing some color. I still like to wear black, but I usually have a pop of color somewhere (and I’m back to the east coast, where I can be as fancy as I want – or not).

    • Mary Ann Kampe
      January 28, 2020 / 9:57 am

      Ouch. “Of course”? “Doncha” think you’re being a bit condescending toward the women of Milwaukee? I like the fact that this blog supports women of all ages, sizes, styles and locations. To promote stereotypes about a particular area is unfortunate. You could have made your point in a kinder way.

  4. EliseB
    January 28, 2020 / 5:37 am

    A very balanced and useful explanation. Thank you!

  5. January 28, 2020 / 5:44 am

    Excellent advice Susan, thank you for a very sensible explanation!

  6. January 28, 2020 / 6:03 am

    You provide good guidance. I retired from my career a few months ago. My biggest challenge is that I need more casual clothes but find I still gravitate to the career-wear when I shop (hard to undo a 40-year habit), especially in the shoe department. I’m learning though, just bought another pair of slip-on sneakers.

  7. MJ
    January 28, 2020 / 6:33 am

    Following a color consultation half a dozen years ago I too tried to transition my wardrobe to “light spring”, at the same time transitioning to being mostly retired and to letting my hair go gray. I’ve found it very difficult to give up black entirely, particularly in pants, especially since navy is not very flattering to me and I’m fairly tall so good brown pants that fit are hard to find. (I’ve also found it hard not to buy structured jackets, which I still love even though there’s less reason to wear them, and I might jump at that honey-colored leather jacket you highlight above.) So I try to focus my purchases in my palette, especially for colors close to my face, but allow myself the occasional outlier.

  8. Marsi
    January 28, 2020 / 6:38 am

    The comment about why French and Italian women look so good in black — because they’re Winters — is so interesting. I’m “Black Irish,” with dark hair, dark eyes, and pale skin — totally a Winter, and my wardrobe is all black. I get my punches of color from scarves, shoes, my handbag, lipstick, and occasionally nail polish. Before your post, I’d never considered that where my family came from just a couple generations back creates a certain context for what colors work best for me.

  9. Allene K Mares
    January 28, 2020 / 6:50 am

    I had my (autumn) colors done years ago. But I live in the Pacific NW, and black clothes rule. I followed suit. You inspired me to get my colors professionally done again. Yep, still an autumn. I love those colors and am gradually de-blacking my wardrobe. I also gifted my corporate daughter with an analysis. Her seasonal colors look great on her.

    • Lori McBryde
      January 28, 2020 / 7:17 am

      Hi Allene. I too live in the Pacific NW and have been wanting to have a color analysis done. Would you mind providing the contact information for the company or individual you used? Thank you!

      • January 28, 2020 / 9:37 am

        Hi Lori. Allene is one of my clients. I am located in Bellevue WA. My website is Always Looking Your Best. Use the contact form on my site. 😉 I am Color Alliance certified as an Image Consultant.

  10. Virginia Campbell
    January 28, 2020 / 6:56 am

    Thank you for your always informative posts! I wonder if you (or other readers) can recommend sources of excellent color consultations in the US.

    • Susan Blakey
      Author
      January 28, 2020 / 7:51 am

      Hi Virginia, I’m going to get trained later this year to be a color and style consultant, and will be working with clients in the Los Angeles area. You can find consultants in other parts of the USA HERE.

      • Jan Whichard
        January 28, 2020 / 8:01 am

        OHHHHH! Well…..I shall just wait then. LA is so close!

      • Tracy
        January 28, 2020 / 8:24 am

        That’s so cool, Susan, and sounds perfect for you!

  11. Eileen
    January 28, 2020 / 7:14 am

    Thank you for transition information. I had my colors done in Sacramento, California, by Gillian Armour ( she may have other recommendations). I’m a summer. Any transitional info for summer is helpful ( or any readers info ) thanks, I love your new colors on you.

    • Jan Whichard
      January 28, 2020 / 7:58 am

      I am in the Sacramento area also! Did you enjoy your color consultation with Armour? I had my colors done years ago by a Color Me Beautiful devotee and It was so useful. Been thinking of a “gut” check!

      • January 28, 2020 / 8:19 am

        I do color analysis using the Color Alliance system. I know a lady in the Sacramento area that uses that system. If you would like to contact her, I can post her information. For anyone interested, I am in Bellevue WA.

        • Jan Whichard
          January 28, 2020 / 8:31 am

          Sure! Post away!

          • Susan Blakey
            Author
            January 28, 2020 / 9:20 am

            Hi everyone, I’m going to ask that you not post direct link referrals as they often get flagged by my security software as spam, and have to be manually reviewed. You’re welcome to post business name and area served for consultants, thanks!

          • January 28, 2020 / 9:31 am

            Her name is Angela Cramer and she is in the Sacramento area. Do a search for Color Wise Consulting. 209-304-1868

  12. Angelica
    January 28, 2020 / 7:33 am

    Sorry, what is “a Winter”?

    from Angelica (a non Anglo-Saxon)

    • Susan Blakey
      Author
      January 28, 2020 / 7:53 am

      In the Seasonal color analysis system, a Winter is a person who looks best in cool, bright colors. In very general terms, Spring is Warm/Bright, Summer is Cool/Soft, Autumn is Warm/Soft. Usually this is determined by draping different colors and assessing the effects on the skin.

      But there will be variations within each of the seasons, so the “best” colors in each palette will vary by individual.

    • Garden Goddess
      January 28, 2020 / 8:19 am

      Hi Angelica! Back in the 1980’s a book came out called “Color Me Beautiful”. It said that people fall into four color categories: Spring, Summer Autumn and Winter. The Spring and Autumn people are warm skinned and look best in warm colors; the Winter and Summer people are cool skinned and look best in cool colors. The Spring and Summer would wear lighter and softer colors; and the Winter and Autumn would wear darker and bolder colors. For example: Autumn would wear browns, rusts and cream where Spring would wear tans, peach and soft yellowish white. Winter would wear black, red and white; while Summer would wear grey, watermelon and soft white (greyed vs yellowish). You may be able to find a copy of this book at your local library, it was very popular. Oh, and you can tell if you have warm or cool skin by going outside in the sun and looking at your inner wrist. Look at the vein, if it’s green you have warm, yellowish skin; if it’s purple, you have cool pinkish skin. Best wishes!

    • Berenice Wolpin
      January 28, 2020 / 12:31 pm

      If you google ‘Color Analysis’ you will get access to a lot of information that can quickly explain it to you. Also, look for Susan’s post about her Red Leopard experience – you will have a nice visual of what they do.

  13. Elizabeth
    January 28, 2020 / 8:14 am

    Sidebar question, Susan: you continue to show the JCrew sweater jackets and collarless sweater coats, and I too have purchased multiples of these two styles. However, I find that they show wear and begin to pill rather quickly. Have you experienced this issue with yours and do you have any suggestions on how to either prevent or get rid of this problem?
    Thanks.

    • Susan Blakey
      Author
      January 28, 2020 / 8:17 am

      Hi Elizabeth, I haven’t experienced substantial pilling, but I also don’t wear them every day. For gently removing pills from any sweater, I highly recommend one of these sweater combs: https://shopstyle.it/l/bc8s1

    • Jjames
      January 28, 2020 / 8:19 am

      I’ve had better results by staying away from wool blends as these pill terribly. When I need warmth I go for merino, or mohair, or cashmere. I’ve used sweater stones with decent results, and shavers, but it just keeps happening and so I end up getting rid of those. I no longer buy wool blends unless it clearly states merino.

  14. lily
    January 28, 2020 / 8:43 am

    If one is a newly diagnosed season I would recommend stashing the “wrong” colors in the guest closet and thrifting some new “right” pieces. No expensive mistakes. – A Light Summer, who hates the light summer palette, and loves black for all your reasons above.

  15. Lisa B
    January 28, 2020 / 8:54 am

    I’ve been following Red Leopard on Instagram. Saw that they’re coming to New York. Wish they’d made a detour to Boston!

  16. Anne
    January 28, 2020 / 8:54 am

    I’m a winter, but aging forces me to wear softer colors than what I used to wear.

  17. January 28, 2020 / 9:01 am

    I’d like to see fewer women *rely* on black. It is the one color that is so easy to find, though, so I get it. I transitioned palettes a few years ago and agree that a wardrobe will coordinate easily if you keep to a consistent palette. I stopped wearing black b/c I thought it started looking overly harsh as I age, and don’t miss it a bit.

  18. Greta
    January 28, 2020 / 9:19 am

    I am a winter to and I love to wear black and also white for contrast. I also wear a little blue and I love to wear scarves for more colour.
    As I am getting older black is still my best colour. I do not think I am looking better in colorful clothes.

    • Jeanne J
      January 28, 2020 / 9:40 am

      Me, too, Greta. There are black and white prints and patterns that I adore, and black and white solids can make a very chic and classic look, especially with jewelry. I’m pleased that I can still wear my beloved black and white, although I have added a few softer colors (ahem, lavender) and have transitioned out most of the brightest winter colors that I learned in the 1980’s, like cobalt blue, bright reds, and so on. I just got so…tired…of jewel tones. I strongly prefer neutrals, which for me are black, white, and now grey. Loving all of the neutrals shown in this post!

      • Greta
        January 29, 2020 / 7:23 am

        Yes I love the neutrals in this post too! I love black and white prints and also stripes and dots. I don’t love to wear the very bright winter colours. A little blue and green and also dark olive green can look good on me.

  19. Lyn
    January 28, 2020 / 9:52 am

    Charcoal pants are my go-to substitute for black with pastel tops. It softens the transition.
    I can’t make myself do a sudden closet purge. Instead I try to wear everything in my closet every year. After your Red Leopard session, I found that if I was avoiding something “next in line”, it was usually the wrong color for me. (If I’m on the fence, it may get a “farewell tour”, which somehow makes it easier for me to let it go.)

  20. Sheryl
    January 28, 2020 / 10:05 am

    To me, the challenge is in finding that perfect balance between neutrals and brights, a little or a lot etc. When bringing in bright colors, I tend to favor a monochromatic look, usually neutrals in a flattering color with a pop of something brighter or contrasting. I admire women who can pull off lots of color, but on my own figure, I find that multiple or large blocks of color tend to overwhelm, chop things up and look less flattering. Dresses or coats are an opportunity to have it both ways!

  21. January 28, 2020 / 10:13 am

    2 things about black – firstly the argument that black looks good on French and Italian women because they ARE Winters is somewhat circular because the judgement on the appropriate season largely depends on how an unmade-up complexion looks against various swatches of coloured fabric ie if black looks terrific on you then you may well be assigned to the winter season . So it seems that the claim is just that those who suit black are called ‘winters’ .
    2ndly Coco Chanel is credited with having made black chic – it wasn’t before in France . This has been suggested to be due to her Spanish mother’s influence . Spaniards have been wearing black since the rise of the Spanish empire in the 16C – when even English courtiers took to it briefly . Judging by last Oct they are still doing it – men and women .
    It could also be because the first chemical dyes and hence successful black dyes were developed in the late 19C and in general use by the time just before WW1 when Chanel 1st extended her designs from hats to other clothing .
    Yes I still like black . It doesn’t make me look ill like so many colours from the usual seasonal palettes !

    • Susan Blakey
      Author
      January 28, 2020 / 10:28 am

      Yes, the colors that one looks best in are what determines one’s season. So to clarify, I believe what Annie meant was a lot of French and Italian women have the natural coloring that is well suited to wearing black. Hence they are classified in this system as “winters.”

  22. Nancy
    January 28, 2020 / 10:55 am

    Susan,
    Thanks for the notes on the wardrobe transition. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried and then walked away from this task as it just seems too overwhelming. While I think I’m an autumn I will take Katrinka’s advice and get my colors analyzed (and maybe a makeover) done by a professional to know for sure. No small task as I live in the Midwest and would have to do some traveling to get to someone. One thing that’s becoming obvious is the more clothing the more confusing/overwhelming it is. AAaarrgghh !
    One step at a time…

  23. Ainsivalavie
    January 28, 2020 / 11:27 am

    I guess I am a winter. I have that traditional “Snow White” coloring with aquamarine eyes. I look awful in certain colours and avoid at all costs. Fortunately I am drawn by my gut to the tones that suit me. I have found through my research that many Image consultants divide each of the four seasons into three more palettes. Susan’s Red Leopard ladies as do others also use a style gauge hence the terms gamine, romantic, boho etc So one size does not fit all.
    I think by drilling deep into the palettes and style variances you can avoid fashion fails and expensive mistakes or buying something simply because it was on sale.
    I am not sure I agree that the majority of Italian and French women are Winters. French and Italian women come in a myriad of skin tones as do North American women. European women tend to have smaller more pragmatic wardrobes and stick to the basics . They also tend to know themselves well as in “what looks good on me” and they go for it. They avoid ‘costumes’ and trying too hard. I have seen some very chic, simple outfits sported in Paris in grey, camel and ivory as well as the ubiquitous black and white ensembles. Worn by the very fair skin tones to the darkest. Frankly I don’t think its all about the palette, they just know how to “pull themselves together” as Mamma would say! That’s a skill that I think one learns over time by making mistakes, asking questions, seeking help, watching other women, adopting but adapting. It’s about knowing yourself and what works for you, in your life, on your skin.
    I think Susan is very brave embarking on this new journey. When one has held a vision in their mind for years of what their ‘look’ is it really takes guts to move beyond that… to start over and jettison that $$$ EF merchandise. Ouf!

  24. Angela in NZ
    January 28, 2020 / 11:29 am

    I’m a winter BUT…… having salon coloured hair for 20 years with a losing battle against UV fading and warming from our harsh New Zealand sun (hair dyes R&D is conducted in the northern hemisphere) I’ve tried to adapt my wardrobe colours to suit my hair colour and failed miserably. So now I’ve made the decision to transition to grey with the help of my very talented hairdresser and blessing of my husband. Already the weight is lifting from my shoulders. With significantly cooler hair at this stage I’m already seeing a difference. When I wear and launder an item that suits me it’s now re-hung inside out so that at the end of the season I’ll have a better idea of what is not being worn. If those items are still not worn for a second season they’ll be gone.

  25. Diana
    January 28, 2020 / 12:53 pm

    Very interesting post as well as all the other reader comments. I had my colors done in SF Bay Area in the 80s. Can’t remember the name, but they used fabric swatches, and each persons palette of colors was customized. Then at the end, they said I was I mostly “spring”, followed by certain percentages fall and winter. Black and Navy were both in my colors, as well as soft white. For years I wore a lot of black, and also started wearing a lot of Eileen Fisher. Now I am retired, hair is mostly silvery rather than dark brown. In the last 5 years I have been trying to transition to Navy from black. I now have enough pieces in Navy to have a travel capsule based on navy rather than black. I actually wear Navy a lot more than black these days. Blue is my favorite color, and aqua is one of my best colors. ( so are certain shades of green that have been impossible to find ). On Sunday I wore black to the ballet, and on the way home, I thought I feel sort of sad in this color, maybe it is time to release more blacks.

  26. Meg
    January 28, 2020 / 2:56 pm

    I’m still working so black is my go-to color. Professional clothes are so easy to find in black and honestly, black camouflages the increasingly poor fabrics found in almost all clothing lines these days. Until I have time to really shop, scarves will have to do for my pop of color.

  27. Rondi
    January 28, 2020 / 7:16 pm

    This is a very well written post Susan. Thank you for taking the time to explain transitioning your wardrobe to us. I think we can have more then one reason to make changes in our wardrobe. I definitely want to buy within my palette so that everything works together and I look my best. But, at the same time, there are life style changes to consider. Choosing your neutrals is the most important first step. I have chosen navy, olive, and camel. But I find it necessary to have “second string” neutrals. If I find something I love in gray or ivory it will work also. I find that shopping within my palette grounds me. I make fewer impulse purchases. And thanks for reminding me that this could take awhile!

  28. Tracy
    January 29, 2020 / 12:36 pm

    I love black. I’ve worn it extensively (critics might say “almost exclusively”) since I was 14; it suits me. Like Angela above, my transition away from black has to do with the fact that I’ve discontinued coloring my hair. That’s already a big adjustment; fortunately, black doesn’t make me look drained–yet. However, I can tell that I need to soften things up a little. I’m gradually moving to charcoal and mid-gray instead of black, but of course they mix quite well, so I’m doing a gradual phase-out of the black as I purchase or replace items in my wardrobe.

  29. Renée
    February 1, 2020 / 10:10 am

    Thank you for this post. It’s helpful, especially the idea of a slow and steady transition. I am always in a hurry, buy in duplicate when I think I’ve found what I’m looking for, but frequently end up with somewhat blah pieces. I am constantly purging and replacing clothes, and while I definitely have a better wardrobe than I did, say, five years ago, I recognize the need to slow down and probably take a break from shopping altogether. After taking careful stock of my best color palette (your blog has demonstrated how beneficial this is!), I can then see what I have and what I need, and with an overall plan, be very deliberate in my purchases.

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