Neutral Zones

Eileen Fisher tencel ribbed knit dress in Midnight. Details and more neutral wardrobe basics at une femme d'un certain age.

Basics Beyond Black…

While I am really excited about adding more color to my wardrobe, my basic style philosophy hasn’t changed. I believe in starting with a neutral base, and using colors as an accent.

Why neutrals? They’re versatile, easier to dress up or down, and help create wardrobe cohesion. With a good capsule of neutral basics, you’ll never have one of those “nothing to wear” days.

Above: A “Little Navy Dress” in an easy rib knit.

In the past, most of my neutral capsule has been black. But now I think black will be too harsh with the brighter, warmer colors in my Spring palette, so I’m on the lookout for more compatible neutrals, namely (bright) navy, warm brown, tan, caramel, and taupe/warm grey.

Perhaps you’re also looking to shift away from black toward “softer” neutrals. If so, here are a few ideas:

Navy

Navy is an easy first step to take when transitioning from an all-black or mostly-black wardrobe. Like black, it travels well and looks polished. But it’s a bit gentler with most complexions than black, and often easier to mix with other colors. And like black, you can wear mis-matched navies; just be sure the pieces are different fabrics and/or textures to keep the mix looking intentional. Think: dark wash jeans with a wool navy blazer, or a cable-knit sweater with a skirt or trousers in twill or refined knits.

Eileen Fisher merino wool v-neck sweater in Midnight navy. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

For a nice, medium navy that’s easy for most of us to wear, look for pieces in “Midnight” from Eileen Fisher. Above, a simple v-neck sweater in a lightweight fabric is a great layering piece, and a good option for travel.

Eileen Fisher tencel cap-sleeve tee in Midnight. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

But if just thinking about sweaters right now makes you swelter, here’s a lightweight tee in a silky fabric. (Similar in Plus.)

J.Crew pleated midi skirt in Navy. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

J.Crew always has some good basics in Navy. I find their navy tends to be a bit darker. Here’s a fun pleated skirt.

J.Crew Parke wool blazer in Navy. Details and more neutral wardrobe basics at une femme d'un certain age.

I like the shawl collar on this lightweight wool blazer. Offered up to size 24 (also in Black and “Caramel.“)

Brown

Eileen Fisher jersey top in Clove. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

When selecting neutral wardrobe basics, brown can be a little more challenging. Brown tends to come across as more casual than navy, though in beautiful fabrics it can be very elegant. If your palette or other wardrobe colors tend to be cool, look for Eileen Fisher pieces in “Clove.” Above, this scoop-neck tee is currently marked down in the Anniversary Sale (Misses here.)

Eileen Fisher step-hem ankle pants in Clove. Details and more neutral wardrobe basics at une femme d'un certain age.

And here’s a pair of the stretch crepe pants (Plus here) in the same color.

If you like something more structured, here’s a simple straight leg pant in Misses, Petites, Plus and Petites Plus sizes.

Eileen Fisher linen cotton cardigan in Nutmeg. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

For warmer, lighter browns, check out some of the pieces from Eileen Fisher in Nutmeg. Here’s a lightweight linen/cotton cardigan that can transition into Fall.

AG Caden trousers in Cognac. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

I’ve been eager to find some lightweight trousers in a warm, rich brown. I have this style in a lighter tan color, which survived my recent closet purge. This “Cognac” color is spot on with the deeper browns in my Spring palette. (This style is available in several other colors too.) Cognac is also available in a 5-pocket, cigarette-leg style.

Grey

Grey is another non-black neutral that can be easier to wear (especially for those with grey or silver hair). 👩‍🦳 As with brown, grey can tend to appear more casual in softer, looser pieces. (The “sweatshirt” effect.) But it can also come across as formal/corporate in tailored pieces. (The “Man In The Grey Flannel Suit” effect.)

J.Crew Regent blazer in grey. More non-black wardrobe basics at une femme d'un certain age.

For those reasons, I tend to avoid a head-to-toe grey look. But a jacket like this one adds polish to a pair of jeans (and could also balance the softness of a floral dress without overpowering it).

You may find that some shades of grey are easier to wear than others. (Charcoal or “lead pipe” grey makes me look dead, but I’m just fine in a lighter, softer grey.)

Eileen Fisher tencel linen slouchy pant in Smoke grey. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

For a more relaxed look that’s still a step above sweats, here’s an easy, breezy summer pant in a tencel linen blend. (Available in Misses and Plus.)

What neutrals do you wear most often? Any colors you’d like to add but have trouble finding?

More neutral wardrobe basics (that aren’t black)…

Stay in touch.

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57 Comments

  1. karen
    July 22, 2019 / 3:23 am

    as someone whose transitioned the majority of my neutrals to navy, i’d also recommend looking at Uniqlo and Tory Burch (navy being one of Tory’s signiture colors). and for footwear, i’ve found the European brands and sites generally have a better selection, although in the last year or so, there has been a much better assortment from US brands.

  2. RoseAG
    July 22, 2019 / 3:49 am

    Mushroom/Taupe is a neutral that I like. It’s softer and not so dark.

  3. Ann Marie
    July 22, 2019 / 4:23 am

    I have a different coloring than you (I am a winter) but I wear a lot of navy tops. I think navy is much less harsh than black near the face. I tend to avoid grey tops, because even though I can allegedly wear a dark grey, I still feel like it makes me look blah, especially in the winter. I also think grey does not look good with someone with grey hair. It really washes the person out. I also avoid brown because I think it can be hard to style – you can end up looking dated or like a hippie. And forget beige. That screams old lady and makes the majority of people look like death.

    As for pants, I wear mostly navy, black, and grey. I think brown can look dated and be difficult to style, especially with shoes.

    I second Uniqlo if you are looking for good basics in neutral tones. I also recommend Muji.

    • Rita Prangle
      July 22, 2019 / 4:55 pm

      I agree with everything you’ve said, except I love brown and dislike blue. I wear brown for the same reason you wear navy: it’s not as harsh as black. As far as looking dated, I really don’t care, if it looks nice on me. And, I have seen indications that brown is making a comeback. So, instead of looking “dated”, I’ll be “on trend”! 🙂

  4. July 22, 2019 / 4:24 am

    It’s funny I’ve had my ‘colours’ done over the years too ( I’m autumn) but I still prefer neutrals, black and white , don’t altogether like my colour palette, if those colours aren’t ‘on trend’ I feel quite old fashioned in them ! All in all , it comes down to what you feel the most comfortable in , not what someone says you should wear !

  5. Elizabeth
    July 22, 2019 / 5:15 am

    While I agree wholeheartedly that the correct colors brighten and flatter us, there are many factors that also need to be considered in the head-to-toe plan. For those of us in a colder climate, eliminating black pants and skirts would be difficult. We need to run errands, push shopping carts, negotiate wet/slushy parking lots, etc. for months on end. Imagine the mud splatters on the backs of the legs. Blue denim isn’t always an option or a choice. As an autumn, I feel that my best and favorite colors go very well with black on the bottom. When I first had my colors done, I went all in. After about two weeks, the look began to feel like costumes … and almost clownish. Now that we’re having another sizzling summer, I can’t imagine depriving myself of white pants, shorts and skirts, just because white isn’t in my color palette. As for colors that are hard to find, I wish designers would realize that whatever a person’s “season” is, it would be nice to be able to find them all year in different fabrics.

    • July 22, 2019 / 5:30 am

      Yes, this past winter was so icy that I was more worried about slipping and falling, just walking to the métro. And dragging my “granny cart” home from the Jean-Talon market. But I never wear white, which would basically mean wearing black cat hair and bicycle grease. My neutrals on the bottom are more denimish or grey. I love red, and forest green.

  6. Liz
    July 22, 2019 / 5:16 am

    I’m so glad you are doing this, I’ve been trying to move away from black as well. I love tans and browns but I have trouble styling them. I have had a pair of Eileen Fisher ponte pants in “clove” for a year that I’ve never worn because I don’t know what to wear with them!

  7. Lisa B
    July 22, 2019 / 5:33 am

    I love the look of navy and cognac together! Those colors are featured in the Pantone 2019-2020 colors of the season so should be easy for you to find. I think they’re called Sugared Almond and Evening Blue. I’m short like you and try to dress tonally when I can. I wore all white to dinner the other night and received lots of compliments. I used to shy away from wearing white as I’m a retired nurse and it felt like a uniform, although try finding a nurse who dresses top to bottom in white any more! I’m a “winter” but white didn’t always suit me. Now, especially in the summer, with a bit of fake tanner , I can wear it and look and feel good. Good luck with your new colors. I had you pegged as a summer as those baby pastels looked great on you but the NEW colors look even better!

  8. Lisa B
    July 22, 2019 / 6:18 am

    Also, check out Chili Pepper. I thik that’s one of your colors too!

  9. July 22, 2019 / 6:20 am

    I love grey and camel together – it’s very elegant I think. I wear an army green as a neutral as well, and it looks great with so many other colors. I love black, but really only when I wear all black..not crazy about using it as a basic pant.

    • July 22, 2019 / 7:03 am

      I completely agree. The “black pant plus colored top” look, *unless* the top works with black for your degree of contrast, is a pet peeve of mine.

      • July 22, 2019 / 7:22 am

        Me too!!! Pet peeve…

      • July 22, 2019 / 2:25 pm

        *cough* Elizabeth Warren *cough*

        • Nicole K
          July 22, 2019 / 2:33 pm

          Haha! It’s true! I love Liz Warren, but always want to give her a style makeover.

    • Susan B
      July 22, 2019 / 7:11 am

      Grey and camel or cognac is one of my favorite combos too!

  10. July 22, 2019 / 6:25 am

    For early fall, Vince (one of my favorite brands) is featuring a cognac-like color they call Umbra and a golden orange called Sienna.

    • Lisa B
      July 22, 2019 / 7:55 am

      I love Vince too but so wish they would do a petite line!

      • Susan B
        July 22, 2019 / 8:00 am

        Me too! I love their clothing but most styles tend to swallow me whole.

  11. Pam
    July 22, 2019 / 6:29 am

    I’m loving your process. These new colors look fabulous on you. I just saw the picture of you with the tortoise shell glasses and the turquoise top and your face was just glowing. It makes you look 10 years younger. So many people wear black near their face and they don’t realize how old and haggard it makes them look. I am so enjoying watching you elvolve!pam

  12. July 22, 2019 / 6:31 am

    I’m not a fan of navy I fear – the result of years of being told it was necessary , ultimately chic etc . It doesn’t do anything for me – in fact it is even more draining than black altho’ I no longer wear that too near my face ! I also find now that my black things are not standards but have something ‘extra’ eg they are silk or silk velvet , heavyweight linen , glacé or patent leather etc . I can wear any shade of reddish brown from very dark to beige or cream but not yellow or grey tones . It is difficult to get the variety of browns I would like in shoes – each season there seems to be only one shade they go for . There used to be a shade of dark grey called ‘dove’ which had a definite pink cast to it – I haven’t seen it in years . It’s the only kind of grey I can wear – other warm greys like the mushroom / taupe of Roseag above make me look muddy somehow . Annoying when you see it look great on so many !

  13. July 22, 2019 / 6:45 am

    While I love other neutrals, black will always be an important part of my wardrobe. There’s a feeling I get when wearing head to toe black that other neutrals can’t duplicate. I have a hard time locating a cool toned chocolate brown. My most flattering have a cool tone.

  14. July 22, 2019 / 7:01 am

    My hypothesis is that as long as you were black either monochromatically, or with a warm-toned dark brown, to keep the contrast of the color values low, it will still look good on you. That black itself isn’t the problem, only the wearing of your non-neutral colors – where I agree, too harsh.

    This is only my amateur hypothesis, mind you!

    • Susan B
      July 22, 2019 / 7:10 am

      I agree! I’ve kept a handful of black pieces, but I’ve always felt that black looks best with other neutrals.

    • July 22, 2019 / 7:25 am

      Amateur perhaps, but I agree completely. I like low contrast outfits in general as well.

  15. Eileen
    July 22, 2019 / 7:10 am

    I’ve be told I was a summer three times, and a spring two times, over the years, I’ve found suits to have non black items in the past. But we are so stuck on, black, white, and blue jeans, it’s difficult at the moment. A summer color I find extremely hard to find, rosy browns. Many light colors are used for casual summer time clothes, is what I noticed. The color ways just changed to “warm” recently, so spring/ autumn people may have better luck right now. Good hunting!

    • July 22, 2019 / 5:29 pm

      Well, they would tag me as some kind of winter, but I never wear pastels.

  16. July 22, 2019 / 7:38 am

    I’m so excited about this. I, too, am a Spring and Gamine (not sure about the Golden part) and have struggle with the “black problem” for years. I’d love to see a capsule with a cinnamon or nutmeg brown base. Love those colors – love navy less. Thanks for all you do. Yours is one of the few blogs I read now, and it is my go-to fashion “magazine.” You rock, Susan B. Cheers! Prema

  17. Nancy
    July 22, 2019 / 7:39 am

    Medium to dark olive greenis a fine neutral which works well for my fair skin and formerly red now strawberry/light brown/white hair, blue eyes. It goes with various blues, reds, pinks, lavender.

    Rukshana, navy is much worse than black on me also, in fact, as my hair whitened, black makes me glow, go figure! It does depend on the fabric, i.e., black velvet or satin or cashmere vs. flat black knit.

  18. Jan Whichard
    July 22, 2019 / 7:45 am

    I like the idea of a “Spring” navy but not sure what it is. Is the sleeveless dress on the top left of the first row of smaller clothing photos what you would consider correct for you rather than the darker navy item also in the first row?

    • Susan B
      July 22, 2019 / 8:22 am

      Color-wise, yes, that lighter, brighter navy is recommended for Spring. However there’s also a medium navy in my swatch palette, which will work for pants/suits.

  19. Eva
    July 22, 2019 / 8:04 am

    Oh goodness, I’m SO confused. Maybe I ‘inherited’ all my fashion rules from my mother: “black & brown can’t be worn together”, ‘no white after Labor Day’ (I ignore this one, however, I don’t wear much white), ‘a red lipstick looks wonderful on any woman’ except it doesn’t look good on me. I have decided for myself that I’m an Autumn (maybe because this is my favorite season??) & wear warmer colors of this season. I guess I’ll just wear what I already have in my closet (it is now an emergency for my husband to finish one of my 1950s size closet into my part of my dream closet! LOL) until I see one of the wonderful people at Red Leopard next October, before I buy anything else. I’ll save the money spent on clothing to splurge on a few pieces in London! I’m LOVING your transformation, it’s a lot of fun!

      • Renee
        July 22, 2019 / 11:23 am

        Oh dear. We had a closet from 1914. It had a slanted roof, a 4 ft bar (that was only 4 feet off the ground) and a couple of hooks… Oh, and a window, for maximum UV damage.

        • July 24, 2019 / 6:46 pm

          Yep. No side windows though. Working-class Montréal flats are a pile-on of railway flats. Still desirable as walkable to shopping and close to public transport.

  20. Lily
    July 22, 2019 / 8:18 am

    No navy for me. I associate it with polyester uniforms. Car rental counter, bank teller, you get the idea. Same with khaki. Fast food uniform, casual Friday at mid-level corp. Brown is difficult to find. Greys can look like death. And we are back to black. There’s a reason it’s a little BLACK dress.

    • July 22, 2019 / 10:23 am

      I have the same kind of association with navy, as well as school uniform. I didn’t attend Catholic school, though several cousins did. I suppose black could be associated with nuns and priests, though it is also the colour of sultry temptesses.

    • July 22, 2019 / 2:45 pm

      Olive green for me!

  21. CJ Daisy
    July 22, 2019 / 8:30 am

    Since I’ve gone grey I’ve been slowly eliminating the black and white that used to be mainstays of my wardrobe. They’re simply too harsh now. I avoided greys at first because I believed they wouldn’t look good but found out the opposite is true for me! Also, I now have a lot of greens – sage, olives and evergreen shades. I never used to even own anything green lol. And the jewel tones that were de rigueur for winters look terrible on me. I look at changing colors now as an evolution to fit this stage of my life.

  22. Joan
    July 22, 2019 / 8:31 am

    Lovely and informative post, Susan! I recently bought EF pieces in cassis, ink and chutney. Alas, the ink and cassis are way too close in tint/tone to my black slacks — they simply got lost in the mix. Chutney was a delightful “cool” color that looked good on me.

    I have to chuckle — my pastel-adorned Mom would chide me about wearing too much black….I was too young she told me, lol. I am working on softer colors as well. Keep posting, you are a great resource!

  23. Linda
    July 22, 2019 / 9:23 am

    Hi. I agree about brown shoes to wear with outfits are hard to find. I am always liking a single neutral color from head to toe in different textures or maybe with a white or ivory top as well. Looks classy to me.

    • Rondi
      July 22, 2019 / 2:13 pm

      Yes it is! Olive looks great with autumn palettes also.

  24. Suzanne D Young
    July 22, 2019 / 10:58 am

    Thanks for featuring these gorgeous browns. As an autumn I often have difficulty finding these beautiful neutrals. I’m getting tired of seeing so many blacks!

  25. Nicole K
    July 22, 2019 / 1:34 pm

    Love the cognac finds at AG! But, hate mid-rise. 🙁 You look great in them, so look forward to future posts.

    Does anybody else find EF’s Midnight to be almost purple? I cannot wear it and have had trouble styling it. I’m fine with Vince “Coastal” or most J Crew navys.

  26. Rondi
    July 22, 2019 / 2:07 pm

    It is wonderful to see your non black neutrals. I understand that some people look lovely in black. They most likely are winters. But the rest of us need to consider letting go of the black! I see so many ladies wearing black almost exclusively. They often look drained of color and worn out. I think they often wear it because of their hair color. But it’s your skin tone that matters most. I am seeing more navy and browns when I shop online. I am even seeing ivory instead of white tops! Yay! Please continue to show us colors that look good with your new neutrals. I don’t think navy or brown looks frumpy at all but we are not used to coordinating with those colors. I also agree that the type of fabric makes a difference in the appeal of browns and navies.

  27. Beth C Richardson
    July 22, 2019 / 2:08 pm

    I’ve never had my colors done and have always wanted to, but I’m uncertain in Portland Maine where I would even find it! I seem to be a spring according to friends and swear by black as my go to neutral. However, I tend to pair black with another neutral, specifically pale gray, off-white, camel, and sometimes a bit of color with a very pale pink or very pale blue/aqua. Since I am a semi retired lawyer and travel quite a bit, being able to rely on these combos with a great pair of shoes works well. Throw in some great jeans and I’m set!
    Love your column Susan. Just wish you were 5’10 like me!!

  28. Beth Richardson
    July 22, 2019 / 2:09 pm

    I’ve never had my colors done and have always wanted to, but I’m uncertain in Portland Maine where I would even find it! I seem to be a spring according to friends and swear by black as my go to neutral. However, I tend to pair black with another neutral, specifically pale gray, off-white, camel, and sometimes a bit of color with a very pale pink or very pale blue/aqua. Since I am a semi retired lawyer and travel quite a bit, being able to rely on these combos with a great pair of shoes works well. Throw in some great jeans and I’m set!
    Love your column Susan. Just wish you were 5’10 like me!!

  29. Laurie
    July 22, 2019 / 4:28 pm

    I’m so pleased to see your post about wardrobe basics that aren’t black. I haven’t worn black for quite a few years, except when I have to for a choral performance. I find it is too harsh for me. I use navy, grey, and brown as wardrobe neutrals. I use dusty, cool-toned colors for accent pieces. I noticed you featured the Athleta Brooklyn pants in your post. I’ve purchased a few pairs of these for summer wear. They are the coolest thing I’ve worn in the hot weather! Love them. I also wear the Talbots ponte knit pants when it’s not super hot. I like the side zip version and they come in brown, grey, and navy. Can’t wait to see how you put together your new looks.

  30. Lee Rosenthall
    July 23, 2019 / 6:58 am

    Susan, I just saw that Ecco is having a sale on their very popular Soft 7 Sneakers. They also have some new colors (not on sale) that may be in your new palette. Not a neutral, but would complement neutrals nicely! Check out “Fire,” “Canary,” and “Retro Blue.” And if you prefer neutrals, they have several lovely ones, including a few on sale. Take an extra 40% of sale sneakers and free shipping on all orders with the code SIZZLE19.

    • Susan B
      July 23, 2019 / 7:25 am

      Thanks, Lee!

  31. Anon
    July 23, 2019 / 7:36 am

    Charcoal is my color, but light grey looks ghastly on me. Bright white is my go-to summer neutral, but was not a thing during my childrearing days.

    • July 24, 2019 / 8:12 am

      Moi aussi. But I never wear white. Visual arts + black cat. Here is a colour finder site that may be useful here: encycolorpedia.com

  32. Susan D.
    July 24, 2019 / 6:59 pm

    I will be so disappointed if you concentrate on neutrals and not some of the wonderful warm spring colors in your new color palette. I was so excited about seeing you in those. I don’t think the browns and navies will have quite the same impact.

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