Fashion Friday: Black and White Prints

I was fretting to Ingrid the other day about whether black and white prints were becoming a cliche. I freaking love black and white prints, but I’m starting to see them everywhere, and I was fretting that five or ten years from now, they’d be like bell bottoms from the ’70s or shoulder pads from the ’80s. “Do you remember the early 20-teens, when everyone was wearing black and white prints? God, we were such dorks!”

And then I decided: No. Black and white prints aren’t a cliche. Black and white prints are not going to be a cliche. Black and white prints have skipped the “cliche” phase entirely, and are going straight from “trendy” to “basic.”

And there’s a reason. Black and white prints are awesome.

Black and white prints are neutral — i.e., you can wear them with any color — without being boring.

Black and white prints are elegant and classy, but still attention-grabbing and playful. Or, if you prefer: Black and white prints are attention-grabbing and playful, but still elegant and classy.

Black and white prints are a great way to make black a little more interesting. As someone who loves her some black clothing; as someone who used to wear all black all the time; as someone who had to make a New Year’s resolution one year to start buying at least some clothing that wasn’t black — and as someone who was finally, reluctantly, forced to admit that black needs at least a little something else to set it off if it’s not going to go completely flat and disappear into itself — I very much appreciate the value of this.

Black and white prints are super versatile, and can easily be dressed up or dressed down. A black and white print blouse, for instance, can be worn with jeans for a casual look; a jacket and trousers for the office; heels and an elegant skirt for evening.

Black and white prints can be mixed with other prints: either colored prints, or other black and white prints. Mixing prints can be a nifty way to create a dramatic look, but it’s tricky to do without looking like you either dressed in the dark or escaped from the circus. Black and white prints make this balancing act… not easy, exactly, but less difficult.

Black and white prints can, as noted above, be worn with any color. But they can also be worn with no color at all. They’re a perfect way to get the sparse elegance of a no-color look, and still look interesting and eye-catching and not blend into the background.

And you can go in a lot of different directions with a black and white print. You can go with zany patterns or classic stripes; little florals or vivid op-arts; simple checks or wild zebra stripes; strong graphics or subtle patterns that read as gray from a distance. They look great in blouses, dresses, skirts, jackets, tank tops. So there’s a lot of room in there for personal style.

I was so very happy when I started seeing black and white prints everywhere. I love it when styles I love come into fashion. Not because my closet is all of a sudden trendy — I don’t much care about that — but because I’ll be able to buy the clothes I like. Military styling, richly saturated colors… it tickled me pink to see these things show up in the fashion magazines, because it meant they’d be in the stores soon, and I could buy them.

But there is a danger to it. Styles that are trendy today can easily become dated tomorrow. And while, for the most part, I don’t really give a shit about what is or is not currently in fashion, I don’t want my look to be so dated it’s ridiculous. To hammer the “fashion is like a language” metaphor into the ground: I don’t want to be using slang from twenty years ago. I don’t want to be one of those wanna-be hip codgers who has no clue that nobody says “Groovy” anymore.

I don’t think that’s going to happen with black and white prints, though. I think — and I should clarify here that I am by no stretch of the imagination a fashion expert and I could very easily be wrong about this — that black and white prints are not going anywhere. I think they’re becoming a classic. A basic. Like denim, or the little black dress.

There’s a different danger to that, of course. Part of what I like about black and white prints is that they’re so distinctive. And if everyone is wearing them… well, they’re going to be a lot less distinctive. Pretty much by definition.

But I’m okay with that. Again: Black and white prints are versatile enough that they can easily be made distinctive, even if lots of people are wearing them. If they become a basic, I’ll still be able to make them my own: with jewelry, with shoes, with jackets, with colors, with patterned stockings, with other prints. And of course, there can be a nearly infinite variety of prints… just like there’s a nearly infinite variety of little black dresses. There’s lots of room for distinction and expression and playfulness in basics — and there will still be lots of room for distinction and expression and playfulness in black and white prints, even as they become a basic.

And if they become a basic, then they’ll always be in the stores. And I’ll be able to buy them.

Which will be totally awesome.

Fashion Friday: Black and White Prints
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32 thoughts on “Fashion Friday: Black and White Prints

  1. 1

    Apparently babies find it easier to process black and white than they do to process colours. Honestly I’ve woken up some mornings feeling exactly the same way. I’ve also heard that black is slimming…whatever than means.

    The important thing though is comfort. Are you comfortable wearing black and white and does it make you feel good. If that is the case then how could it ever go out of fashion? That’s why people will still be wearing denim in a hundred years instead of those silver suits, purple wigs and jet packs that we’ve been promised.

  2. 5

    I did not understand anything of that. Can you talk about fashion in English (or German, if you prefer) which can be understood by people (not fashion experts, people)?

  3. 6

    Sorry if that was too harsh, but I do not understand anything you wrote. I do not know what these prints are (to me, a print is what a printer outputs, but I am sure fashionspeak interprets it differently), what they are supposed to say, what is wrong with black and all the rest. After you made a tentative point that fashion should maybe not completely hated (still think fashion designers all work for the sirius corporation though :p) this was very frustrating. I apologize for the tone and language in my previous posting.

  4. 7

    I feel like there was some very deep and profound metaphor about society or religion or donuts or something hidden in this post. After an hour or searching and rereading, I still haven’t found it. You got me to think super duper hard about something that didn’t exist. I must say, very well done.

  5. 8

    Casual, the office, the evening…do people really change outfits depending on time of day? I understand dressing for special occasions, like a first date, a wedding, a funeral, or if you work in a formal setting, but unless I’m dressing up for some sort of special event, I wear the same clothes to work, out and about with friends, or doing nothing special at all.

  6. 9

    I, too, have a conflicted relationship with fashion for a lot of the reasons you’ve discussed. Lately, I mostly love it. I’m joining the conversation to share in the black and white love. I especially like it with a single splash of something really bright, like hot pink shoes. I made myself a dress where the bodice is white with black print, and the skirt is the exact opposite, black with a white design, and it’s my go-to dress for when I need to look “respectable” but still interesting. For a couple years now, I’ve been buying small pieces of bold black and white print georgette fabric, with the plan of making a patchwork skirt. When I get around to it, it’s going to be faboo!

    @Registania – prints are fabrics with a design or pattern printed on them – with dye or ink or paint for example. This would be as opposed to solids (all one colour), or to something that is more than one colour not because colour was applied afterwards, but because it was woven from different-coloured threads – a good example would be tartan and other plaid fabrics.

  7. 10

    Interesting. Prints aren’t in the UK this A/W. Our shops are full of rich colours, pencil skirts, jersey dresses, lace, patterned jumpers and knits. No prints at all! We had an ethnic phase S/S 08 (09?) I believe which was full of prints but not much since then (except for the normal spring florals).

    Now I am intrigued and slightly envious…. I want some prints!

  8. 11

    @thedudediogenes: neither do I understand it… It seems to me a foreign planet. The only difference between my work clothes and my general casual clothes is the 5 seconds rule (anything which makes me giggle for more than 5 seconds is not okay at the workplace).

    @Intransigentia: Thanks for explaining it.

  9. 12

    thedudediogenes: I won’t speak for other people, but yes, I wear different types of clothes depending on what I’m doing in a given day. If I’m working in my lab, it’s old jeans and t-shirts. If I have other meetings during the day, I might take a jacket or cardigan to put over that and make a more put-together looking outfit. If I go out to happy hour with friends directly after work, then I just wear what I wore to work. But if I go home, then go out to dinner, I might change (particularly if I was wearing grungy lab clothes that day). And on weekends, or days when I’m doing office work, but not going into the lab, I’ll wear somewhat nicer clothes.

    You might see this as extreme, but I think everyone does it to a certain extent. For example, would you wear the same clothes to work/school that you wear to work in the yard or do housework? If there’s absolutely no variety in your wardrobe, then why not?

  10. 13

    @cactusren: I would NEVER change clothing when returning home from work. Except for getting undressed for bed. For me this sounds like massive overkill.

  11. 14

    Hmm, interesting. I think I should consider black & white more when getting new clothes. I’m a fashion neophyte but am interested in learning.

  12. 15

    The “dating” of the black and white prints may come sooner than you imagine. Here in backwater Jackson, MS my daughter’s school recently put up an eight foot tall, full color poster celebrating the school, and the picture of the schools entire staff had everyone in black and white, with all the women in black and white prints.

    Given that Mississippi trails in just about everything (at least everything that is good for you, it leads in teen pregnancy, obesity, STDs, and religiosity), I can’t help but hypothesize that the widespread adoption of black and white prints here presages a death knell for the prints elsewhere.

  13. 16

    And then I decided: No. Black and white prints aren’t a cliche. Black and white prints are not going to be a cliche. Black and white prints have skipped the “cliche” phase entirely, and are going straight from “trendy” to “basic.”

    Keep telling yourself that, especially in 20 or so years when you’re wearing black and white prints and everyone else is snickering “that woman’s taste is all in her mouth.”

  14. 17

    Nanny Ogg and Esme Wetherwax both agree that there is nothing to beat “serviceable black” so you are at least half right in the views of the two most important women of the Discworld. I think that you should be happy and confident in your own judgement after that.

  15. 18

    Now this is something I had never considered. I tend to avoid prints, but you have a point, perhaps, about black and white being a nice variety thereof. I shall have to bear it in mind — I, too, suffer from “oops, I own a few too many black things” syndrome, although I usually get around that by buying a few solid, bright colors — most recently a long coral pink skirt which I am becoming remarkably fond of 🙂

    (Digression: long skirts have such an interesting effect on people. It’s like they come with a notion of dignified (white, middle/upper class, privilege alert) womanhood attached. You (or, at least, I) get a particular sort of extra respect with them. I like to play with that sometimes.)

    I’ve started shifting some clothes into ‘work clothes’ and some into ‘weekend clothes’ in the past few years. Not because grad students have a dress code (obviously not) but because I’m in a very male-dominated environment, to the point where trying to say “women are worthy of just as much intellectual respect” and “being slutty is ok” at the same time is really just fighting too many battles at once. I’ve decided to save the second one for my spare time.

  16. 19

    Is it just me, or is there a more hostile/dismissive tone to the comments for these fashion posts than is usual in Greta’s threads? Especially on the part of those who do not understand or care about fashion. Isn’t the point of a skeptical outlook to ask questions and try to learn about unfamiliar topics? Isn’t the point of a skeptical outlook to inform oneself on a subject so as to develop an informed judgement on it? Are we seeing less tendency to do so on the subject of fahsion? If so, why?

  17. 20

    I’m definitely seeing more black and white prints on “Project Runway”, where this season, every time Nina gushes that she likes a print it’s black and white and all the prints she HATES are colorful.

    The current style over the last few years that strikes me as a passing fad is the color combination of turquoise and brown. Especially in paisley prints. The first time I saw that combination in a print I thought it just looked sad. Perhaps it’s fading now, but it was everywhere for awhile, and as soon as I saw it I thought that anybody who bought much of it would be looking dated very quickly. (Anybody been seen wearing avocado green, harvest gold and burnt orange together since the late 1970? I feel the same about turquoise and brown paisley.)

    And I need to mention that I am completely over toile, and have been from the moment the interior decorators started proclaiming how it was “back”. Bleah. From a distance it just looks to me like untidy blobs on a white background.

  18. 21

    Ubi: Oh, lord, do I know what you’re talking about with the turquoise and brown combo. I actually *loved* it a few years ago. I thought it was a very refreshing, rarely seen colour combination that actually occurs naturally (in turquoise stones, for example), but man is it overdone. One finds it not just in fashion, either, but in home/commercial interiors, web design, dishes, floral arrangements, and on and on. Saturation has ruined it for me.

    Which makes me wonder (I hope this doesn’t sound rude!), to which generation do you belong? I ask because I wore an avocado green dress with harvest gold stockings the other day, and loved the combination. But I am in my early thirties, and my mother, who lived through the ’70’s, would have HATED that outfit. Which makes me ask myself whether any colour combination is truly inherently ugly, or whether our preceptions are affected by the times we’ve lived through and their corresponding over-saturated trends. My baby niece may one day love brown and turquoise together, but I’m not sure I’ll ever recover enough from the last few years to like it again.

  19. 22

    I have a couple of black and white print skirts that I love, but for some reason I wouldn’t consider wearing a similar print in a blouse or jacket. My fashion sense is poorly developed, so there’s probably no design rationale to that preference.

    For a good part of the academic year, my work clothes are scrubs, and after spending 4-5 hours teaching in gross anatomy lab, there is no way that the scrubs are going to be evening clothes as well. Not even if all I’m going to do is eat dinner, walk the dogs, and read at home. If I’ve been splashed with the tank fluid, or had sufficient contact with cadaver shrouds and extremities (frequent occurrence with large cadavers and with certain dissections), I’ll change out of the scrubs before getting into my car. Conversely, I’m not going to wear a skirt and blouse, in which I lectured earlier in the day, to go out into the dusty backyard with the dogs, or to mow what’s left of the lawn (severe drought here). So yes, I might change outfits several times in a day, but not for any exciting or high-maintenance reasons.

  20. 23

    [email protected]
    Is it just me, or is there a more hostile/dismissive tone to the comments for these fashion posts than is usual in Greta’s threads?

    I think that may just be you. As of comment 22, there has been one off-topic comment, a few comments pertaining to a language failure, and three on-topic comments expressing surprise about part of the post (the idea that people change clothes during the day as they change venue), with only one of those being really dismissive.

    I think you may have mis-assessed the situation due to the above-mentioned language failure.

  21. 24

    @scramble October 16, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Is it just me, or is there a more hostile/dismissive tone to the comments for these fashion posts than is usual in Greta’s threads?

    I don’t think it is just you. I think that discussions of fashion can bring out a really bitter, resentful side of people, and I would agree it is reflected in these comments. I would guess it has to do with the feelings of failure that people, and especially geeky types, have around fashion, that makes them so defensive. But I wish they’d get over it.

  22. 25


    I’m in my late 40’s, so my school years were in the style-challenged 70’s. I actually think that those shades of green, gold and orange look nice together, but it’s the same thing: saturation. Too may years of avocado green appliances, and every kitchen gadget and home decor item coming in those colors. When I see them I don’t think “nice colors” I think “ugh, 70’s, I thought we were through with that.” Same for the mid 80’s when prints of geese with ribbons on their necks were inescapable. Oversaturation of any style just kills the chances that it will endure as a classic. (Not that geese with ribbons ever deserved to be classic.)

  23. 28

    @Dan M. I take your point. In this specific thread, there is not so much animosity as miscommunication. But to take all of Greta’s fashion threads together, I do detect a tone of hostility or dismissiveness. I work as a costumer and personal tailor, so I can say with first-hand knowledge that absolutely EVERYONE (women, men, gay, straight, brown, black, white, thin or big) is self-conscious about their body. In my three years of doing this, I have not dealt with one single actor or customer who has not said disparaging things about their appearance while I was fitting them. Not one.

    The culture of fashion beauty, in its current incarnation, is not kind to anyone; it hurts everyone. This is an emotionally charged, hot-button issue to be sure, and I think that is connected to what atheist says about people’s bitterness and resentment towards fashion. In addition to the feminist angle Great brought up in her first post on the subject, I think another reason fashion is so maligned is a psychological one-“if I dismiss fashion as unimportant, then it can’t hurt me”.

    But I argue that, while understandable, this is neither a rational nor a skeptical response. It is not fashion’s fault that fashion hurts. Fashion is simply a medium. The complex social and ecomomic factors that currently rule the fashion/beauty industry, as well as the stranglehold that our advertising-driven and profit-driven culture has on most industries including this one, these factors are causing the harm. Selling consumer goods of any kind currently relies on creating a massive sense of dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s life. This is causing the harm. But these things do not make fashion itself less worthy of exploring.

  24. 30

    [email protected]

    I’m sorry, I did misread your earlier comment as being specific to this thread. I think that more broadly you’re right to some significant extent. However, there are mitigating factors.

    For example, there was a significant contingent (of which I admit I was part) that disagreed strongly with Greta’s analogy between fashion and language. I don’t think it’s fair to include that contingent in an measure of dismissiveness, even though it argued that Greta should stop talking about fashion in a particular way. Because, it’s really not dismissal to think that a claim is important enough to disagree with.

    Similarly, there was another contingent that thought Greta was wrong about the degree of expressiveness of fashion. Again, interested disagreement is not dismissal.

    But, there were definitely other contingents that took the Bugblatter approach that you describe. And I think Greta’s continued coverage on these topics may help that. (Even if I have to recast some of her comments for myself to stop using language analogies.)

  25. 31

    Ok, I know I’m a bit late in replying here (things have been busy), but I have some explanation, and a question…

    I would NEVER change clothing when returning home from work. Except for getting undressed for bed. For me this sounds like massive overkill.

    Why is it overkill to change out of stinky lab clothes? Like Barn Owl, I teach in an anatomy lab. I tend to go with a lab coat over jeans and a t-shirt instead of scrubs, but even having taken off the dirty lab coat, the clothes underneath smell bad. I generally change even before I go home, but if I’ve forgotten a change of clothes, I feel a bit bad for the people around me when riding the bus home in my stinky clothes.

    So no, I don’t think it’s overkill at all to take a few minutes to change out of stinky clothes. And shower.

    This may not apply to you–that’s fine. But do you really wear the same clothes all day if you go from gardening or chores around the house, then out to eat? Different clothes are suited to different activities. Even if your entire wardrobe is jeans and t-shirts, do you wear clothes that are dirty to work, or to a restaurant? To me, it just doesn’t seem like much effort to take 2 minutes to put a clean outfit on.

  26. 32

    @atheist: IMHO fashion is just an as silly idea as religion and I with humanity as a whole would get over it.

    And, yes, I do and never have felt the need to do otherwise. I hate the feeling clothes have on my body (certain fabrics are less so than others but I still have to live with a wardrobe assembled (by well-meaning parents despite all of my protests) purely on visual aspects with no dash of consideration for myself in sight) and redressing just brings it to mind that the temperature forces me to drape myself in such horrible things. I do not like to be reminded of that.

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