There’s long been a stereotype about New Yorkers that their favorite color to wear is black, but after over a year of a pandemic that has relegated many of them to their homes and sweatpants, it’s possible that some have had a change of heart.
“There’s no denying that colors are outrageous now,” said Johnny Cirillo, the street-style photographer behind @watchingnewyork, when we spoke in August. From his regular perch on the corner of Bedford and North 5th in Williamsburg, where he stands with his long, paparazzi-style lens, he began to see a lot of bubblegum pink and bright blues and neons this spring. “When people were getting vaccinated, it felt like a celebration,” he said. “Colors are happy! They’re cheerful.”
Just call it “dopamine dressing” — a trend that has been dubbed by buyers and editors, and translated to an increase in demand for colorful styles from April to June, compared to the same time last year, according to Lyst, a fashion-tech company and global shopping platform. People were searching for bright, bold, sunny pieces by Jacquemus and Bottega Veneta, specifically. By mid-August, searches for “pastel suits” increased in anticipation of a return to the office. And this month, searches for colorful leather pants increased as well, with red, blue, and green being the most popular tones.
“Quite frankly, I think a lot of people got bored of wearing their black hoodie and black track pants, or wearing their black cashmere sweater with their black leggings,” said Roopal Patel, fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, when we spoke this summer. Or perhaps the popularity of colorful Entireworld sweats inspired people to switch things up as well.
“People want to flirt again!” added Linda Fargo, women’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “They want to wear things that are sexier; they want to be enticing, whatever that means for them.”
Of course, the little black dress has always embodied a sort of sexiness. (I bought at least two this summer.) But for some, it wasn’t enough. “It didn’t seem fun to me anymore,” said my co-worker, Brock Colyar, of wearing the color black in general this summer. “And I wanted to look fun! I’d put on a sexy black dress for a party, and then I’d get there, and feel like — even though it was totally chic — that I looked like I should be at a funeral.” They also decided to stop painting their nails black for the first time since they were 18.
What about the diehards, though? Even some of New York’s most iconic all-black wearers decided to switch it up this year. “As soon as we went into lockdown and everyone was wearing track pants, I was wearing track pants and things, too — but I wore red,” said former Vogue creative-director-at-large, Grace Coddington, who, in addition to having signature red hair, is also known for wearing head-to-toe black — despite Anna Wintour’s open distaste for the color. “We lived in the country, and I felt like no one was judging me, so it was a lot easier. I started wearing lots of color; colored sweaters, colored track pants. That evolved into colored skirts. I bought a bright-red skirt from Prada over the winter. I got red sweaters. And green I love, too.”
Black is a color that has long been associated with darkness and mourning, so it would follow that after an extended period of intense, widespread grief, people would perhaps want to incorporate brighter colors into their wardrobe. For his fall show, Marc Jacobs began with black but slowly built up to a more optimistic tone, with models shedding layers and face coverings as well. Thom Browne also told a similar color story for his spring show this month.
But as fashion historian, curator, and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology Valerie Steele pointed out, that might be too simple an explanation. “Black is not just a mourning color,” she said. Black can be sexy, austere, intellectual, artistic, practical, punk. As we saw with Kim Kardashian’s most recent Met Gala look — and the last Costume Institute exhibit — it can also be loud and provocative: a conversation starter, as opposed to a way to fade into the background. A trained eye will tell you that there’s a marked difference between Coco Chanel’s black and Balenciaga’s black, Yves Saint Laurent’s black and Yohji Yamamoto’s black. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons is known for saying that she works within multiple shades of the color. There are endless possibilities between fabric and silhouette and embellishment.
And so for some, wearing black will always be a tool for self-expression. “There was a point when things really opened up where I was excited to get dressed again,” said Alexandra Gurvitch, manager of creative development at Vogue. “I wanted to be out there and less covered, and have a little more fun. But then when I was looking at clothes to buy, I was still drawn to black. Every time I try something different, I keep coming back to it.”
The color makes her feel secure and in control, more put-together, she said. “Black is a persona,” she added. “When I went to school outside of New York, it was a way to wear my New York–ness.”
For others, black was, and still is, an appropriate color for this specific moment in time. “It feels like it reflects how I’ve been feeling and how I continue to feel — even if we’re socializing again, going to bars again, going on vacation again — whatever,” said Eden Deering, director at PPOW Gallery, when we spoke in August.
Her mother, Wendy Olsoff, who co-founded the gallery, agreed. “We’re so far from a solution, for me I think it would feel wrong,” she said.
As we head into fall, it’s natural to want to wear darker, earthier tones. But according to some buyers, neutrals are the new black. “For fall, we’re seeing a lot of softer palettes: ivory, cream, beige, camel, gray, charcoal …” said Patel of the upcoming season’s trends. “It’s a mix of a more soothing palette, with pops of saturated colors, whether it’s fuchsia, or a deep red, or green, purple, or cobalt.”
Fargo agreed. “[Neutrals] are comforting, and safer, and less in-your-face,” she said. After a summer of neon and sparkle, I’m personally looking forward to returning to something a little calmer and quieter.
Stephen Biga, a ready-to-wear designer who decided to forgo his normal uniform of all black for neutrals this summer, says he plans on continuing to incorporate off-whites, beiges, shades of khaki, and sand into his looks this fall. “Oftentimes, wearing all black in public spaces, especially when you leave New York, is really a strong look,” he explained. “It can be intimidating. Neutrals feel less severe.”
More than any one shade, perhaps that’s what we’re really looking for when we leave the house these days: human connection, or a lively conversation about clothes. Color is inviting! And for the moments when we’re communicating through a screen, which are often, it can be a useful way to get people’s attention. It’s not a coincidence that eye-catching, Instagram-friendly retailers like Lisa Says Gah also had a banner year, specifically in Brooklyn. But these retailers and brands like Jacquemus and Bottega Veneta were successful way before the pandemic as well. One of the most exciting young designers working in New York is Christopher John Rogers, who is a master of color. The New York uniform arguably hasn’t been, well, uniform, for a long time now.
When I spoke to Grace Coddington, she wouldn’t say, definitively, if her recent change in uniform was due to the pandemic or not. If she starts going back into the city more for work this fall, she might wear more black again, she said. It’s just easier. “But once you experience the joys of color, I think you’ll want to take the plunge at least once in a while,” she concluded. It was arguably the most New Yorker answer of all: Just wear what you want.