Dressing in black gives air of danger; popular shade goes with everything

Sunday, January 20, 2013
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“My grandmother wore black and she was a very elegant and classy woman in her day,” Sondra Stephens, left, owner of Sondra’s Fine Jewelry on Upper Union St., said. “My family always says it skipped a generation and went to me.”
Photographer: Marc Schultz
“My grandmother wore black and she was a very elegant and classy woman in her day,” Sondra Stephens, left, owner of Sondra’s Fine Jewelry on Upper Union St., said. “My family always says it skipped a generation and went to me.”

Sondra Stephens will never be a study in scarlet, a lady in lavender or a woman in white.

“I only wear black,” said Stephens, who owns Sondra’s Fine Jewelry in Schenectady. “I don’t wear any other color. It’s sort of become my signature color.”

Black ops are easy — if people are thinking about fashion. A man dressed in black — shirt, slacks, overcoat — can look tough and mysterious. A woman in a black gown or dress can look elegant and cool.

Urbane and villainous

“Fear, sophistication — it’s urbane, villainous,” said David Zyla, a New York-based fashion stylist and author of the book “Color Your Style.” “It really has so much connected to it. When we think about black, it’s actually the absence of color. So it is very striking and very dramatic.”

That’s why Stephens goes dark every morning.

“My grandmother wore black and she was a very elegant and classy woman in her day,” she said. “My family always says it skipped a generation and went to me. Anyone who knows me in business says Sondra is always in black.”

Popular culture is full of characters known for dark tastes in fashion. Dracula and Zorro did their best work at night, in black outfits that included matching cloaks. The science-fiction space cops “Men in Black” wear dark suits and dark ties. Another space man, “Star Wars” villain Darth Vader, wore black. So does the latest movie incarnation of comic book icon Batman. The newest actor playing the Lone Ranger, which will be on movie screens this summer, is dressed in black vest and coat.

It’s a switch — in traditional western movies and television shows, the bad guys always wore black. The celebrated series “Have Gun, Will Travel,” which ran from 1957 through 1963, changed the dynamic. Richard Boone’s character, Paladin, a gentleman gunfighter, dressed in ruffled shirts and light-colored suits while killing time at his San Francisco hotel. Once on the job, all-business black was his rule.

Some wear black to look tough — like bikers and rock stars. Singer Johnny Cash explained why he wore black in song: “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.”

Other artists, such as comedian Richard Lewis and celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, also dress for the shadows. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders have cultivated rough and tumble images, and are formidable forces in black jerseys.

Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in the Bronx, said wearing black is like wearing the night.

Aura of mystery

“It’s a very profound physiological, biological thing,” he said. “We’re fundamentally not nocturnal creatures. We need a certain amount of light to see and, unless there’s a very bright moon, we don’t have enough light when it gets pitch black outside. So what we can’t see, it quite understandably develops an aura of mystery, allure, danger.

“That’s why if you look throughout history and right up to the present, people dressed in black are in some sense dangerous, mysterious. Whether it’s Paladin from ‘Have Gun, Will Travel’ or the Black Knight in the Arthurian legend, it’s just sort of something that commands our attention and interest.”

Levinson said black’s connection with the dark side is a natural for some rock musicians.

“Rock, and its origins in rock ’n’ roll, was a bad boy kind of music,” he said. “If you go back to the 1950s, there were people who were seriously saying it’s injurious to the mental health of teenagers. The Rolling Stones, in their early pictures, dressed in black.”

So did the Ramones, at least partially. The punk rockers, who began their act in the 1970s as a rebellious answer to disco and progressive rock, dressed in black leather jackets. Painting their faces was always the chief gag for rockers Kiss, but the guys always wore black during their appearances.

Levinson said black sunglasses are accessories for the look.

“Socially and psychologically, people can’t see your eyes,” he said. “In terms of being sinister and mysterious, dark sunglasses feed into that as well.”

Clothing experts in Schenectady back black in closets.

Not just for funerals

“Black is still the number one selling color,” said Mike Bernstein, longtime owner of Simon’s Men’s Wear on Union Street. “Black is not a funeral color anymore. People many times feel that’s what black is, but it’s anything but. It can be dressed up, it can be dressed down, they’re doing black jeans, black shirts with trim. Black is very simple. It goes with everything and you can brighten up with other colors.”

Bernstein is not crazy about the monochromatic look — that’s the guy in a black suit, with black, button-down shirt and a black tie. “You want to mix that up a little bit,” he said, adding that a splash of color will make the suit a success.

Black is big in women’s wardrobes, too.

“It’s very big,” said Peter Musler, owner of Musler’s clothing store, also on Union Street. “I sell more black than anything else, mostly tops — jackets, blouses, dresses. Also, every woman is looking for the little black dress, otherwise known as the LBD.”

Some men and women may choose black for its magical qualities — some swear it makes them look slimmer.

Michele Tucker Calderon of Glenville has another motive. “As a photographer, I wear black all the time — isn’t it the official photographer uniform?” she asked. “Plus, it doesn’t throw a color cast on my subjects. But I guess it really makes me cool and mysterious!”

Musler has other reasons. “It’s flattering, sophisticated, classy, elegant,” he said. “It can be worn dressy, but you can put in black with jeans.”

Zyla said not everyone looks good in black. The right color equation requires help from the eyes.

“It’s really based on the ring around your iris,” he said. “If your eyes are green and you have a dark olive ring around your iris, your version of black will be olive. If you have blue eyes and there’s a navy blue ring around your iris, your color is navy blue.”

He believes there are no bad colors. But people should always come first.

“I think a great rule of thumb is this — are we noticing you first and the color second,” he said.

Stephens said her eight-person staff — six women and two men — will all wear black when Team Sondra attends next Sunday’s Daily Gazette Bridal Show in Saratoga Springs. For all the advantages of the look, Stephens said it is not a perfect fashion statement. There are difficulties involved for the person who wears only black.

“It’s not easy to get dressed in the morning,” she said, “because everything looks the same.”

 

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