Wearing black is more than a fashion statement. In fact, black sport coats and suits can help, and in some cases significantly hurt, your professional image. This article explains when black is appropriate, and when it is likely to hurt.
BLACK AS A FASHION STATEMENT
Everyone knows that black can be a fashion statement. That goes without saying. For women, the little black dress is a staple of any complete wardrobe. For men, black suits are appropriate for funerals, and black pants are a versatile part of any casual collection since they go with almost every color sport coat.
But what few professionals realize is that black can also have both positive and negative implications for how others perceive you in the workplace. These effects are largely caused not by fashion trends, but by unconscious reactions that other people have to you when you wear black, and much depends on your hair and skin tone and your height. Contrary to common belief, black is not always a slimming color, and heavyset professionals are not always going to look better in black. We have tested black outfits on men and women professionals, including attorneys, accountants, bankers, and salespeople, and the results of our fieldwork reveal the power of black to enhance the image of shorter people, and to make tall people appear threatening.
John Singer Sargent is one of the artists we show our clients at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And my favorite painting is Madame X. It has a lot to teach us about the collateral consequences of wearing black.
Sargent painted his famous portrait, Madame X, in 1883-1884. The model, Virginie Avegno, was a young American socialite living in Paris. She used powder to make her fair skin even whiter. Sargent painted her in a black dress that leaves her upper torso, neck, and arms bare, in striking contrast to the dark dress. He spent weeks going over the shape and color of her arms to get the position and tone just right. When it was put on display it caused a public outcry because the shoulder strap was off her right shoulder, and Sargent was compelled to repaint it in its present more decorous position. Overly sensitive Parisians also objected to the model’s stance, claiming that the way she rested her arm on the table and the way she tilted her nose in the air displayed a haughty American disdain for the French.
Aside from the controversy surrounding the portrait, there is something else of note about the painting, namely that if you squint your eyes, the two black hoops on the upper torso, when seen against the pale backdrop of Virginie’s chest, appear to be two eyes in a white face, essentially duplicating her high-contrast face (with its dark red hair and chalk-white skin) in her torso and body. In effect, Sargent enhanced her image by duplicating her face in her outfit, a sophisticated method of making a person appear larger and more impressive.
By collateral consequences we mean the subliminal, or below conscious awareness, effect of the color black. In the case of Madame X, the overall effect of the black dress is to enhance the young woman’s appearance since the striking contrast between her pale torso and black dress reproduce the high contrast between her hair and face.
Attorneys, both male and female, who have black or dark hair and fair skin tone can achieve a similar enhanced image by wearing high-contrast outfits, such as navy blue or black suits with white shirts or blouses. Such high-contrast outfits, especially if navy blue or dark gray, are very appropriate for an attorney, and convey to other people a sense of authority and professionalism. However, black suits are different, and an explanation of why may prove helpful to those who wish to enhance their effectiveness when dealing with clients, colleagues, and decision-makers.
Unlike navy blue or charcoal gray, black outfits are usually too funereal for most people since they suggest connotations of death, even if not consciously. At the same time, because they are the darkest color, black outfits are the most severe. Consequently, they are generally too Spartan for most men and women at work, especially for tall men, who appear threatening when wearing black suits. In the same way, people with medium skin tone will also tend to look overly threatening and harsh in black, undermining rather than enhancing their effectiveness in a professional environment.
For short men and women, though, black can sometimes enhance their effectiveness by overcoming their height disadvantage, especially when paired with expensive jewelry, such as a necklace, bracelet, or wristwatch. The same effect can be achieved, however, with a less severe and funereal look, by wearing a navy blue or dark gray pinstripe suit.
By understanding the way that black can work for and against your effectiveness, you can use your black suits and sport coats to good advantage. You can also avoid appearing too gruff and threatening, especially when addressing a jury or a potential new client. Of course, when you want to make a fashion statement, you can smile to yourself and sport that black outfit, perhaps even relishing the fact that people may react to you the way Parisians reacted to Madame X.