For years, the color palette of my wardrobe was almost entirely either (a) vivid jewel-tone colors or (b) black. What can I say. I’m a sensation junkie. I like extremes. Royal blue, scarlet red, strong black-and-white prints, cobalt, peacock, black black black black black… that’s for me. Forget about earth tones and pastels and browns. They work fine for other people, but on me, they just feel boring. And I felt the same way, only multiplied tenfold, about gray. The word itself evoked tedium, conformity, institutionality, even depression.
But I’ve been paying closer attention lately to what kinds of outfits get my attention on other women. That’s often a clue to directions I should consider for my own wardrobe. And I recently realized that my attention was frequently being caught by gray. So I’ve been re-thinking it. I’ve been experimenting with it. And I’m finding that I’m quite enjoying it.
If I want a neutral to frame a color or a black-and-white print, I don’t always want the harshness/ extremity/ severity of black or white. And gray is often the answer. Gray is still within the basic concept/ palette of black and white, and it does much the same job: being the background vocal to the lead singer, giving a strong signature piece a platform to stand out and do the talking. But gray is softer than black or white, and less demanding of attention. (Ivory or cream is also a good option, for many of the same reasons.)
Gray is also a great way to set off black, in a way that’s not distracting. If I’m wearing a black dress and black boots, for instance, and I want the blackness to be highlighted but not upstaged, gray tights are often a good way to go. Again, it stays within the basic concept/ palette of black, but it’s different enough that it makes the black stand out. Patterned gray tights can be especially sweet: a gray pattern or print adds visual interest to a look, without being too distracting. And on me anyway, I think gray against black looks more thought-out and put-together than the standard all-black ensembles I used to wear so reflexively. (A topic of its own, for another day.)
I also think gray can be interestingly sexy. Because gray is more subtle and muted, it calls attention to texture, inviting you to think less about how the clothing looks and more about how it feels. So if your textures are actually sensual and inviting, that can be very yummy indeed. And because gray is more subtle and muted, you can go shorter in a dress or skirt with it, and still not look trashy.
And I’m finding myself especially intrigued by interesting combinations of grays. If someone is wearing all gray — but it’s all different grays, like a darker gray dress with lighter gray tights and deep charcoal gray shoes, all in different textures and patterns, with silver jewelry to add shine while staying within the theme? If that’s done well, it can look elegant, sophisticated, thoughtfully understated: like an authoritative person speaking in a quiet voice to get attention, or a partygoer who’s confident enough in themselves that they don’t need the whole room to pay attention to them. And it will totally make my head swivel.
You have to be careful with gray, I think. It can be hard to pull off: if it doesn’t work, it can in fact look boring and mousy and institutional. And that’s especially true for an all-gray outfit. All of the pieces have to be interesting and beautiful, with some sort of cool texture or pattern to them, if you don’t want it all to blend into a blobby background sameness.
But if it’s done right, gray doesn’t have to say tedium, conformity, institutionality, depression. Instead, it can say subtlety. Elegance. Class. Calm.
And those are all things I’m interested in saying right now.