Reader Request: Working Those Black Dresses

little_black_dresses1_with text

Reader Alyson e-mailed me this question:

I have seven black dresses in my closet. Seven. I remember purchasing two of them and I think I have inherited the rest. Two are what would be consider shirt dresses with long sleeves, one dress with cap sleeves, and four are sleeveless. Only one has embellishment of any kind in the form of lace around the collar. I have no idea how to wear these dresses, more importantly what to wear with them. Part of the problem is that I live in tropical, sunny Florida. They’re great work wear but I’m just at a loss.

The Little Black Dress (LBD) is considered a wardrobe staple by many style experts, and even if yours isn’t meant to be sexy or designed to be fancy enough for a night on the town, it’s likely that you’ve got a black dress of some sort in your wardrobe. And they certainly can be tough to style! Alyson has some specifics that I’ll address, too, but here are a few tips for making any LBD sing:

Add prints that include black

Black dresses with printed pieces

To make your looks intentional, throwing in some prints and patterns that include black is a great bet. This offers you an easy, organic way to bring color into the mix, too! If you select a print that includes black and color, feel free to echo those colors elsewhere in your outfit. For more casual occasions, printed cardigans and blazers are great options. If you’re going formal, a printed scarf, wrap, or pair of pumps will work. Even something as small as a printed belt will tie your look together.

Do a neutral mix

Black dresses in neutral mixes

Black can serve as a great backdrop for a neutral mix. Whenever you’re mixing neutrals, try to get at least three into your outfit – so black plus two others. Don’t confine yourself to browns and grays! Olive, tan, camel, and burgundy all work, and denim counts as a neutral in most cases. Throw in some neutral-only patterns like dots, houndstooth, and animal prints and consider mixing up your textures for added interest. This option tends to create chic but casual ensembles, although dressier options are possible.

Go with cool brights

Black dresses with cool brights

Black is very strong, and can suck the life out of other colors. Cool bright colors – colors with bluish undertones and some electricity to them – can generally handle the darkness. This is my least favorite of the three options, as black is still the main shade and using solid brights as accents can look a bit wonky. So if you go this route try to do one of three additional things: Incorporate a pattern (animal prints or black and white geometrics are great), try to use two values of your cool bright (like cobalt and turquoise), or repeat the color in two places within your outfit (like a blazer and shoes).

In terms of Alyson’s specifics, black in Florida is challenging, I’m sure, but it certainly can be done! Shirt dresses aren’t easily layer-able but belts, shoes, and jewelry can be added in any of these three categories (printed, neutral, cool-bright). Black dresses with black and white prints would be fantastic year-round. Adding a lightweight printed cardigan that includes black but also has light or bright colors will work in a hot, sunny climate. Neutral mixes should be keep light, too, with a focus on grays, tans, and olives instead of charcoals and chocolate browns … and you might want to reserve those for winter wear. The cool brights formula might feel best for dressy occasions when a red clutch or cobalt shoes are your sole pop of color with a sleeveless sheath or cap-sleeved dress.

Related post: Being Intentional With Black

How do YOU style your LBDs? Any other tips to share? Would these suggestions work for your personal style? How would you advise Florida-dwelling Alyson?

Top images courtesy eShakti.

Originally posted 2013-11-07 06:11:11.

Next Post
Previous Post

20 Responses to “Reader Request: Working Those Black Dresses”

  1. Heather

    I’m a fellow Floridian, and I agree with Sally’s suggestions. Outside of that, don’t be afraid to just plain rock black as is. Add some great jewelry and go with it.
    I’ve also had good luck blending slightly more muted hues if the brights aren’t your thing- like dusky roses and french blues.

  2. A.B.

    Thank you! I wouldn’t have thought of most of these. Now off to raid my closet and see what I can put together.

  3. Refugee

    Oh I loves me a LBD! So versatile! Several years ago there was a now gone blog I followed called Fell4Fashion. She had a feature called LBD Monday. Every Monday she wore the same LBD a different way. It was amazing the multiple ways she wore a single dress. I really miss that blog.
    Anyway, on to styling thoughts.
    First, you have some sleeveless LBDs. If one is a simple tank style, don’t forget about layering underneath. A t-shirt, turtleneck, or button down under the LBD is one of my favorite options. My go-to in this is what I call the vest & skirt look. Start with a white button down with a neck-tie and pop the LBD over the top (keeping the tie tucked in the dress) add tights and/or boots.
    Next, the shirtdresses. If it is a shirtdress that buttons all the way down, try unbuttoning it and wearing it more like a coat. Jeans, a top, unbuttoned shirtdress over the top and belted can give a great layered look that would be more friendly to your climate than wearing an actual coat. Also, since you have 2 long-sleeved shirt dresses, have you thought about having one of them tailored? Having the sleeves cut-off to short-sleeve length should be a fairly inexpensive alteration and may add some versatility to your LBD wardrobe and make it a little more climate friendly.

    • A.B.

      I actually would wear short sleeves less often than something with 3/4, long, or no sleeves. It’s something Sally said earlier, that sometimes no sleeves is more flattering than short sleeves. And I definitely agree, plus I find it more comfortable. The long sleeved shirt dresses are not the same style, so there’s no need to have one look different than the other.

      I am definitely not a “layer under a dress” kind of person. I don’t like it on myself, even though I like it on others. To me it always feels too school uniform-ish. I have an authority issue anyway because I look very young and I think that would add to it. Then there’s also the problem that when I get overheated there is no layer to remove.

      I will check the Internet Archive to see if I can find that blog, it looks like there may be some good ideas there.

      • A.B.

        Replying to myself, because…

        Sally, have you done anything about dressing for/with authority? I thought you had but can’t find it. Not necessarily how to dress older (because I’m not young, I just look it) but maybe how to make people take me/us seriously in the professional world while not losing our own fashion identity when we look young.

      • Refugee

        I know what you mean about short sleeves. I am very picky about short sleeves since exactly where the sleeve ends on my arm can make a big difference.
        Your hesitance to layer under makes sense. I would however, make a final argument for it. Layering a light-weight long-sleeved t-shirt under can turn a sleeveless lbd into a color-blocked dress. Maybe not the work look you are going for but perhaps for a non-work alternative. And if the t-shirt is light weight, there is not a lot of difference between this and a long sleeved dress. Of course, if it is hot enough weather-wise on a given day, you won’t find me with any sleeves at all and any layering is out of the question.

        • A.B.

          There’s still the fact that it reminds me of a school uniform, which is not going to happen.

  4. julie

    Thanks for those ideas! I was just lamenting how much black I have in my winter wardrobe, and I wear dresses a lot even in this cold northern climate so I really like the idea of the neutral mix for work, I can still look professional but not funereal.

  5. LinB

    Big bonus about wearing black in the South? Bugs are far more attracted to white and light colors than to black. Send those skeeters to bite someone else, by wearing black.

  6. Lisa

    Some great suggestions here, Sal.

    Since the reader lives in Florida, I think it’s about lightening up the darkness and the heaviness of the LBD, which could be done with:

    -A light, summery outer layer like a sleek white blazer or a faded denim jacket
    -Lighter shoes like pointy-toed flats, peep-toes, or sandals
    -Metallic accessories
    -A bright lipstick

  7. Chris


    Would all of your suggestions work with dark navy instead of black? Black makes me look like Night of the Living Dead whereas navy is flattering. I don’t get it. I have similar coloring to Allie at Wardrobe Oxygen but black is so fabulous on her. In fact, I would say it is one of her best “colors”.

  8. Kristen

    I never thought of putting a tan blazer with a black dress. Scuse me, gotta go try something on…

  9. Amy

    I wear black all summer, and one of my favorites is god old black and white. I have black and white tribal print strappy wedges, white boots, black and white scarves, white chunky jewelery, etc. I find that when you add white and make it deliberate, the black is far less funereal.

  10. Aya in Couturgatory

    Ooh, handy Sally, thank you. I was just pulling my two LBDs from the closet with the determination to wear them before they became age inappropriate. (far off, but I want to get started now)

    I like wearing wide belts with plain black or plain color dresses, and add a shrug or cropped cardigan on top. This may have to do with body proportions, so apologies if this is not useful for your build.

    In warm and humid weather, I also layer linen or light fabric button downs over a dress. Getting them the size where they’d be a skimming/snug fit will make them flattering when worn open.

    Lastly, a light trench or other mid thigh to knee length outer layer looks great over a short to mid length bodycon black dress and some sort of heel, in my opinion.

  11. Tiffany

    Easiest thing in the world to style–depends on the event, but earrings, shoes, smile!