MY FIRST GROWN-UP dress was a Ralph Lauren knee-length black jersey with ballerina neckline, long narrow sleeves and a wide belt to cinch the waist. When I wore it, I felt beautiful, a new sensation. I was 16 years old, growing up in D.C. and awakening to the peculiar power of youth and femininity.
That same year, my mother also gave me a string of good-quality pearls. When I learned that oils from skin help the gems retain their luster, I rarely took them off. This was the late eighties. We wore pearls against our crewneck volleyball uniforms or doubled the strands on our wrists to pile up with friendship bracelets woven from embroidery thread.
I remembered that dress when I recently watched the classic film “Funny Face” (1957) in which Kay Thompson plays the editor of a fashion magazine. Tired of drab wardrobes, she declares “Banish the black,” and demands a remake of her next issue.
“Now hear this,” her character Ms. Prescott orders over the office intercom, as she assembles her staff for a meeting. Wearing a black suit and white blouse, she pronounces the planned fashion spread dreary and demands: “Everything goes pink!”
She speaks my language.
After living for more than two decades in California, I built an almost all-black wardrobe. Draped on hangers and folded on shelves, my clothes disappeared into each other, an amorphous blob of negative space. From this uniform shade, I selected items by texture, fingers distinguishing cashmere from wool, ribbed cotton from brushed.
How did life become so achromatic?
Until I reached adolescence, pink dominated my closet and my life. Even my bedroom walls were pink. And thanks to Laura Ashley, pink and green also popped on my bedspread and lampshade, creating an eternal springtime that carried me through boy crushes, bad bosses, friendship feuds, family frustration and bombed chemistry tests.
Clinique carried the theme into rosy blush, packaged in a sea mist-colored compact. Red food coloring flushed my home-baked sugar cookies with coral frosting. I loved pink so much that friends teased me: They said pink paint used in prisons, supposedly to calm, actually aggravates.
But pink made me happy. It was the color of roses in my prom corsage, my pet mouse’s nose, Trimline telephones, Molly Ringwald’s dress, edgy hair, Hostess Sno Balls cupcakes, lox, Anais Anais perfume, strawberry ice cream, summer watermelon, Shirley Temple cocktails and the tastiest lemonade.
So how did I go from being known for pink — as well as floral print dresses and neckerchiefs in brilliant colors — to day after day of basic black?
Geography unearths the answer. When I left the East Coast for college in California, black’s absence of color defined me. Wearing black sent the message that I was more sophisticated than orange athletic wear, cooler than coastal stripes.
The monotony of California sunshine augmented this affinity for black. Also, black was easy to wear and combine, looked good whether costly or cheap, and hid fur shed by my coal-colored dogs. Dressing on a Central Valley morning in long-sleeved black T-shirt, jeans, a necklace and boots, I could take a walk with my husband, Matt, and the dogs along the American River, board a plane and land on a D.C. evening still suitably attired.
Black clothes allowed me to blend in at Zen retreats, poetry readings and unfamiliar yoga studios. Black was quiet and unobtrusive, fearless in its simplicity. Eventually, even my underwear and sock drawers came to resemble bar codes. I furnished my house with black. The car was white with black upholstery. I insisted on black ink in my pens.
Continuing a custom in my marriage of buying Matt logo T-shirts on travels, I found myself coming home empty-handed if I couldn’t find black. I cut my purple yoga mat into pieces to use as rug pads and started teaching exclusively from a black one.
Then I moved back East. Traveling light, Matt and I brought two black zafu cushions, the black bed, white sheets, a black table, white bookcase, black tray and stone-colored bath towels. (Is gray considered a color?)
We arrived in spring. Throughout summer, D.C. tourists provided spots of myriad hues, excitable songbirds mitigating the crow-like local garb.
Then fall and winter followed. Spilling out of apartment buildings and Uber rides came black puffy jackets, black boots, black flats and black umbrellas to populate the short, hoary days, filling in city spaces like tedious pointillism paintings, a light-sucking prospect stretching into infinity like an M.C. Escher mezzotint.
For a day trip to New York, I wore black jacket, black boots and jeans. My friend wore black, too, and we searched high and low for each other at Penn Station among a multitude of women of all ages dressed in the unvarying anemic onyx of urbanites. Suddenly, I missed my blue coat.
Yes, my blue corduroy coat purchased on sale from Patagonia almost 10 years ago. It cloaks me in associations of turquoise bracelets, berries, beaches, Matt’s eyes, Georgia O’Keeffe skies and little birds of happiness. It has been my exception, my anomaly, my deviation.
I missed the pink blouse I threw impulsively into a Sundance order when I purchased yet another pair of jeans. It’s the color of Gerbera daisies, my old dog’s tongue, grapefruit sorbet and desert quartz.
I missed my green shetland sweater. It reminds me of mossy stream banks, farmers market cucumbers, Emily Carr forests, thick carpets in fancy hotels.
I regretted giving away a coral-colored scarf, a sapphire blue sweater, my husband’s red sweatpants.
So now I’m bringing color back where it belongs, next to the skin, near the eye, on the table. I’ve changed my email background from gray to pink and replaced the dove-colored pillowcases with rosy ones. (I realize dove is just another doleful shade of gray.)
Gotta say, though, a black dress stays. Long gone is the Ralph Lauren that paved the way to maturity and all its mixed blessings. I have now its second cousin hanging in my closet. A simple dress from J. Jill, ballerina neckline, long sleeves and a straight waist to be cinched if I feel like it. Also a gift from Mom.
— Alexa Mergen
Alexa Mergen teaches small-group and private lessons in yoga, meditation and writing in Harpers Ferry, W.V. and Washington, D.C., and edits Yoga Stanza.