It feels like only yesterday that I began my handbag-collecting journey with my it-bag extraordinaire, Proenza Schouler PS1, in a sumptuous saddle colorway. Fast forward to today, I’ve come to amass (as I like to believe) a healthy mix of predominantly thrifted finds – both high-end and contemporary – nearly all of which have worked their way into my daily rotation.
Now, do I love and enjoy each and every piece in my (albeit tiny) collection? Absolutely. But what I also enjoy is having the liberty to choose. What do I go with today – black, brown, grey, or silver? I’m not saying it’s always an easy decision. But as a purse-lover through and through, it’s one I revel in.
Like most collectors, however, the canon piece of my wardrobe remains my (now well-worn) PS1, which I’ll still whip out often enough, owing to its sheer convenience (not to mention, beaten-up chic!) And back when it was my sole and steadfast steed – like most first-time collectors out there – I’d often spend an inordinate amount of time coordinating outfits with it (not that I don’t now, but I digress).
As someone whose wardrobe majorly consists of black, therefore, I became (somewhat unwittingly) an early adopter of the notorious black-and-brown look. And even though archaic rules have no place in the modern fashion landscape, the pairing continues to elicit hesitation from both wearers and onlookers even today!
So, is black-and-brown truly a fashion faux pas? Let’s find out!
Coined by the Classes
Certain tenets in the world of styling owe their origins to utility – no white after Labor Day being an eminent example, essentially meant as a safeguard against the grime of the winter months, although that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t roundly ignore it nevertheless. Others, such as “black and blue, gonna make me smack you” date back to Victorian tailors, who classified navy as too close a shade to be meaningfully distinguished from black.
But few such sartorial sayings are as deeply rooted in the class divide as the black-brown debate. In fact, even a couple hundred years ago, black pants were often paired with brown shoes – the generic color of leatherware at the time.
And if urban legends are to be believed, it was the upper classes – who could afford to have their shoes dyed black – that initiated this trend to set themselves apart from the masses stylistically. Consequently, by the 1950s, menswear dictated matching shoes with clothing, and the black-brown pairing (alongside black-navy) came to be seen as uncoordinated, tacky, and even disdainful.
Just the Right Amount of Wrong
Ill-founded or not, though, there was still some truth to the theory. Black and brown were seen as two stalwarts of the color wheel: too aesthetically jarring to coordinate, too unimpassioned to complement. And can you really blame your internal fashion police for making you wince at the occasional (but unfortunate) sighting of sloppy streetwear ensembles of tan Oxfords and black sweatpants?
Plus, both hues are at the two extremes of an entirely neutral palette, meaning that, if not executed well, they might end up looking straight out of a drab seventies’ dramedy, even if undertaker-chic may be having its moment in 2023.
Oops, I mean quiet luxuries.
That doesn’t mean, however, that brown and black can’t join forces to create perfectly acceptable outfits. And a staunch advocate of the combo is Ms. Miuccia Prada, who has been sending models down the runway in colorblocked black-and-brown garbs since way back in the 90s. Famously known for her penchant for unconventional beauty, the designer’s play on the two colors was even immortalized in the pages of Vogue:
“Brown and black together is a rebuttal to the beauty of Instagram pastels and vivacious corals and cobalts and verdant greens. It’s a marriage of the two most underwhelming, universal neutrals. Navy, at least, has seafaring connotations, a spritely quality associated with the French or something schoolish and bookish, however you cut it. But brown and black, dear God: Together they are essentially a plea to be looked away from. And yet in the hands of Prada you just can’t.”
And it’s not just Prada. Fendi’s historic Zucca canvas uses a similarly quintessential tobacco-black colorway, while it has been a mainstay within the realm of equestrian fashion, as well as on a motley assortment of popular prints, such as leopards, pythons and plaids!
‘Tis the Season to Experiment
The difference, therefore, between looking like an absolute styling sensation, and, conversely, like someone who got dressed in the dark, is choosing the right shade.
The “right shade”, however, remains as subjective as ever – it all boils down to what works for you! Some fashionistas swear by an anchor piece – a graphic, animal-print coat, a colorblocked handbag, or a statement pair of knee-high boots.
Others may prefer to juxtapose a bold primary hue that complements well with both black and brown. Especially with the onset of the fall months (can you believe we’re already past Labor Day?), textures are truisms to live by – be it plush velvets, fancy fleece, or trusted tweed. And if all else fails, a tertiary color, such as ivory, beige or grey, might walk the fine tightrope of balance for you!
But perhaps the real trick here, especially for beginners (such as myself circa two years ago) is accessorizing. An all-black outfit with a brown handbag, belts, shoes and scarves can mellow down the harshness and add more depth to your outfit. So can tried-and-tested outerwear, like a no-fail classic trenchcoat!
With the stealth wealth trend going stronger than ever, earth-tones have never been more popular. And coupling brown-and-black – the earthiest of earth tones – is an original and daring approach to embarking on this trend. After all, the only rule here is that there are no rules!