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Breathing Room: The Radical Simplicity of All Black, All the Time

I’ve been wearing black – all black, all the time (ABATT) – for something like 15 years. (Okay, exercise shirts and white tennies are exceptions.) You might wonder why someone would do that. Doesn’t a monotone wardrobe become, well, monotonous? Don’t I worry that people will think I’m strange? Shouldn’t I be concerned about the lurking-in-my-soul darkness that surely drives such a choice?

Lovin’ that monochromatic sense of style.

My answers are: No, I’m not bored yet. People have probably thought I was plenty strange all along, and now, as I approach 58, I care a lot less about what people think of me than I used to. Yeah, it might indicate something sinister about my soul, but I’ve often been accused of overanalyzing, so I won’t think too hard about it. And I’m hardly alone: The internet contains plenty of stories by and about people who are living the ABATT dream.

You might also wonder why anyone would let me write this episode of The All about Me Show for the Peninsula Pulse. Well, you’ll notice that it’s in the Living Well section, which sometimes includes stories about simplifying your life, and this lifestyle decision certainly does that for me. I believe that anything that fosters simplicity – especially radical simplicity – contributes powerfully to living well. 

Why? How? Radical simplicity frees up time (and sometimes money) and reduces stress – shifts that help us to pursue our highest priorities and live well, however we define that. And we all deserve to live well.

My shift toward all black, all the time began one summer 30-plus years ago when I was pulling out my fall wardrobe. I was genuinely astounded to discover that I owned 19 solid-black skirts and two black-print skirts. (This was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and women routinely wore skirts to the office.) I was a) appalled that I owned 21 skirts of any description, b) further appalled that 19 of them were the same color, yet c) also intrigued that 19 of them were the same color.

I realized I’d stumbled upon something with real potential. I mean, who notices what you’re wearing on the bottom anyway? Unless you’re sporting Day-Glo fishnet stockings, sequined chaps, goat leggings or pointy-toed elf shoes, most people are looking at your face, eyes, facial expressions and gestures. So if no one’s looking at your bottom half, why expend any effort on it? You can own all black pants, skirts, shorts and jeans, which then means that you can also own nothing but black belts (though I own zero belts because … why?), black shoes and black socks. Easy peasy.

Then there’s the slimming thing. Black is supposed to be slimming, and my booty and thighs appreciate all the help they can get.

This unconscious, accidental accumulation of black skirts led to another realization: I could do this black-on-the-bottom thing on purpose! I could wear only black bottoms and let bright, colorful tops do the talking for my so-called personality.

I don’t recall actually doing much about my realization right then, but it had definitely planted a seed. After another 15 years or so, that seed finally took root, grew a plant and blossomed. By that time, I was wearing pretty much only black or khaki on the bottom and bright colors and prints on top.

For reasons I couldn’t figure out then or now, all prints quite suddenly began to feel clownlike. I remember consciously eliminating them in favor of bright solids until those, too, felt garish. Then I stuck to pastel solids and plain white until – you guessed it – they, too, caused me distress. The khaki fell away as well, which is when I became this “monochromatic noir” person.

My wardrobe is now an adult version of Garanimals if all the animals were, say, black panthers or black bears. I’m a simple person who strives to live a very simple life, and ABATT makes so much sense to me and for me. Plus, I don’t know (or care) what’s in style, rarely notice (or care) what other people are wearing and assume they don’t notice (or care) what I’m wearing either.

Here are some benefits of ABATT that I didn’t intend to reap but now really appreciate:

• It’s easy to implement. When I shop for clothes – which is rare because I don’t like to, and it also means that I don’t own many – I’m naturally drawn to and can focus solely on the black clothes. I also expend virtually no brain cells figuring out what to wear each day. Think of the simplified decision-making and time savings!

• ABATT perhaps forces people to look at my face, eyes, expressions and gestures and to listen to my words because there’s nothing else to see here: The rest of me is a human version of an ink-black – and blank – slate. I dress slightly better than a mime, and you know how much they convey without words. At least I’m allowed to speak.

• Black can be mysterious, serious, elegant, dramatic, timeless, soothing, sophisticated – and, paradoxically, dangerous and safe at the same time. It works in almost every situation, especially because it can be dressed up or dressed down. If I were feeling wild and crazy, I could add a scarf or statement necklace (but I wouldn’t).

• Black allows me to fade into the shadows – psychologically, at least. I can play ninja at the grocery store when I’m trying to avoid someone with whom it would be awkward to have a conversation. (Fellow introverts, are you listening?) I’ve heard ABATT called the clothing equivalent of agoraphobia, but the upside is that I’m also always, always ready for a funeral.

• With ABATT, I can spill stuff on myself – and frequently do – and no one’s the wiser. When I accidentally write on myself with a pen – and frequently do – again, no one’s the wiser.

If you’ve read this far, you won’t be surprised to learn that I also eschew buttons, bows, zippers, ties, pockets, belt loops, lace, ruffles and other froufrou detailing, which makes my clothes even more simple. I virtually never wear necklaces or bracelets, and I own only one pair of daily-wear earrings and two (= big splurge) watches.

My point – and I do have one – is that even if the ABATT lifestyle is not for you (and it would be a dreary old world if everyone dressed the way I do), making some other radical change could create an equally radical – and beneficial – simplification in your life.

If the following activities make your heart sing, by all means, keep them up. If not, consider these radical-simplicity possibilities: get off all social media, stop eating things that require cooking, get rid of your TVs, drastically downsize your living space and the stuff in it, stop observing holidays (or at least the gift-giving parts), buy everything that you reasonably can in used form (let someone else pay the big price up front), eliminate things that waste your time and people who send you ’round the twist, and forget about keeping up with the Joneses. They have their own issues.

If you choose to engage in some form of radical simplicity to reduce your stress, free up time and money, and use those resources to pursue your priorities, I bet you’ll like the results. If you don’t, you can always return to the way you were. Let me know how it goes.

Paula Apfelbach, the former owner of Breathing Room Professional Organizing in Madison, is now the copy editor at the Pulse and Door County Living.