Men in Black (and White): Artists Who Made Monochromatic Dressing Their Calling Card

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Today would have been legendary musician Johnny Cash’s 80th birthday, and to celebrate, we’re paying tribute to one of our favorite Cash incarnations — the Man in Black. In the early ’70s, at a time when most country singers were dolled up in sequins and cowboy boots, Cash chose a somber, all-black ensemble, a symbol of respect for the suffering of others. The color also cemented his reputation as an enduring fashion icon — the US Navy’s all-black winter uniforms are still called “Johnny Cashes” — and inspired one of his most famous albums. Inspired, we decided to take a look at other artists who followed in Cash’s footsteps (or predated him) in wearing one color, whether as a form of protest, artistic statement, or just habit. Click through to see our list of artists of all stripes (musicians, comedians, writers, oh my) who made wearing either all black or all white their trademark, and let us know if we’ve missed your favorite monochromatic fashionista in the comments.

Johnny Cash

In the early 1970’s, Johnny Cash solidified his image as “The Man in Black” — he almost always performed in an all-black ensemble including a dramatic knee-length black coat and often a stylish black cowboy shirt. This was in stark contrast to the fashion for country singers at the time, who typically wore ostentatious, colorful outfits with sequins and flash, but it wasn’t a mere anti-status quo fashion statement — it was a form of quiet protest in and of itself. Cash wrote a song, “Man in Black,” about his dark garb, which he released on a 1971 album of the same name. In it, he sings: “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/ Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town/ I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime/ But is there because he’s a victim of the times… We’re doing mighty fine I do suppose / In our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes / But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back / Up front there ought to be a man in black.” If that man is Johnny Cash, we totally agree.

Mark Twain

No one has ever looked as good in an all-white suit than Mark Twain, who adopted the look in his later years. “You see,” he once explained, “when a man gets to be 71, as I am, the world begins to look somber and dark. I believe we should do all we can to brighten things up and make ourselves look cheerful. You can’t do that by wearing black, funereal clothes. And why shouldn’t a man wear white? It betokens purity and innocence. I’m in favor of peek-a-boo waists and décolleté costumes. The most beautiful costume is the human skin, but since it isn’t conventional or polite to appear in public in that garb along, I believe in wearing white.” That reasoning seems sound to us.

Karl Lagerfeld

Legendary designer Karl Lagerfeld almost never makes an appearance dressed in anything other than one of his fabulous all-black suits. As he told British Vogue , “I always liked navy blue, but black is even more basic. Because when you wear black you think about nothing. With navy blue you think you are still wearing a colour, you know? When you work in fashion, and you have to work with all the colours, you can’t be there in green, pink or something very fancy, because, in the end, you have the feeling that you are just a sample yourself… In black you can forget about yourself. I don’t think about myself when I am looking at materials and doing fittings.” We’re not sure Lagerfeld ever quite forgets about himself, but hey, if we looked that good in a suit, we might not either.

Terence Koh

One of our ten best-dressed artists of the past century, multimedia artist Terence Koh is a modern provocateur both in his art and in his everyday life. Favoring head-to-toe designer ensembles in blinding white, often topped by with his infamous white monkey-fur coat, Koh takes fashion to the next level — even his living space has white walls, white art, white accessories, and two white cats. And he’s getting his snow-white message out to the masses: in 2009, he designed a special edition of minimalist Converse sneakers in — what else — white leather.

Richard Belzer

Not only does comedian Richard Belzer almost always show up in all black, he generally tops off the look with his trademark black beatnik sunglasses for good measure — even when he’s playing John Munch on Law and Order: SVU (though we think Munch sometimes wears gray). Comedians frequently wear all black — supposedly so that you don’t focus on anything they’re wearing while they’re onstage — but Belzer has really made the look a life choice. More power to him.

Tom Wolfe

Wolfe’s trademark crisp white three-piece suits help him do what most immersive journalists try to avoid doing — stand out in a crowd. As he told NPR, “I have discovered that for me, it is much more effective to arrive in any situation as a man from Mars than to try and fit in. When I first started out in journalism, I used to try and fit in… After that, I gave it up. I would turn up always in a suit and just be the village information gatherer.”

Joan Jett

Though punk legend Joan Jett didn’t entirely limit herself to black — girl’s gotta have room in her wardrobe for a few grungy, off-white Sex Pistols t-shirts, after all — she certainly made the color her trademark with many a leather jacket and a whole lot of eyeliner. Plus, she named her band the Blackhearts, so you know the shade had seeped down to the core.

The Blues Brothers

Here’s another pair who are never seen out of their black suits and sunglasses. Okay, sure, they’re not real people the way the rest of the folks on this list are — both Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi have been seen in many other colors — but we think their tenure as a legit band makes them count, at least as alter egos of the famous comedians. Plus, how could we resist those faces?