Why My Mom Told Me Latinas Never Wear All Black

Jeniffer Paola Varela Rodríguez
Jeniffer Paola Varela Rodríguez

Coco Chanel once gave great advice on editing a wardrobe: "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory." I heard this for the first time when I started showing interest in fashion, but it never really resonated with me. I do look at myself in the mirror before leaving the house. The difference is, if needed, I add a pop of color to my outfit.

I was curious as to why I couldn't align with Chanel's quote. After years of studying fashion history and theory, I understood that the answer was in my heritage: Latinas are never encouraged to remove one accessory, quite the opposite, we're told that we should always add more, especially if it's color. That's why, before going out, I scan my outfit to see if it has enough color, because my mom told me one never wears all black, unless you're going to a funeral.

In Latin America, regardless of the country, black is rarely a part of the equation, let alone an all-black outfit. In Colombia, where I'm from, black is worn more often in cities near the mountains, where the weather is cold all year round and black is practical and suitable. For those of us born in the Caribbean region of the country, the situation is completely different: black is not only impractical for year-round sunny weather, but it's also culturally linked to mourning and grief. "¿Quién se murió?" is my mom's first thought if I dare wear an all-black outfit even in New York — where black is pretty much the uniform — and God forbid that I add a new piece of black clothing to my closet because that means hearing my mom complain.

Jeniffer Paola Varela Rodríguez

Latinas in particular find a way of expression, of differentiation, a quest for uniqueness in color. To me, as a Colombian woman, color comes naturally, even more when I am there. In Barranquilla, the city where I'm from, color is also an organic part of the landscape: from its flag to its diversity, everything comes in a beautiful rainbow where there's no time for darkness.

Little did I know that that notion that so many Latinx have about color, was also the idea that Americans — and American fashion — had of us, but for different reasons. Deeply engraved in the imagination of most people not born in Latin America or into Latinx families, Latinx are one and the same. This belief has its roots in the exoticization the continent has suffered through history, always being confused with the Caribbean even though we have other ecosystems and climates, and because of this, we were always thought to be a place for tropical vacations and leisure. This is why Latin American fashion is mostly represented through lighter clothes, bright colors and fitted silhouettes. It is true, however, that our indigenous communities have a lot of material production that stands out for its color, a characteristic that remains intact until today.

Life is too short to be boring. Living in NYC, I made the commitment of wearing a bit of color especially the colder months. Even within my parade of all-dark heavy winter coats, I managed to have a colorful one, and of course, it is my favorite. Every time people see it on me, they tell me how beautiful it is, but most of them tell me I'm so brave for wearing color in the winter. I tell them we all should try to have a bit more color in our lives.