Fashion’s fickleness is well documented – it’s an industry that ricochets from season to season, picking up and dropping trends as it goes. Still, there are some things that will always be in style – and black is one of them. From austere Protestant Pilgrims and mourning Victorian widows to the subliminal sexuality of a well-placed handkerchief in a back pocket, it’s a color imbued with hidden meanings. We’ve heard the news – wearing it makes you appear more attractive and intelligent, and someone’s even trying to create a version that’s even darker than what we already have. But the lasting love affair has more to it than that.
PILGRIMS AND WITCHES
While in the 14th century expensive black clothes had been adopted by up and coming European middle classes as a way to dress luxuriously (colors were, by law, reserved for the nobility), by the Protestant Reformation it had picked up a new symbolism. Black became the color of Calvinism, in protest against lavish splendors of Catholicism – it was the sober color of choice of those first Pilgrim settlers in America. But by the late 1600s, people both in Europe and the US had begun to fall under a spell – the spell of witchcraft. Spurned by religious fanaticism, they began to see evil in black – giving the color its superstitious associations.
“Black is poetic. How do you imagine a poet? In a bright yellow jacket? Probably not.” So said Ann Demeulemeester of the color, and we have one group to thank for imbuing black with its poetic associations. In the 19th Century, black was adopted as a color of choice by the Romantics such as Byron, Shelley and Keats, who regarded it favorably for its melancholic aura. Perhaps the most famous a black clad figure from the era is the one to be found in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog – the perfect depiction of the lonely romantic hero.
THE MOURNING AFTER
Unfortunately for the girls, women’s wearing of black was largely confined to maid’s uniforms or mourning clothes. No one dressed grief quite like the Victorians, who devised complicated rules over wearing the color and hid their bodies in thick dark fabrics and veils. Women were expected to remain in mourning for up to four years after the death of their husbands, but could, as Queen Victoria did, wear the color for the rest of their lives (forty years, in her case). Lockets containing hair of dead loved ones and other macabre trinkets were not uncommon.
The inventor of the now-iconic ‘little black dress’ and ‘little black jacket’ (which was the subject of a recent exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery), Coco Chanel was a famous lover of the color. Known for pioneering a wardrobe for women that eschewed the restrictive clothing of the 1910s, the house of Chanel’s eponymous founder championed simplicity over superfluity – something which spilled over into her color palette. Before her intervention, black was seen as a color of mourning and reserved for funerals. “I have said that black has it all,” she said. “White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.” – Coco Chanel
ON THE BEAT
Known for their uniform of black roll neck jumpers, berets and thick-rimmed glasses, the beatniks were the sartorial and spiritual spawn of American poet Jack Kerouac. Their style was a cliché embedded in the public’s collective consciousness by the media, but these “bohemian hedonists” represented an academic subculture as much as a stylistic one. They represented a 50s and early-60s left-field, left-wing creative counterculture with a healthy appreciation for drinking coffee, smoking pot, bongo drums and Jean Paul Sartre.
PUNKS, GOTHS AND NEW ROMANTICS
London of the 70s and 80s saw a subcultural explosion, as the torn fishnets and bondage trousers of punk became the Victoriana of goth and the oversized proportions of New Romanticism. Black was the color of choice for teens looking to express themselves outside of the mainstream, and it didn’t just extend to clothing – hair was dyed, and eyes and lips were coated in dark paint and lipstick. In the US, goth culture was championed by alt mag Propaganda, which pioneered the style long after London’s Batcave had closed its doors.
In 1981, the course of fashion history was forever changed when Rei Kawakubo made her Paris debut with label Comme des Garçons. Dark in color and ridden with holes, the ‘anti fashion’ garments were immediately decried by the fashion press as being “Hiroshima chic” – but also helped assert black as a staple that belonged in wardrobes of women. As fellow Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto has asserted: “Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy — but mysterious. But above all black says this: I don’t bother you – don’t bother me.”
“Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy — but mysterious. But above all black says this: I don’t bother you – don’t bother me” – Yohji Yamamoto
TEENAGE SUMMER CAMP
Raf Simons’ menswear inspirations are rooted in youth culture. His label began with AW95, but it’s his SS97 Teenage Summer Camp collection that holds a special place in many hearts. Sent down the runway with a guide on talking to your teen (“Tolerate differences. View your teenager as an individual distinct from you”) the skinny black trousers and shirts – immortalized in the designer’s legendary handbook The Fourth Sex – sum up Simons’ particular 90s breed of teen rebellion.
Perhaps one of the most well known modern-day connoisseurs of black clothing is prince of dark design Rick Owens. Flanked by his sidekick, wife, muse and icon-in-her-own-right Michèle Lamy, Owens leads a tribe of black-clad ravens who sit somewhere in the indeterminate space between monasticism, Gothicism and grunge. With a mane of flowing black hair and usually seen wearing a sleeveless black tunic, the designer epitomizes his own vision.
(WHAT THE HELL IS) HEALTH GOTH
After rising from the depths of Tumblr, Health Goth was the trend that became 2014’s second most Googled (right after Normcore). The style was known for blending sportswear – think Nike socks and caps, Adidas tennis skirts and lots of mesh – with fetish elements like leather bondage chokers and a dark, goth-influenced palette. The trend was also represented on the runways through designers such as Hood By Air and Alexander Wang.