It is ironic that black, the holy colour in fashion industry, is precisely the total absence of colour. Black can be described as the visual impression experienced when no visible light reaches the eye. During centuries in the Western world black was consigned to mourning and to uniform of the humblest ones, especially the servants. Nowadays black is the can’t-live-without colour for women. How has such a change happened?
Chanel s/s 2011
It is believed that the French designer Coco Chanel introduced black in contemporary wardrobes as the colour of elegance in the late Twenties. However, it was the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages the one which appropriated it and gave it a meaning. Vanity was a sin and people stopped using coloured clothes, playing safe with discreet black. Most likely due to the economic crisis, vanity has recovered its former status as a capital sin in contemporary Western societies. Therefore catwalks were flooded with black and dark hue garments, a clear gauge of the break with ostentation that designers took. Balenciaga, Lanvin or Celine among many others opened their Spring/Summer collections with black outfits.
In the Sixteenth Century black was also fashionable but coloured garments were not a choice. This period was especially lugubrious on one hand due to the domination of the Spanish Empire and on the other hand because of the Inquisition. Coloured garments disappeared when Spain became the Empire on which the sun never sets. Black was the predominant colour during the Austrias reign, especially when king Philip II of Spain and his wife, Mary I, queen of England and Ireland, held the throne. Spanish black was in, it became the colour of the court and of the aristocracy, in this period garments were more demure than ever before. King Philip II loved modesty and he believed that black was the best way to achieve it.
King Philip II
However, the humility the king believed in was atypical: those who were able to wear intense and stable black garments were the ones who could afford the Campeche wood dye; a luxury dye imported from Mexico, –then part of the Spanish Empire-. Its discovery provoked a recession in the English conventional dye market and subsequent conflicts between Great Britain and Spain to control the Campeche wood harvests in South America. The fall of the Spanish empire meant the lost of black as the colour of the restrained opulence. Again, black became a colour only for mourning times.
Almost every single religion has used black as a symbol of humbleness and as a metaphor of faith’s mysteries. Despite of the celebre sketch by the Monty Phyton “The Inquisition” in which priests were wearing red habits, black was its colour of reference, mainly due to the authority that it represented. Not only Catholics but also Protestants took black as their colour - Lutero was always wearing strict black to show that the wealthy and the poor are equals-. Even the most sacred object of Islamic religion, the Kaaba which is in Mecca, was –following the tradition- a white stone darken by human beings’ sins.
In 1926 American Vogue presented Chanel petite robe noire (little black dress) as the new uniform of the modern woman. At first it was a scandal because during the last two centuries black had been the main feature of masculine dress. However, soon it was obvious the many favours black colour did to the feminine silhouette: instant elegance, slender figure and in general, a powerful look. Over time the scandal diminished. The big economic depression during the late Twenties helped. Most Western women didn’t have a remunerated job, but they knew the dark times they were living and people try, again, to avoid vanity. The deeper the crisis became, the darker the garments were.
The World War II, in which it is estimated that more than sixty million people were killed, was another inducement for the complete restoration of black in women’s wardrobes. There were millions of widowers who sadly had to adopt black as their colour.
Black has been used by different intellectual movements along the Twentieth century. Marcel Proust wrote in Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time a reference to black dresses when describing the attire of an old concierge: “she wore a black dress, as was her invariable custom, for she believed that a woman always looked well in black and that nothing could be more distinguished”.
Once the difficulties of the post-war times were overcome, colours were brought back again to fashion. With the Beat Generation black became an underground culture colour which helped them to show off their deviance from mainstream society. It was an important counterculture movement who succeed in the United States during the Fifties. To distinguish themselves from the hippies, who wore extremely coloured clothing, Beats only wore jeans, black and white. Wearing those colours was a sign of rebelliousness in that time: they were against the established rules and they wanted the world to know at a glance. The original “Beat Generation” met in New York but then in the mid Fifties moved to San Francisco were they contributed to the San Francisco Renaissance.
More thinker support came in the Fifties from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The French existentialists vindicated black because they considered it the colour of individuality. Their theory was that black concentrates in the face, the centre of the individual, the impression that the individual produces to others. Factory girl Edie Sedgwick embodied the bad girl prototype. Her infamous black opaque tights together with Andy Warhol’s black turtlenecks became a symbol of the New Yorker underground scene. Pastels, light colours and well-groomed hair represented innocence, the good girl look. On the contrary, those who wanted to look sinister, mysterious and overall, different, would wear black to do so.
At the end of the Sixties the collapse of the traditional values was more than evident. Youth started to vindicate a new social order. The French May 1968 or the Prague Spring were two events that would change the youngsters forever. Punk movement is likely to be one of the consequences of these historical facts. It was born in a climate of nonconformity in England during the mid Seventies. It was a desperate search for the transgression which would keep them far from social stigmas. They were trying to challenge traditional values, morality and in general, the good taste. Punks achieved this provocation thanks to their aesthetical transgression: zips all over their clothes, vintage garments, tartan fabrics, DIY clothing, everything was valid in their visual code. British designer Vivienne Westwood was the maximum exponent of these aesthetics. She was the first one who opened, together with Malcolm McLaren, the first Punk boutique in London under the name of Sex.
Gothic fashion is in a way heiress of punk, but carried away to its extreme. Gothicism was born in London during the Eighties, and its cornerstone is black colour. As punk, Gothicism is a way of protesting about the common, a statement against the inelegant and against social established rules.
Despite of the fact that his career took off during the colourful Sixties, one of the most important designs by Yves Saint Laurent was Le Smoking, which initially was formed by a pair of black trousers and a black blazer. He claimed that black “symbolizes the liason (link) between art and fashion”. It was during the garish Eighties when Gianni Versace became popular, but he would say, years later, that “black is the quintessence of simplicity and elegance.” And the multi-millionaire fashion industry is well aware of it. Fashion magazines had their own pot of gold in this colour. They have exploited the headline “black is back” over and over again. New blacks come and go –midnight blue, khaki...- but they have never dethroned black as the colour par excellence in fashion.
Nowadays black is still a mourning colour, but most of the people who wear total black looks haven’t suffered any lost. Designers know how to play safe and in crisis times, most of them offer black as the answer, even in their Spring/Summer collections that used to be more colourful.
Black has not lost its essence and today is still that symbol of discretion that King Philip II chased. And it is also an emblem of the elegance Coco Chanel made popular. And it is used also for mourning. However, black has become a mainstream colour which has nothing to do with rebelliousness anymore