Years ago, when I was just 20 and as a non-team racing cyclist, I started wearing black. I then started choosing black shirts, shoes, pants and jackets (the exceptions being pure white shirts with my suit and, once or twice at Christmas, a red tie). I like to wear black and have continued to do so. But a lot of people take my color choices as a statement of some kind, and I frequently get sarcastic or even mocking comments. Can I keep my personal style? Or should I change? – Ron, Hancock, Vermont.
In art, where black was the first pigment used, black is an achromatic color – a color without a dominant tint but containing all tints in equal measure. Historically, this has led to considering, in the decorative arts and to some extent in fashion, a neutral, such as white or beige – a tone used as a base against which other colors can be displayed.
But over time, in culture, society, and politics, black clothing has become anything but regarded. Indeed, I can think of few colors in a closet that come with so many complicated associations and assumptions. So anyone who chooses to wear black because they think it will help them blend in with the background should really think again.
In the Bible, black is associated with mourning and death. Christian monks adopted black robes as signs of humility. In the mid-14th century, the bubonic plague swept across Europe and Africa, permeating the color with fear. In pop culture, ninjas are often depicted dressed in black. Witches too. The maids too.
In the early 1800s, however, Beau Brummell became an advocate for black evening wear for men. In 1926, Coco Chanel created “the little black dress”, associating black with the elegance of simplicity. In the 1960s, it became the color of choice for the Beatniks and the underground. Black was also used as a rebellion garment. See the Black Panthers and Hong Kong democracy protesters.
In 1971, Johnny Cash, aka “the man in black”, explained his choice of clothes in song: so we remember those who are held up, in the front there should be a man in black.
And in 2018, Times Up asked everyone who attended the Golden Globes to wear black to show solidarity with victims of sexual harassment in Hollywood.
Black is, of course, the favorite color of many in the fashion industry too – the same ones that keep declaring red, purple or neon as the latest trend. At Monday’s Met Gala, Kim Kardashian wore a black Balenciaga lower body and a mini dress with a train, which drew comparisons with a black hole and raised eyebrows, given the plight of women in Afghanistan today.
All this explains why the color of your choice can provoke strong reactions. That doesn’t mean you have to give it up, of course. There’s a reason black has been so popular for so long, and if anyone thinks it’s going to go away, I have a bridge to sell you. But it does mean understanding the different layers involved and what can actually be going on in the viewer’s mind.
Your style questions, answers
Each week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a fashion reader’s question, which you can send her anytime via E-mail Where Twitter. The questions are edited and condensed.