It’s “the most slimming of colours”, said Christian Dior. “It affirms, designs and styles,” said Yves Saint-Laurent. It was Coco Chanel’s colour of choice and Karl Lagerfeld was rarely dressed in anything else. From power dressing at work to backless gowns at glitzy galas, black’s flattering silhouette never goes out of fashion.
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Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972), designer to the rich and the royal (Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn…), knew this better than anybody. Lauded in fashion’s highest couture circles as le maître (the master) and the designer’s designer, the Spanish couturier’s devotion to black did much to elevate it from funeral wear to high fashion.
“He used black more than any other designer, and he used it in a very different way,” Madelief Hohé, the exhibition’s curator, tells BBC Culture. Black emphasised the geometry and sculptural quality of his bold designs, such as the balloon and the envelope, giving him, says Hohé, “the freedom to concentrate more on the form of the object”.
Coco Chanel, a good friend of Balenciaga’s, was also captivated by black, and her 1920s little black dress concept is still popular today. “She used it like a canvas to help you through the day,” explains Hohé. “If you changed your accessories, your little black dress would be perfect for all types of occasions. That is a completely different approach, as Balenciaga used the colour as part of the design.”
Balenciaga drew on his Spanish heritage, taking inspiration from the traditional black formal wear we see in Goya, with its lace mantillas and capes and long inky skirts. He found a playfulness in sticking to one colour, contrasting the qualities of different textiles, from the stiff but light silk gazar − which he had designed especially for him − to shiny ribbon, tactile cloqué, and twinkling glass beading.
“When he had the fabric in front of him, he knew what sort of black he wanted to bring out with the material,” Gaspard de Massé from the Balenciaga Archives in Paris told BBC Culture. “You have many blacks inside the black,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s grey, sometimes it’s brown, sometimes it’s blue. Sometimes it’s like you are diving in the black, especially for velvet. Sometimes it’s so deep, you go in and you discover something new.”
Balenciaga’s black legacy lives on under Demna, the label’s creative director since 2015. At last year’s Met Gala, the designer exploited black’s contouring qualities by swathing Kim Kardashian face to feet in black fabric, with only her world-famous hourglass figure to identify her. And the drama continued at this spring’s catwalk show with black-clad models in leather masks strutting through New York’s dimly lit Stock Exchange.
Back to black
But Balenciaga is far from alone in its enthusiasm for black. Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, and black super-fan Yohji Yamamoto all put out black-based collections at the recent fashion weeks. After all, black sells – on the catwalk and off the peg. T-shirt designers, such as Bonfire and Spreadshirt, report that black outperforms any other colour. Nothing else makes the graphics pop as much.
The lure of black is actually a survival mechanism, explains writer and critic John Harvey, author of The Story of Black. “The bipolar cells inside the eye send electrical signals when they see light and when they see dark,” Harvey tells BBC Culture. “[In primeval times] it was important to see the dark places; perhaps they were dangerous, or perhaps they were safe − a place you could go and hide.” With black and white stripes, he explains, it is therefore the black that tends to project most, while the white is perceived as a background colour. “Our eyes see black strongly. It may be a non-colour in a certain sense, but it’s also the strongest colour.”
Black is also a practical colour. Many Islamic countries make expert use of black, using its heat absorption to cause hot air to rise. Draped garments in dark colours, such as the thawb and the abaya, create a convection current of cool air through the garment’s layered folds.
Black, it seems, has enthralled us since time began. “There have always been black luxuries: ebony wood, black marble and, in Ancient Rome, fine black wool,” continues Harvey. But black also signified virtue and duty, and from the 11th Century onwards was worn widely by clergy. Later, royals, such as Philip II of Spain (1527-98), adopted it, aligning themselves with the respect and authority of the church. “Black had become a colour which said you were serious; it said you meant business; it said you were strong, possibly formidable,” says Harvey.
There has long been this duality to black, he explains. “On the one hand, black is class, wealth and distinction; and on the other hand, black is humility, service and dedication.” The distinction between the two had much to do with the materials. Rich black dyes were expensive to create. Commoners had to content themselves with course black fustian, a thick, hard-wearing twilled cloth. Only the nobles had velvets and satins.
In time, black spread to the merchants and business folk of the middle class, but it was rather dull and severe. Leading dandy Beau Brummell, the 19th-Century equivalent of a social influencer, saw how industrialisation was shifting power to the rising middle classes. His reinterpretation of the colour in his sharp, close-cut suits was not only a nod to this group’s growing impact, but made black fun again. And though the more austere reigns of William IV, and later Queen Victoria, put a stop to the frivolity, black reinvented itself and remained in fashion, seeming a perfect fit for the morality and modesty of the new era.
Black’s appeal is not just a story of conformity and courting favour, however. It also held the power to intimidate. In 16th Century Russia, Ivan the Terrible’s secret police were dressed in black, explains Harvey, and centuries later, “fascist black” became the uniform of the far right. “Himmler’s SS wore black as a sort of terror colour,” he says. “As did Mussolini’s blackshirts.”
The colour is also a symbol of subversion. Subcultures such as rockers, punks and goths donned black to rebel against social conventions, playing their “youthful vivacity”, says Harvey, against sombre and sinister clothing choices. But popular culture also sees black associated with protest. When A-listers showed their support for the anti-sexual harassment movement Time’s Up at the Golden Globes in 2018, it was black they elected to wear.
Today, some brides are even switching to black, rejecting white’s patriarchal display of purity in favour of a colour that has come to denote experience and confidence. Indeed, the sexual potency of black is widely seen in western culture, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s flirty Holly Golightly in her Givenchy black satin sheath dress to Sandy’s coming-of-age all-black ensemble when she swaps buttoned-up white for sultry, skin-tight black in the Grease finale.
Celebrity stylist Alex Longmore has worked with a wealth of big names including Joan Collins, Jerry Hall, Zara Phillips and Vinnie Jones, many of whom she has styled in black. “Black is such a powerful colour in fashion,” she tells BBC Culture. “It can be incredibly dramatic and it can be incredibly functional at the same time.” The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II is a case in point. “You saw a sea of black, but their faces really stood out,” says Longmore. “Black makes you focus on the subject matter, rather than what’s going on around it.”
A master of contradiction – conservative yet rebellious, structured yet nebulous, stylish yet safe – black’s versatility is untouchable. “A lot of my clients who are in senior positions in business or in the public eye love black because black is a colour which transcends everything; you can wear it to every occasion… There’s no fuss, no complexity to it, and it goes with everything,” says Longmore. “I think black will stay around.”