A Short History of Black

Dr John SLAMSON

A Short History of Black

This text is, in part, a summary of historian Michel Pastoureau’s book entitled Noir, histoire d’une couleur (Black, the History of a Color), Seuil, 2008. Above: John Vizzone, Artistic Director of Cifonelli, who often dresses in black.

Black is a colour.

After being excluded alongside white from the realm of colours following Newton’s scientific study of the visible spectrum, it has become obvious again that black and white are real colours in our cultural perception.

But how has black fared in the history of menswear? Today gentlemen hardly use black as their sartorial favourite. Indeed, black is often rejected from classic preferences. It was not always so, and dinner jackets among other items remind us that black can still denote elegance.

In the beginning

Throughout the ages and across cultures, the most obvious symbolic meaning of black has been related to death. And yet black has a richer and more complex history than is often understood.

Black refers to the primordial blur of creation; it refers to night and darkness but also evokes the dark soil from which crops are grown. Black is also the colour of burnt matter.

For a long time, coal was the main material used to create the colour black for dying fabrics (along with smoke and asphalt). As black has been associated with burning and transforming matter, it also has been symbolically connected to the act of “working” in Ancient times and in the Middle Ages.

In contrast, white has been linked to the purity of prayer, while red associated with warfare. The Industrial Revolution further reinforced these aspects.

Colours

At one time, the brightness or dullness of a colour held particular importance, especially considering how the act of dying fabrics could prove to be a difficult process.

Colours are not just pieces of the colour spectrum–they are cultural constructs whose names reflect a certain vision of the world.

Consider the etymology of colours:

The two Latin terms for black: matte black or ater gave us the word atrocious, while bright black or niger gave us the word “noir” in French.

There’s also matte white, or albus in Latin, which gave us words such as album (which means blank pages) and bright and luminous white or candidus,  (e.g., the candidate in Roman times was supposed to wear a white toga; in Italian, candeggiare means whiten).

Black, blue, blank and « blanc » in French have the same Germanic root. In High German, swarz (matte black) opposed blach (bright black), while wiz (for matte white) opposed blank (bright white). In Old and Middle English, we find the same opposition between swart and blaek, wite and blank.

Of great importance is the Indo-European root linked to fire.

Fire is known for its ambivalence—fire’s light is bright yet its flames also causes things to burn and become black. That’s why the root *bhel produced a series of “luminous” words like blue, blank, blond, bleach, blaze, blemish, blind… as well as “dark” words with black (thanks to the evolution of /b/ into/f/), with words like  fulminate, effulgent, flagrant, flame, as well as “flambeau” or “flambé” in French.

In the evolution of European languages, “brightness” level can be more important than the colour itself with a focus on whether a color is matte, bright, light or dark, dense or watered-down, with further classification of hues of whites, blacks, reds or greens (…)– a linguistic and philosophical fact of utmost importance” (Pastoureau, Noir, pp. 37-38).

Dying in black

There would be a lot to say about black in medieval symbolism including:

* the raven as a “divine and omniscient warrior”,

* heraldry and the meaning of chivalric emblems,

* Christian theology (with the devil often depicted in black / red),

* the scholars’ discussions on colour as a god-like emanation or a simple nonspiritual matter.

Monks favoured black as a symbol of humility though in reality, the default color became brown or grey since a deep black was a difficult dye to get. The monks in Cîteaux opted for white to symbolize purity, yet this choice could be interpreted as a gesture of showing-off.

In the early Middle-Ages, dyers claimed an episode from the life of Jesus that was not part of the canonical texts:

According to legend, Jesus was an apprentice at a dyer’s workshop in Tiberias and worked the miracle of restoring colours to fabrics after making the blunder of accidentally putting all the cloth in the black vat. Harking back to the Transfiguration, this anecdote shows how dyers needed to claim a form of divine legitimacy to offset being looked down on by the the public for polluting streams with their dyes.

Dying was severely regulated. One dyer was only allowed to work with one colour. As a blue dyer, you worked the blue-based plant called woad; yet as a red dyer, you worked the plant root named madder.

Black needed substances rich in iron oxide (walnut, alder or chestnut barks and roots) to help mordanting fabrics, i.e., help colours bite into the fabric and hold fast. Different techniques yielded varying levels of efficiency (using iron fillings mixed with vinegar, coal, or first mordanting with blue) as the substances were sometimes too corrosive or didn’t give enough colour.

Back then, oak gall was the only (and costly) way of getting a true deep black.

A moral colour

Starting at the end of the XIVth century, black became fashionable. Signalling integrity and dignity, virtue and rigour, black was the opposite of ostentatiousness. It was adopted by men of power including lawyers, judges and academics. Black was fast becoming the “distinct sign of a special rank and of public morality” (p. 115).

Flashy colours were incompatible with such social positions and often reserved to the social segregation of such pariahs as prostitutes, Jews, jugglers, musicians, and lepers or beggars.

In such a caste-ridden order, rich merchants were sometimes denied the use of bright reds or blues as a sign of social inferiority. Since they couldn’t flaunt such colours, they turned to black as a sign of righteousness but also to show off the quality of the new dyes they were rich enough to obtain.

Morality and social marking converged with sumptuary laws attempting to limit costly imports (blamed for higher prices and a significant level of debt).

Black was thus part of a rigid social order where each colour had its symbolic place. Even princes adopted it, like Philippe le Bon (1396-1467). Grey also became a valued colour, especially during the XVth century, and took on connotations of joy and hope.

Portrait of a Man in a Slashed Black Doublet circa 1605 by Sir William Segar active 1580 or 5-1633

The XVIIIth century saw the triumph of colour, while black returned to obscurity. However, black would make its comeback in the male wardrobe in the early XIXth century during the Romantic movement. At this time, the celebration of nightly atmospheres and fantastic and gothic themes gave black a new aura of literary refinement.

The Industrial Revolution heralded the reign of steel and coal, asphalt and oil. The city environment changed and was gradually filled with soot and smoke. Black became a uniform, the compulsory colour of public life, ranging from the office clerk to the dandy (including Brummel himself).

The poet Alfred de Musset complained about the resurgence of black as early as 1836, as well as Oscar Wilde in 1891 when he remarked “the uniform black that is worn now, though valuable at a dinner party where it serves to isolate and separate women’s dresses, to frame them as it were, still is dull and tedious and depressing in itself (“Letter to the Daily Telegraph”, 2 January 1891, quoted by Pastoureau, p. 199).

Contemporary black, banal or chic?

Black was gradually eliminated from everyday life in favour of blue (e.g., police uniforms, Navy uniforms) in the early XXth century.

Adopted by the anarchists and rebellious youth in leather jackets (“blouson noir” became synonymous with “thug” in France in the 1950s’), black became the symbol of a marginal life or of a certain rejection of social order. In an even more violent way, black shirts became the emblem of fascist militias and the SS.

Today, black is no longer perceived as “rebellious or unruly, it is now less disorderly and quite tame” (p. 214) in the words of Pastoureau who goes as far as to say that even the “gothic” black look with piercings is no longer so remarkable, “Young rebels would be far more rebellious in their best suits or with a Sunday school look if they’re looking for distinction. Black clothes are no longer taboo or aggressive.”

As blue took over pre-eminence, black became restricted to specific uses, especially formal ones. The influence of the dinner jacket and the black tie contributed to the establishment of black as a formal colour and it remains today, in the minds of many people, a somewhat chic colour.

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Black remains chic in the context of the dinner jacket/tuxedo, and its ceremonial character makes its mode adequate for formal uses such as service (chauffeur, servants, body guards), or for mourning rituals.

Using a black suit out of these contexts is misunderstanding the width of the gap that separates uniforms and personal clothes. It’s a sartorial faux-pas, it’s running the risk of being mistaken for a bouncer or maître d’.

We can’t deny that since the late XXth century, black has become common in menswear. Dark clothes are prevalent and many-a-street is flooded by an anonymous crowd in black, charcoal and navy. In this sense, black can lose its distinct quality in the midst of other dark and dull colours, losing even some of its symbolic power, except for rare occasions.

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In contemporary menswear, charcoal remains a staple for suits while deep black suit has lost much of its eminence. Black is now chiefly used as a contrast or ornament, especially paired with shades of grey.

The history of colours reminds us that nothing is ever final however, and despite the weight of culture over symbols, slow modifications eventually have an unforeseen effect in the future.

It seems that black is not so much in fashion today and the general trend in contemporary menswear, after decades of conservative colour choices, is a move towards more vivid colours, contrasts and hues.

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