Johnny Cash once sang, “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down / Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town…” I love Johnny Cash, but that’s not why I wear black. I don’t wear black because I’m depressed either. Or to look thin. Or to look mysterious.
I wear black because when I’m wrapped in it, I feel authentic. I love its inky mystery, its subtlety, its rebellion contrasted with its chaste darkness, its timelessness. When I wear black, I feel energized, perhaps because this non-colour absorbs all light in the colour spectrum. It’s all there.
In Western culture, black has an undeserved bad name as the colour of mourning, melancholy and evil. But in ancient Egypt, black represented life and rebirth in homage to the black soil of the Nile valley. In parts of Africa, black is associated with rain clouds, a symbol of prosperity and life. The medieval Cathars saw black as a colour of perfection. So did Renoir who said, “I’ve been 40 years discovering that the queen of all colours was black.” Viva le noir.
Oh, I’ve tried to wean myself away from black, mostly under duress. Back in the 80s, when colour profiling was in, I was diagnosed as a “spring” and condemned to wear vapid pastels. I felt like an imposter. I felt like a flower. No wonder I began to sneak black into my wardrobe again. Carbon. Onyx. Charcoal. Smoke. Ebony.
My mother couldn’t believe it. “Black, black, black,” she mourned. “What is it about you and black?” She tried to convert me. She bought me coloured patterns and coloured stripes and lots of clothes in peach, but all I wanted was black (and maybe a little bit of purple or pink for good measure). I wasn’t morbid. I wasn’t a depressed teenager sucking the light out of rooms. I just wanted to wear my own colour.
First, black is easy. It goes with anything, although you have to be careful because one black doesn’t always go with another. There are many shades.
Second, black is always in fashion. Think of Chanel’s Little Black Dress (LBD), introduced in 1926 as the go-anywhere, do-anything dress at a time when her arch rival Paul Poiret was touting colour. Ninety years later, the LBD is still a fashion must. Interestingly, Chanel was raised by nuns and it has been speculated that being surrounded by women in black may have influenced her designs.
Finally, black is a statement about what is essential. It has a purity to it. You can wear it plain or wear it with frills but it never looks frivolous.
“[It’s] the most popular and the most convenient and the most elegant of all colours,” said fashion designer Christian Dior. “And I say colour on purpose, because black may be sometimes just as striking as a colour. You can wear black at any time. You can wear it at any age. You may wear it for almost any occasion.”
I do plan to keep wearing black as I get older, despite warnings from stylistas that black is aging. I don’t care. I’m not interested in being one of those women who become more peacock-like as they age, wearing brighter and brighter colours to avoid becoming invisible. I admire women like Georgia O’Keefe who donned black because it was simple. As an old woman, she stalked the New Mexican desert like a shadow.
I know, critics of black clothing will talk about hidden depression, a macabre nature, a dark outlook, but I’m not sure those labels apply to me — at least half of the time. I do, however, admit to being somewhat of a closet goth. But I’m enough of a fashion lover to understand the value of pairing black with chunky silver jewelry, colourful pashminas and vibrant fuchsia camisoles. I have no designs on being nunlike.
I do think some black is tacky. Fake leather in black looks, well, fake. Many polyesters in black look downright cheap. So I choose my black carefully, and as I go out into the world in my black boots, black coat and black skirt, I can still hear my mother chiding me, “You look like you are going to a funeral.” But, as Baudelaire said, “We are all attending one funeral or another.”
Feature photo: “She opens magic world – B5” h.koppedelaney @ flickr. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“The Black Hat” by Lilla Cabot Perry
“Woman in a Black Hat” by Georges de Feure,
“Coco Chanel” Photographer unknown
Previously published in all or part by blackdotdiary.com, November 16, 2009.