Rebels, romance, punk and fashion houses

Anoushka Kavanagh explores the subversive tradition of black clothing in history

In 1926, Coco Chanel revolutionised women’s fashion when she published her famous sketch of a simple black dress in Vogue magazine. Favouring simplicity over superfluity, she transformed a colour that had previously been part of strict mourning uniform into a symbol of practical elegance and style. Since then, the little black dress has become a staple in every modern woman’s wardrobe. It’s classy, understated, and slimming. More to the point it’s safe. In Karl Lagerfeld’s words, who took on the Parisian fashion house in 1983, “if you’re wearing black you’re on sure ground”. No matter what happens, black will always be ‘in fashion’.

Our style obsession with the colour has more to it than its uncanny ability to make you appear two sizes smaller though. Rather it stems from black’s duality, changing status, and symbolism. For black can be traced throughout history to have represented both authority and humility, wealth and austerity, rebellion and conformity. It’s a highly powerful colour, with strong subversive tones. In fact, when Chanel rebelled against the melancholy social restrictions on women’s fashion by reinventing black in womenswear, she was joining a long line of non-conformists who had utilised the colour before her, and would continue to do so over the course of the next century. It is this rebellious quality that has ensured the colour’s status as timeless.

Black clothing has been appropriated by many subversive political groups in western history. During the Renaissance, black was adopted by the rising orders as a symbol of wealth and authority. The mercantile and banking classes of the Northern Italian city states had been banned from wearing any garment of colour under measures known as the Sumptuary Laws. Black was the second best luxury, and so they welcomed the tone into their outfits as a sign of their underlying power. The colour’s luxurious reputation was reversed upon the eruption of the Protestant Reformation in Europe though, as Calvinists donned black robes in a demonstration of austerity. The sombre shade once more became a symbol of opposition, this time to the rich colours of the Catholic clergy’s vestments.

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18th century political revolutionaries in France would later too adopt black clothing in retaliation to the pastel palette of an enlightened elite, demonstrating their humility. Whilst the paramilitary wing of the Italian fascist party came to be known as the ‘blackshirts’ after the attire they wore in the 1922 March on Rome, asserting their subversive political authority in the colour of their uniforms.

Black has also been the colour of choice for non-conformist social and intellectual movements over the last two centuries. The Romantic poets Keats and Byron assumed the colour into their melancholy identity, using it to set them apart as a movement. And in the 1950s, black came to symbolize intellectual individualism in New York and San Francisco when the Beatniks donned their famous black turtleneck sweaters, berets, and dark glasses as a mark of identification for the academic subculture.

Perhaps most famously, black became the uniform of the London youth culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Goth and punk sub-cultures assumed bondage trousers, biker boots and heavy eyeliner in an act of teenage expressionism, rebelling against the brighter colours worn by their parents’ generation. Rei Kawakubo famously cemented black’s rebellious reputation then in her 1981 debut of label Comme des Garçons. The dark, ripped, and hole-ridden outfits paraded down the runway were the epitome of anti-fashion, serving as a reminder that black has long been the colour of expressionism and subversion.

No other colour could conceivably unite punks and Calvinists as black has done. But black has a uniquely versatile history, and deep founded associations with individuality that means it will continue to be appropriate for years to come. As long as we have reason to evolve and rebel, we will always come back to black.

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