Black Was Beautiful

Fashion and its victims.
June 5 1997 3:30 AM

Black Was Beautiful

But color is cool again.

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I walked through Manhattan's East Village the other day to see what people were wearing at the center of bohemia these days. I was immediately struck by the benign, pastel tonality of the clothed population; there seemed to be a large consensual flight from the color black, that famous hue of communal refusal. Instead, everybody was offhandedly wearing an assortment of garments in pale colors, as if deliberately refusing the high-impact, self-aware look that black gear now gives to modern urban life. It seems that the bohemian spirit has gone beyond the old war against palatable daylight hypocrisy waged in the costume of stark dark truth. Once upon a time, colorful clothing was the sign of unspeakable naiveté or ridiculous ostentation, to be shunned in favor of black by all properly bemused and detached critics of society. Now, it's clearly lost its enemy status. With black so standard and so obvious, color--especially mild, muted, faded thrift-shop color--is no longer uncool.

When I was a bohemian college student in New York, only black was acutely cool, because it was so hard to find. Standard inexpensive clothes in stores--sweaters and skirts, let's say--came in dark blue, dark green, and maybe brown or maroon, the traditional colors of country sportswear favored by the Ivy League, and in tweedy mixtures or pale versions of the same. Socks, too. All this was excruciatingly uncool, hopelessly demeaning. You could get a black dress or black suit for lots of money, but that was only occasionally permissible and mostly not possible; and there were no thrift shops full of interesting castoffs. Satisfactory rebel black had to be tracked down in places that specialized in dancers' gear, for example (where you could find black tights and turtlenecks), or made at home during vacations. I remember concocting many a funereal top and bottom and the occasional black cape on my sympathetic mother's sewing machine. On a tight budget, it required real effort to oppose the multicolored, tacky assumptions of ordinary life in those days.

In high Victorian times, advanced feminine elegance was defined by a range of brilliant hues, and non-fashionable clothing mostly by dull black. Black was worn by mourners and the clergy, by civil and domestic servants, and by the poor as Sunday best. The old social hierarchies disintegrated after World War I, and boring non-fashion could become revolutionary high fashion. Only then could Chanel daringly use dull black textiles, until then associated with widows' weeds and maids' uniforms, for plain but costly little dresses that made the contrived, bright, or pallid garb of the belle époque look foolish.

Fashionable women discovered that simply cut garments in plain black fabric were as flattering to them as evening clothes were to men. Women's fashion hasn't been the same since, and the feminine appeal of muted black clothes, later extended to menswear for women, has kept its mainstream power. That power was echoed in the rebellious bohemian version, which inevitably became a sizable fashion market itself and took over a large part of expensive chic. For that very reason, perhaps, current urban opposition to the whole image-conscious mainstream is veering over to what used to look like farm clothes: the faded green-and-yellow-checkered shirts and the orange-washed-out-to-coral sweatshirts of poor and artless rural life.

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I t's hard to believe that bohemian black is gone for good, because its prestige is so great. Suggesting, as it did, the remote look of both the unworldly priesthood and the potent monastic orders, black garb was often the anti-fashion choice of dandies and intellectuals, of Hamlet the anxious prince, Byron the smoldering poet, and Baudelaire the austere, afflicted critic. Black was also chosen by women who took their cues from those men, by austere, anxious, or smoldering femmes fatales, such as George Sand, who felt alone among their smugly blooming sex. Many intense, solitary, and impassioned heroines of fiction and history, wearing black dresses in illustrative art, helped set the tone for hosts of modern temptresses in black. Intelligent, unquiet black and sexy black have come together in modern women's fashion; a black dress feels both safe and dangerous. Chanel, a child of poverty, was very clever to allow for the sense of alienation in her chic black scheme.

It was Baldessare Castiglione (in The Book of the Courtier, finished 1516, published 1528) who first recommended black costume as a means of conveying personal distinction and a certain noble reticence. He offered this advice to both sexes at a time when elaborate clothes in rich colors were prevalent among the mighty; and many of them took it. Much Renaissance and Baroque portraiture displays its successful effect, which has repeatedly inspired high and low practical elegance ever since. Modern black sweaters and black leather jackets, black tuxedoes and all degrees of black décolletage are ultimately descended from those great examples, offered by Titian, Velázquez, Rembrandt, et al., of the extra impact delivered by any human face that appears above a black-clad body. Great photography, indebted to Rembrandt and his successors, continues to make the point.

Now everybody can do it, and the fashion business has apparently concluded that everybody will want to do it forever. Designers' attempts to eradicate the public's devotion to black clothes, whether by self-styled bohemians in SoHo, business and media people uptown, or wealthy fashion folk around the globe, have succeeded only in fixing it more. Transparent black and rugged black, fitted or flowing or bunchy black, black velvet and satin, black spandex and plastic, never seem to go away. Striking green, yellow, and purple may appear, and sober brown and navy, too, giving the impression for a few minutes that modish black is over; but it never is--it's just waiting.

So far, that is. Given the accumulated cultural force of its myriad uses in history, you might predict that the future of black clothing would be at least as long as its past. Since modern black can be both high and low or right and left, it seems too versatile to lose. But all that might fall away. Up to now, the black printed type on the page has also looked as indispensable as the adaptable dress of modern thought, but we can't predict thought-fashion for the coming centuries. Maybe the anti-fashion people now wearing pale blue and muted rose are dressing to match the new dawn they assume will flood the future and ultimately wash away the ink-stamped past.

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