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Rebecca Willis

Applied Fashion

Fashion’s favourite colour is not a colour at all. Designers are addicted to it

Rebecca Willis | November/December 2011

Towards the end of the last century, a friend of mine took a taxi to London Fashion Week. The driver gawped in puzzlement at the moving sea of people dressed head-to-toe in black, and asked: “What’s that, then? Some religious cult?”

He had a point. There is something bordering on the cultish in fashion’s devotion to the colour black—it’s the equivalent of white for Moonies or orange for Hare Krishnas. Since that taxi journey in the 1990s the wardrobes of the stylish have brightened up a bit, but although trends such as colour blocking or floral prints may float by on the surface current, underneath there is a deeper, darker tide that pulls us back towards black. Despite pronouncements at intervals by the fashion industry that red or pink or blue is the new black, the old black is still very much with us. 

Visiting eBay, the auction website, confirms this. A search in “Clothes, Shoes and Accessories” for the word “black” yields more than 3m items—that’s twice as many as “blue”, and five or six times as many as “brown” or “grey”. This ratio remains more or less the same in winter and summer, and when you narrow the search to “women’s clothing”. (Black also predominates in men’s clothing, though there’s slightly more blue.) A pedant might argue that these are the clothes that people are trying to get rid of—certainly if they were all thrown away we’d be left with a very large, black mountain. But the website of the upmarket fashion retailer Net-a-Porter tells the same story, with black significantly more dominant in its wares, be it January or June. 

What is it about, this infatuation with black? It’s a question I am often asked, since I wear black most of the time, and therefore one upon which I have spent much time reflecting. My friends and colleagues might say I wear little else, though it doesn’t feel like that to me—I wear colours sometimes, particularly in summer, but black is what I feel most comfortable in. Putting on black in the morning feels as natural as breathing. If I enter a clothes shop, I am drawn towards the rails of black. I will happily wear black to weddings as well as funerals. I own black sandals and black sundresses. I even wore black when I was nine months pregnant in a July heatwave. This habit of mine is an adult-onset condition, which developed when I spent a dangerously long time working at British Vogue magazine; I didn’t work in the fashion department, but I absorbed black osmotically. I know I’m far from alone in my preference for wearing black, so—for all those others who are asked why they wear so much black, as well as for myself—I’ll try to answer that question here for once and for all.

To do that means asking some other questions about black’s significance in our society generally. How is it that black can betoken both oppression (the Nazis and Fascists) and also the rebellion of youth (punks and goths)? How can it be the distinctive feature of religious garments (nuns, priests, Hassidic Jews), and also of rubber and bondage fetishists? Why is it the uniform of dons and anorexics alike, of waiters and witches, of judges and suicide-bombers? No colour performs so many duties, in so many fields of clothing—smart, casual, uniform, anti-uniform—as black does. It is uniquely versatile and flexible. How, exactly, does my friend and ally pull that off?

The first thing to know about black is that—although the OED defines it as “of the very darkest colour”—it is not, strictly speaking, a colour at all. Black absorbs all the visible frequencies of light, just as white reflects them all. It is not on the colour wheel; adding black to a colour changes its tone, not its hue. Nor will you find it in a traditional watercolour palette—watercolourists think that black is cheating and that colour can be perceived in everything; indeed, van Gogh noted that Frans Hals painted with 27 shades of black. Black is an absence, not a presence. That, I think, is the main reason it is so versatile and can have so many wildly different meanings projected on to it, both in our culture and in others. 

This absence-not-presence is surely why black is universally believed to be flattering, and why anyone who has ever fretted about their figure regards black as a friend. It’s not as simple as the rule that says if you paint a room a dark colour it will seem smaller (and anyway, an architect friend told me that if you paint a very small room black it can seem bigger, because you lose track of where the space ends). It’s more that black is flattening, as well as flattering. When I asked the late Liz Tilberis, then editor of British Vogue, why fashion loved black so much, she explained that “it gives you an outline, a silhouette”. Colour and pattern, on the other hand, give you a surface—broken up, textured, contoured—that runs around the body and creates a visual sense of dimension. Black doesn’t actually have magical powers, though—if the outline is bulgy, in theory black will emphasise that, whereas colour and pattern detract from it. It should therefore follow that slim people look better in black than chubby ones, but that is a subjective matter.

There are certainly a lot of practical reasons for choosing black. When I ask people why they wear it, the first response is usually “because it’s easy”. That seems to encompass several things. It doesn’t show the dirt. It doesn’t date. It goes with most colours, so it works as a good base to which other things can be added without meaning that you have to change handbags (eBay tally: twice as many black handbags as brown). Black also goes with other blacks (blacks can be different from each other, but not in the same way that different reds, say, or blues are; blacks can’t “clash”); this means that if you are not an off-the-peg dress size and usually wear separates, life is simplified. And there’s an economic point too: black can look smart even if it’s cheap. In short, black is a sensible, voluntary uniform.

Betty Jackson is a designer who is associated with black—she wears little else, and her label for the British department store Debenhams is called Betty Jackson Black. I asked her to sum up its appeal. “It’s a colour that has become associated with glamour rather than gloom,” she says. “It works for most occasions on most skin and hair colours…It’s simple and practical for work and always chic for a party.” I couldn’t agree more, but others are immune to its charms. An artist I know says “only boring people wear black.” Colour is her stock in trade; for those otherwise employed, “doing” colour can be time-consuming and complex—there are too many variables. Even so it gives me pause. Is black the boring option? Has it just become the lazy shorthand for “stylish”? Is it dodging the whole issue of expressing oneself through what one chooses to wear? Worse, are black-wearers trying to hide something? Does black make us all look the same, like throngs of the damned circling in hell? Perhaps so. I get quite exercised thinking about it. But then Marie-Christine Brunin, who brought Zara’s shops to Britain, tells me that she thinks that, far from making everyone look the same, black makes clothing recede and isolates the face, so emphasising our individuality. Phew.

Talking of faces, let’s take a look at the received wisdom that black is “draining”, particularly as you get older. This widespread belief explains why older women often wear pastels and, if they wear black, accessorise it with a colourful silk scarf at the neck. It may be that, because it doesn’t reflect light, black lacks some illuminating property that colours possess. But I think the whole axis of this debate is skewed: it’s really about whether you choose a dramatic look or a soft one, not whether you look drained or, er, un-drained. Perhaps at root lies an age-old fear of the widow (and of death in general—of which more later) and society’s inability through history to find a role for women after their reproductive years, to the point where they were at times cast as witches and killed. Young women in black exude a different threat to society—sexy, wanton, vampish (whereas white is considered pure and virginal). I have a strong suspicion that this “draining” business is a myth that has evolved to reinforce a complex set of prejudices in society.

It is impossible to consider black without putting it in the context of geography and climate. The credo that strong colours look best on dark skins has its foundation in the natural world. The powerful sunlight in the tropics, where skin needs to be dark for protection, creates bright cerulean skies, glittering jungle greens. In Nordic countries, where sunlight is scarce and human skin evolved to produce less melanin so that the body could create more vitamin D, the skies are a dull grey and blues are watery—colours an artist would call “cool”. Black is there, too, in a deep, cold lake or a towering crag. So, in the same way that buildings traditionally harmonised with their landscape, because local soil would be mixed in with the whitewash they were painted in, there is a subtle interplay between clothing and surroundings—our perception of what “suits” us is based on our observation of the colour scheme in the world around us. This explains why, if I’m wearing colour on a summer’s day and the sun goes behind a cloud, I suddenly feel like a macaw blown off-course from the Amazon. The corollary to colour looking best on dark skins is that black looks better on blondes (another on dit). Of course, as with all matters of fashion, a lot depends on the individual, but shocking pink, aubergine or electric blue can be far more draining to a fair complexion than poor old black.

I feel out of place, too, wearing black on a country walk, because black has become a distinctly urban uniform. It speaks of the city and the dirt and darkness of the industrial age—oil, smoke, tar. It has become, depending on your tribe, a signal that says slick, streetwise, businesslike, official. But long, long before this happened, black had already accumulated some serious baggage. 

Black has enormous symbolic power. This is embedded in our language—with its black lists, black looks, black moods and black magic—and in other languages, too. The code is so established that in old cowboy movies the bad guy wore a black hat and the good guy had a white one; similarly in the chariot race in “Ben Hur”, our hero’s horses are white, while his evil opponent’s horses are…you guessed it. 

This symbolism has existed since the dawn of time; or rather, since just before it—the word “dawn” is telling. Darkness came first. Then the Big Bang—or God, or possibly both, according to taste—made light out of the darkness. Light is the life force and without it things will die. Just as birth is about light—leaving the womb, opening our eyes—so darkness is about death, a final closing of our eyes, a return to the earth. The association between black and death is part of our natural world. The human animal has a primeval fear of the dark, because it robs us of our sense of sight; the late novelist Bruce Chatwin tried to explain this by suggesting that we were preyed on by an unknown creature during the night. Whether he’s right or not, we are mortally vulnerable in the dark. It is a short step to the equation of light and dark, of day and night, with good and evil, with God and the Devil. And that is how black and white took their places in the binary of morality, with black lined up squarely on Satan’s side.

We wear white at christenings and weddings (beginnings) and black at funerals (endings). Black has been associated with mourning dress since at least Roman times. During the worst of the English civil war, it was common to see large outdoor cauldrons in which clothes were being dyed black for mourning. But it was Queen Victoria, who wore black from the death of her husband Albert in 1861 until the day she herself died in 1901, who generated the monumental cult of mourning that still casts its shadow today. For Victorian and Edwardian British women there were strict rules: if your husband died you wore full mourning for two years, whereas for an aunt you wore half-mourning—which allowed lavender and grey—for three months. Things changed during the first world war, when the massive loss of life had the effect both of relaxing the rules of mourning, and making it more acceptable for women to appear in public wearing black.

In the 1920s, the rehabilitation of black was accelerated by Coco Chanel’s little black dress; American Vogue said, presciently, that the LBD would become a “uniform for all women of taste”. But even in my grandmother’s day, black was still not really regarded as day-wear. Widows still wear black in rural Latin countries, but elsewhere it has been largely freed from its typecasting, and today legions of us are happiest wearing what was, until relatively recently, the colour of unhappiness. 

For the final stage of my attempt to answer charges of blackaholism—my own and that of others—I decided I should go cold turkey. I begin by taking a long, hard look into my wardrobe. In there are colourful kaftans and bikinis for hot holidays, but otherwise most of my clothes are black, or bought to wear with black—grey, beige, greige, brown, soft green, dusty blue and every shade of khaki. It suddenly strikes me that the palette of “colours” I own could be used to paint camouflage onto army vehicles. There’s the odd bit of pink for summer, I console myself—but then I recall reading somewhere that pink is the best colour for camouflage in the desert. I’ve always thought of my colour palette as that of the English seaside, but in that lightning flash of self-awareness even I find myself wondering what I’m trying to hide. Is my wardrobe one big invisibility cloak? Black is an absence, remember. Am I effectively electing to wear a Western version of the hijab? In our looks-obsessed age, I don’t think I’m more-than-averagely dissatisfied with my body, but this, a therapist might say, clearly needs work.

So I stride out in bright plumage and I feel as though I am speaking in a foreign language and unable to express myself properly. I start with a lilac-and-purple dip-dyed cashmere jumper, which I’m told resembles an ice-lolly, then I try a shocking pink one, in both cases over safe black trousers. But before long I’ve plucked up courage to go the whole way: a patterned silk dress in distinctly non-military greens with a bit of turquoise thrown in. Several people, smiling, comment on what I’m wearing; perhaps they are just grateful for the change, but it seems to make them happy to see colour. Even the builder working at our house notices. But I feel large, conspicuous, untidy and frumpy. From which I can only infer—self-knowledge being an imperfect science—that when I’m wearing black I feel the opposite: small, inconspicuous, neat and cool. I’m not going to take you on a journey into the dark recesses of my psyche to explore the whys and wherefores of that, but I recognise it’s true. I also know that it’s not the whole truth.

One immediate effect of wearing colour is accessories panic. My favourite bag and most of my footwear is black, and looks too stark and heavy with some colours. But changing handbags is tedious and time-consuming. If my entire wardrobe is determined by my favourite bag, the tail is wagging the dog—but it’s also an acknowledgment that time is precious. I’ve noticed that lots of women who work in fashion, whilst showing the public the vast range of this season’s latest offerings, opt themselves for one look—usually involving black—and then stick to it.

That approach may lead to a uniform that looks boring to the non-practitioner. It may seem lazy, but one person’s laziness is another’s simplicity. Women have an absolute right not to waste time over the self-regarding matter of what to wear, and to get on with other aspects of their lives if they so choose. It is significant that another thing that I feel wearing colour is uncomfortably girly. In our culture men, not traditionally judged by appearances in the same way as women, have a narrower range of options about what they wear. Why should women begin every day by questioning what they are going to put on, and by extension, themselves? Maybe wearing black expresses a kind of penis envy—a covetousness of the role that society allows men and a protest against the pressure to look decorative. I for one would not mourn the passing of that pressure, and wearing black is an eloquent way of saying so.

Here’s one final black thought. I can envisage a brighter future for much-maligned black. Because it absorbs light and converts it to energy (usually heat), it is the (non) colour of solar panels. It could perhaps hold the key to our energy needs. So black may yet ditch Satan and save the planet. Now that would be the image makeover of all time.