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How The Colour Black Took Over Fashion

March 6, 20198 min read

As the fashion industry ricochets from one trend to another, there are always some details that will always be in style: denim, leather jackets and of course  the colour black. Granted the essence of luxury and timelessness, it is a colour that will always be seen on catwalks, as well as out on the street. Almost everyone we see every day is wearing something black, whether that be shoes, jeans, a coat or a full-on all-black outfit. While some may not notice it, but it is true that black has taken over modern fashion and when looking at how this happened, one must not only explore the previous few decades but centuries back. 

To some, black is not a colour — just a really dark shade, they may say. Despite this, black has vastly influenced fashion over the years: from the black, gothic dresses of wealthy Victorian men and women to Coco Chanel’s little black dress to modern classic office attire. Perhaps, it is a little more than just a shade, considering the effect it had on fashion. Its power lies within it being able to present the wearer as multiple things at once: mysterious and solemn, sleek and elegant. Black draws attention without making too loud of a statement and perhaps, this is why we may not notice its presence all around us in our daily lives. 

Darkness has always been present in fashion, as well as in art and it would be virtually impossible to trace the origins of this colour.  Nevertheless, this colour was already present in the outfits of people in the 15th century (as seen in Albrecht Duerer’s father in the painting from 1490). The painting presents the viewer with an air of mysteriousness and hints of formality.

Considering how it was the colour of European middle classes, one may say that it was not appreciated as much at the time (by law, the colour was reserved for the upper class). Although worn by middle classes, black was in fashion long before the 1920s with their little black dress.

The Artist’s Father, Albrecht Duerer, 1490. Image Source: Virtual Uffizi

This went onto the Elizabethan era, 16th-17th centuries when black was also transferred to upper classes. However, it was also decorated with intricate designs and ruffs, as well as with gold and silver embroidery. This could be seen from the paintings of the upperclassmen and women from that period, as well as, surprisingly to some, from the costumes of the characters in Shakespeare’s plays. One notable example of this is Olivia from Twelfth Night, an upper-class woman. Nevertheless, English Puritans were also wearing black along with upper-class citizens. They were English Protestants, who sought to purify the Church of England through worship. They wore simple, dark clothing — a visual representation of them distancing themselves from vanity. 

Olivia from Twelfth Night, played by Mark Rylance in a Shakespeare’s Globe production. Image Source: TCC

In the 19th century, black became the colour of romance, with poets like Keats, Byron and Shelly adopting it as the key colour in their wardrobes. Perhaps this was then when black was given its essence of poetry. However, this was also when men gradually distanced themselves from the bright and colourful, choosing to dress in more comfortable and dark clothing: as a way to exemplify their dignity and the excess of colour, embroidery and intricacy was left to women. This is something that can be seen in men’s fashion to this day, and not only in their formal attire. It became difficult to distinguish those from upper and lower classes, considering how any worker from lawyer to businessman to shop assistant wore dark, or even black, suiting.

Comme des Garçons, 1987. Image Source: Peter Lindbergh

As time passed by, black in clothing got only more popular, especially with the introduction of the “Little Black Dress”, which in fact, crawled its way from the servants onto the upper-class women. Pioneered by Coco Chanel, black has now become a colour with a more edgy and sexual essence and was worn even more frequently by the masses.  “By the early 1900s, socialites who wanted to appear especially youthful and edgy donned little black dresses,” Shelley Puhak states in The Atlantic. As the 1920s became a time of increased consumerism, it is not surprising how popular black became during that time.

In the 1980s, black became the key colour of many subcultures, such as punks and goths. For teens looking to express themselves through a unique sense of fashion, black became the ultimate way to denote their belonging to a certain subculture. However, it wasn’t only teens seeking to express themselves that were clad in black. With the debut of  Comme des Garçons in 1981, black was once again reintroduced onto the catwalks and due to this, made its way into the mass market. It became a colour that was easy to wear but created an air of mysteriousness around the wearer.

As it spread into more and more masses throughout the years, black became a colour of simplicity. Matching with almost any other clothing colours and suitable for any tone, black became a timeless colour. Hence, there is no wonder why almost everyone now wears something black in their everyday outfits.

It became a colour that is so universal that it is worn from plain office uniforms to formal events to sportswear. Meanwhile, it has the essence of elegance and mysteriousness, black is also a colour that requires barely any effort to style — comfortable and easy to wear, it has become one of the primary choices of clothing garments for countless people.

From mourning attire to middle and upper classes, to servants and to the general masses, the colour has travelled a long way through fashion over the centuries. Fitting for almost every occasion, black became timeless and most-worn by people around the world. From your peers wearing black skinny jeans to actors and actresses clad in black formal attire, it surely has taken over the world of fashion. As the decades and centuries pass by, black will always remain the colour of contemporary fashion.

Featured Image Via Quartz

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Aly Balakareva

Born in 2003, in Sochi, Russia, I have always had a passion for storytelling. For the past ten years, I've been living in and exploring Cyprus. Currently, I write and edit for Affinity Magazine Arts + Culture section, and in my free time, enjoy watching films and listening to music.

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