The picture is full-spectrum color: 10-year-old Josh in the boys’ division at C&A, camper than wise, lights up a hairy, rainbow-striped sweater. Looks like someone caught and muffled the Muppets, but I have to have them.
For the best part of the next 20 years, my wardrobe will be full of color: warm pink pants and blue-checkered jackets and even, for a grim moment, matching purple shirt and tie.
Today, 37 years old, not so much. Black is sovereign: jeans and sweatshirts, jackets and T-shirts, Doc Martens and Nike runarounds. (However, shirts are white, the only acceptable color.) The price in my wardrobe at the moment is a large, baggy yet structured quilted coat by Simple Black, which has the sheen of a bomber jacket and the warmth of a fireplace. It will see me through the winter, a glistening black cloud creeping the streets of London.
This turn to black means something, I’m sure. I’m just not so sure what. It’s a 180 on earlier me and has the feel of a philosophy, or at least a mood. It’s not a sad statement – East London’s Queen Victoria without her Prince Albert – and it’s nothing gothic, vampire or witchcraft. I then wanted to find out about black’s rainbow of meanings.
Before the 14th century, “black clothing was made using vegetable dyes, which quickly faded to a gray or brown”, says Caroline Stevenson, head of cultural and historical studies at the London College of Fashion. But then expensive new techniques – dipped silk or wool in indigo baths, followed by red dye – emerged, and later the use of the lumber tree, which the Spaniards exploited from their imperial possessions in Central America, adding new depth to the color.
The apt name Cally Blackman, senior lecturer in fashion history at Central Saint Martins, takes me to the Burgundian court of the 15th century, the era of chivalry, when “black became symbolic of dignity, of piety” (my most famous virtues). Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, set the tone and his descendants Charles I, Philip II and Philip IV followed solemnly and in fashion as kings of Spain. “It’s the color that is safe,” says Blackman, “because it’s in the middle, it never looks like it’s flashy in your dress. . . which travels through to this day. ”
At the jolling courts of Europe, however, color dominated until rationalists and republicans gained confidence in the late 18th century and royals began to lose their heads.
“In the past, high-class men wore colorful clothes, wigs and make-up,” says Andrew Groves, a professor of fashion design at the University of Westminster in London. “But a new rational approach to dress has emerged that has rejected the royal court approach to menswear.” Utility and functionality, he says, have become more important than flash and flair, which resonate with the new business class of the industrial revolution. This shift is known – like the recent story of my dating life – as the Great Male Denial.
Since World War II, blacks have taken themselves as a uniform through all sorts of subcultures, Groves says: “the studied and self-referential coolness of the beatniks in black berets”, the “shrunken hair and layered black outfits” of longing 1980s goths, Tom from Finland ‘s “ritualized and regulated approach to power dress”. It’s also the color of masculinity in crisis, he says, or the violence of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho or Reservoir dogs‘murderers, disappear in their black suits.
Dignity, rationality, membership of a chic subculture: none of this strikes a chord with why I became black. There is, of course, an aesthetic appeal, as Jonny Downes, co-founder of Mainly Black on Upper Street in Islington (where I bought my Simple Black coat) puts it: “If we concentrate on one color, it’s all about the cut, the material, the way it hangs, the detail that does not make it look high street. ” By removing distractions, you are forced to make a finer, more distinctive garment.
I can follow a thread back to Japan, where I lived from 2019 to 2020. Since the early 1980s, designers have made Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo black central in their style, and their influence is still felt on the streets of Tokyo, where I have piled up clothes (of many colors). In a 2000 interview with the New York Times, Yamamoto offered his thoughts: “Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy-going – but mysterious… do not bother! ‘
It feels right – my choice is more about renunciation and absence. Even before I left for Tokyo, I did not feel at home in London, sick at ease with the changes and worries, and the return with extensive horizons in the midst of a pandemic did not change that. The sense of belonging I had when I grew up here has faded. Black, it seems to me, is a way of expressing that disassociation, of choosing. However, it is nothing miserable, on the contrary: it is an empowering freedom to realize that your future lies open, detached from your past. Black is what is now, new, next.
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