Photography & Styling: Sara Lehtomaa
Model: Elina / FashionTeam
MUAH: Timo Vuorimies
I've been thinking lately about why our dressing conventions are what they are, why I wear what I wear. Specifically when it comes to the color black. It seems to have become some sort of "holy" color that is worshipped by all of fashion industry. You've all undoubtedly heard of the "must-have little black dress" and how all new trends are referred to as "the new black" (even as I'm starting to doubt anything ever will be). And it is indeed one of the colors I myself dress in most of the time. I know the most common reasons that people utter for dressing in black. It's something along the lines of "it goes well together with everything", "it's classy and simple", "I just feel comfortable in it", and so on. Sure, but what about it is it that has made it earn the title of "classy"? And why is it that we consider it as something that goes well together with everything? What has lead black to occupy its superior position in the fashion industry? I recently read an article named "Why black is addictive" (by Rebecca Willis in INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2011) about this very subject and I chose a couple of snippets that provided some interesting points:
"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 , 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."
To at least try to answer the question of why black supposedly matches with anything, I'll start by referring to some things mentioned in the quote above. "Black absorbs all the visible frequencies of light, just as white reflects them all" and "Black is an absence, not a presence" could very well be the reason why. If it's an absence of color, then wouldn't it only be logical for it to be neutral in whichever environment, combined with whatever color? The writer also connects this versatile nature of black to the fact that it is very widely used in many different societies and social groups. It's associated with nuns, priests, punks, goths, judges, suicide-bombers and witches, just to mention a few. It also bears many different symbolic meanings depending on who you ask. Willis goes on about symbolism later on in the article:
"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."
All of this is true, however, there's one point that has been left out. In Japan the symbol for death and mourning isn’t black at all − it's in fact the complete opposite, white (in the form of the white carnation). This is also the case in China. Which would naturally mean that brides don't wear white, at least if they respect tradition. Likewise in India a bride dressing in white would mean dooming herself to future unhappiness. And if you look up the various symbolic definitions for black through the eyes of different cultures, you'll find that there indeed are many more than just death and mourning. So the symbolism of black isn't that universal after all. Suggesting that there's also a bit of coincidence involved, which in my opinion is an element that is always present to some extent. People have different views of life and its purpose and so they also have different ideas of what smaller units represent. But turning our attention back to the main question - the reason why it suddenly, after a long period of association with mainly negative things, in the 1920's, with Chanel's little black dress, slowly but surely started to turn into something rather stylish. This was, however, mainly directed at the fashion elites. It was only later on from the 60's onwards that it became popular amongst the middle class as well, starting with artists and intellectuals. There were the black turtlenecks and leather jackets. And soon black had established the position of some sort of foolproof symbol of good taste in fashion. Which still holds true. Who knows. For the sake of its simplicity, I personally like the theory of its versatile nature allowing such a radically different meaning to emerge.
However, I have a tendency to always try to find any possible biological explanations to things, because those usually make the most sense to me. But I can't really come up with any reason why black could be considered as beneficial for the sake of our survival. If anything it probably causes a lot of car accidents in the dark nights. In fact I was nearly run over by a car just a couple of days ago for wearing black everything and lacking a reflector. No, I don't think the adoration of black is quite that profound. And the theories of the black trend as representing the anxieties, imbalances, and insecurities that bug modern society, don't either strike me as very plausible. So perhaps black, after a long time of evolution of ideas puzzled together by our minds and language, is merely something that has become what it is today as a result of its versatility and of the (to some extent) mutual agreement of its significance. But one thing I know for sure, is why I myself have the habit of dressing my models in black at photoshoots. It's because black emphasizes the facial features of the one wearing it. In my opinion, when it comes to photography, if the clothes aren't purposefully intended to stand out and relay some designated meaning, one should always stick to black!