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Columns

A Brief History of Black in Fashion

By Onyx E. Ewa, Contributing Opinion Writer
Onyx E. Ewa ‘23-24 is an Art, Film, and Visual Studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Their column “All Black Everything” appears on alternate Thursdays.

Black is a staple color of nearly every modern wardrobe. Scholars of both fashion and color have discovered that the black has an incredibly wide range of symbolic meanings, including austerity, virtue, wealth, sophistication, eroticism, mourning, and evil. When I wear an all black outfit, I feel powerful, and maybe a little rebellious, but the symbolic meanings that may be associated with my clothes are far less important to me than the fact that black always looks fantastic. It’s clean, it’s striking, it looks great on everyone, and it’s just easy to wear.

However, black has not always had a presence in the everyday wardrobe. In fact, before the Middle Ages, black clothing was very uncommon, because the dyeing processes that allowed for the production of deep, dark, striking shades of black had not yet been developed. Personally, I can’t even imagine a world in which I couldn’t just grab a pair of black jeans to go with whatever brightly colored top I just bought. But, in the Middle Ages, most people couldn’t wear bright clothes OR black, because sumptuary laws prohibited all but the nobility from wearing vibrant fabrics or sable fur, one of the only true black textiles available prior to the 14th century. Thankfully, wealthy individuals who were not part of the noble class demanded the production of solid, vibrant, black dyes so they could circumvent the prohibitions of sumptuary laws.

The story of how black clothes came to occupy their current place in modern fashion is deeply tied with class. Though the color was originally reserved for the wealthiest members of society, it is now so commonplace that it, to some degree, serves as a symbol of egalitarianism. Now, black is professional, clean, and practical, and it has largely lost its associations with wealth. However, black formal attire still retains associations with the upper class, despite its origins in the uniforms of the working class. Men’s black tie attire emerged during a period referred to by psychoanalyst John Carl Flugel as “The Great Masculine Renunciation.” At the turn of the 19th century, Flugel says, “men gave up their right to all the brighter, gayer, more elaborate, and more varied forms of ornamentation.”

This, in my opinion, was an incredibly sad transition in men’s fashion. The generic black tie uniform took the place of flamboyance and whimsy in men’s dress. One of the progenitors of this unfortunate trend towards uniformity was British socialite Beau Brummell, who is generally regarded as the inventor of black tie attire. In the early 19th century, he credited himself with “put[ting] the modern man into pants, dark coat, white shirt, and clean linen.” Brummell believed that unity was the pinnacle of fashion, and that he stated that “to be truly elegant, one should not be noticed.” In the early 20th century, Coco Chanel applied a similar philosophy to womenswear when she popularized the little black dress. A 1926 Vogue article referred to the LBD as “Chanel’s Ford,” a comparison that indicated the style’s accessibility to women of all classes. The dress was a similar style to the uniform of salesgirls and other working-class women, and its adoption into the realm of haute couture meant that the all-black ensemble would become a popular style for women of all classes for decades to come.

Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, black was a mainstay in both men’s and women’s fashion. Wearing black evoked simplicity and sophistication, and at times, rebellion and protest. For example, in the 1960s, the Black Panthers donned black leather jackets as a uniform of revolution. In the 1980s, protesters in West Germany invented Black Bloc, a protest strategy in which protesters dress in all black to establish solidarity and to avoid being identified by police. In recent years, Black Lives Matter protesters have adopted the style as well.

Harvard Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Professional Doctoral graduation gowns are black, likely as a result of the color’s association with professionalism. Plus, the crimson-black color combination is incredibly striking. Whether it is worn as an indication of sophistication, resistance, austerity, or just plain convenience, black isn’t going anywhere, and black clothes are likely to remain a staple for centuries to come. Though personally, I love black, it is sometimes almost too reliable. Black may complete a wardrobe, but we mustn’t neglect color altogether. The uniformity afforded by black tie is nice, but imagine a wedding where all the guests are in vivid, ornate brocade robes. Black is clean and convenient, but color is also beautiful, and I believe the key to fashion lies in embracing both.

Onyx E. Ewa ‘23-24 is an Art, Film, and Visual Studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Their column “All Black Everything” appears on alternate Thursdays.

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