Since my bereavement I have come to appreciate the old uses of wearing blackby Jean Seaton / January 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
The colour of night is back in fashion. Girls in black swing sexily, seriously down streets. It is black as itself again, not black as a foil for everything else, but black in its own right. Genevieve, a friend of my son, appeared in my kitchen clad in it from the top of her clever head to the tip of her charming toe. I eye it like a long-lost companion. Like most women of my generation I have had several long, passionate affairs with black. The colour seems loaded with grown-up meaning; articulate yet disciplined, proper and yet exotic. It speaks to some sense of determined purpose. It is dangerous. It is the opposite of dowdy, but also the opposite of showy. It reeks of avant-garde chic. Since I was 18, I have never been without a black polo neck jumper. Men often wear a version of black too—from Brando-esque biker’s black leathers to Quentin Tarantino’s chaps in black suits who reinvented the office with menace, black defines a racy, risk-taking severity. There is plenty of meaning still attached to black.
Yet some of the resonance of black comes from the meanings that have been stripped away from it. Black used to mean seriousness and professionalism. Until the 19th century, men wore as many—or as few—colours as women, and then they lost them and black became the colour men wore when they went to work or formal dinners. Indeed, despite the modern abandonment of the tie and the outbreak of coloured shirts, men still wear mostly dark; the black dinner jacket, rather surprisingly, has by no means died. I think chaps feel they look handsomer in black. Black used to mean learning and withdrawal from the trivial, as with priests. It has often meant a kind of puritanism, closely related to a minimalist elegance—it is pared down and authoritative. Black puts you at a knowing angle to the world and its doings.
Black also used to mean mourning—and, like a smoke trail, still, perhaps, owes some of its grown-up power to these origins. I recall the chilled shudder at my first sight of the southern European widow when I travelled abroad as a teenager. Women shapelessly bundled into dusty black looked like members of a tribe, not individuals. In those days, in Greece or France or Spain, once you were in black that…