A brief history of black (Fashion Inc)

There’s a wonderful scene in the sitcom Father Ted where the eponymous Ted is telling half-witted Dougal that to be assured of genuine 100% black priests socks, you can’t buy from the high street. ‘You see,’ he warns, ‘ordinary shops sell what look like black socks, but if you look closely, you’ll see that they’re very, very, very, very, very, very, very dark blue’. Actually, he’s not far wrong. Sometimes black is just navy without a sense of humour. There are blue-blacks, red-blacks… all kinds of blacks. There’s no such thing as a true black, just a close approximation of a total absence of colour, which is what black is: Black is, technically speaking, no colour at all. Oh, it’s all so confusing. But we love it. Which is why for the last twenty years anything black never makes it to the sale rail. It’s hard to make black clash with anything, it’s slimming and it comes with an attitude: ‘I wear black, don’t fuck with me’.

Hard to imagine now, but before the 80s no one really wore black. It was reserved for funerals, or biker’s leather, or beatniks and the Velvet Underground. Both the rockers of the 50s and – in their more extreme way – the beat generation adopted black for its strangeness; to wear black looked weird and they liked it like that. Then the Japanese invaded Paris.

Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto brought their radical tandem noir visions to the French capital in 1981 and fashion has never looked back. ‘People wear my clothes to make a statement’, said Yamamoto. At the same time Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garçons’ designer, pre-empted Father Ted’s socks by telling the world’s press that she was working with no less than eight different shades of black.

Fashionistas, architects and intellectuals embraced the look, and within a few years it was no longer weird, it was just an easy way to dress. Why worry about what goes with what when you can throw on a bunch of black clothes and get on with your life. It’s instantly coordinated and professional. There was, as Yamamoto said, a kind of ‘democracy’ about black clothing, although only the very privileged indeed could afford that kind of democracy. Issey Miyake, Japanese fashion’s other grand master, also filled his collections with black and many pointed to darker reasons for this stark, modern new look: Miyake was from Hiroshima and was riding his bicycle to school as a boy when the bomb dropped.

Architects and thinkers aside, wearing all-black was also seized upon by the dreaded Goths who were nothing if not the miserablist children of the beatniks before them. Menswear designers from McQueen to Cloak have consistently borrowed from Goths ever since the 80s, but did Goths ever, we wonder, ever really look any good? Probably not.

Throughout the 90s black (invariably in shapeless and distressed forms) remained a perfectly credible option for anyone wanting to look modern. Prada minimalism and techno fabrics worked well with it while the Belgian brigade, including Martin Margiela, all managed to bring a deconstructed freshness to it. Though we’ve all taken the plunge with colour and print this side of the millennium, black has never gone away. When you look at what Hedi Slimane’s doing, with his monochrome menswear and shiny black shop interiors, it couldn’t look more contemporary, urban and smart, which is the whole point. For many, it’s worth the risk of being mistaken for a boutique hotel doorman or waiter – anything, as long as you don’t look like you drink WKD and live in the ‘burbs.

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