Years ago, at barely 20 and as a bicycle racer without a team affiliation, I started wearing black. I then began choosing black shirts, shoes, trousers and jackets (the exceptions being pure white shirts with my suit and, once or twice at Christmas, a red tie). I like wearing black and have continued to do so. But many folks interpret my color choices as a statement of some sort, and I get frequent sarcastic or even mocking comments. Can I keep my personal style? Or do I need to change? — Ron, Hancock, Vt.
In art, where black was the first pigment used, black is an achromatic color — one without a dominant hue but containing all hues in equal measure. Historically, that has led to it being considered, in the decorative arts and, to a certain extent, in fashion, a neutral, like white or beige — a tone used as a base against which other colors can be displayed.
But over time, in culture, society and politics, black clothing has come to be considered anything but. Indeed, I can think of few colors in a closet that come with so many complicated associations and assumptions. So anybody choosing to wear black because they think it will help them blend into the background really ought to think again.
In the Bible, black is associated with mourning and death. Christian monks adopted black robes as signs of humility. In the mid-14th century the bubonic plague swept through Europe and Africa, imbuing the color with fear. In pop culture, ninjas are often depicted wearing black. So are witches. So are ladies’ maids.
In the early 1800s, however, Beau Brummell became an advocate of black evening wear for men. In 1926, Coco Chanel created “the little black dress,” associating black with the elegance of simplicity. In the 1960s, it became the color of choice of the Beatniks and the underground. Black has also been used as the garb of rebellion. See the Black Panthers and the Hong Kong democracy protesters.
In 1971, Johnny Cash, a.k.a., “the man in black,” explained his choice of clothes in song: “We’re doin’ mighty fine I do suppose, in our streak-o’-lightning cars and fancy clothes/ But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back, up front there ought to be a man in black.”
And in 2018, Times Up asked everyone attending the Golden Globes to wear black to signify solidarity with the victims of the sexual harassment that had become rife in Hollywood.
Black is also, of course, the favorite color of many in the fashion industry — the same ones who are endlessly declaring red or purple or neon as the latest trend. At Monday’s Met Gala, Kim Kardashian wore a black Balenciaga body stocking and minidress-with-train, which provoked comparisons to a black hole and raised eyebrows, given the current plight of women in Afghanistan.
All of which explains why your color of choice may provoke strong reactions. That doesn’t mean you need to give it up, of course. There’s a reason black has been so popular for so long, and if anyone thinks it’s going away, I have a bridge to sell you. But it does mean understanding the varied layers involved and what may actually be going through the mind of the beholder.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.