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A Brief History of Black


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#1 Sator

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Posted 01 May 2009 - 11:20 PM

A Brief History of Black

Black clothing – what more inspires controversy than this singular subject? The controversy is nothing new, for it has continued in some form of other for centuries. What is the real meaning of black in men’s dress history? And what does a sociological study of that history reveal to us? I think one will find that the whole controversy surrounding the black lounge suit is revealed to us if we delve deep into the psycho-social web of meaning of black in men’s dress.

Roman mourners wore black – as did the ancient Greeks. Since ancient times it symbolised death and mourning. Black was first widely adopted by the Eastern Orthodox Church and only much later by the Western Church. Outside of the Church few wore black through most of the Middle Ages although lepers were required to do so by decree. None of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales wear black.

The first major use of black in the West was by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy in the 15th Century. Like monarchs after him he wore it first as part of mourning for his murdered father but then continued to wear it continuously after the official period of mourning was over. Burgundy was powerful under the reign of Philip and the Burgundian fashion for black spread throughout the courts of Europe. The fifteenth century Burgundian author Jehan Courtois, in Le Blason des couleurs, describes black as sad, the colour of the earth and of melancholy, and the most humble colour there is. For this reason, he explains, it is worn by mourners and by monks but, nonetheless, he sees it as dignified in its simplicity. He goes on to complain that, in its excessive popularity, the colour is much abused.

The real historical significance is that this is the first time that black is used as a symbol of self-effacing power, and sets a historic precedent for the wearing of black whenever an empire reaches the apogee of its power. Black is henceforth the colour of self-effacing might that taps into the very awe and mystery of Death itself. It is probably no coincidence that the Burgundian empire should cloak itself in the colour of death in a period of history in which there arose the Black Death, the Hundred Years War and famines. This was a period in which a cult of death arose, with artwork showing rotting corpses and the victorious Dance of Death trampling asunder the helpless living. Philip and his retinue of thousands cloaked themselves entirely in black, and carryied black standards seven yards long. The colour black played a powerful role in the macabre visions of the Burgundian artist, Hieronymous Bosch, who was much admired by Philip.

The Black Death by Bosch:




At the peak of its imperial powers, the wearing of black became ubiquitous in Venice of the 16th century. All men of wealth and power - merchants in particular - adopted black garb. Venetians were noted by one Milanese visitor to be dressed ‘like Doctors of Law’ suggesting that the adoption of black academic dress had become universal by this stage.

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) in a black academic gown:



This is in stark contrast to the Doctor of Physic in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who we are told is clad in ‘sangwyn’ – a blood-red colour. Amongst the merchant middle classes, black had become a uniform of the upward mobile middle classes, who wanted to display their solemnity, piety and above all appear powerful but while avoiding immodest displays of nouveau riche gaudiness.

Black became more widely available only after the discovery in Mexico by the Spanish of Indian logwood in the 16th century. The process of dying fabric black was still arduous and expensive. Only the wealthy elite could afford it.

Of all of the empires that chose to clad themselves in the colour of piety and death at the peak of their influence, the Spanish did so to a degree that they became intimately associated with the colour: Spanish black it was called. Spain chose to do so at the precisely the point it became the most powerful empire in the world, spanning Europe and the New World. In a famous portrait by Titian, Charles V - a descendent of Burgundian aristocracy - is dressed in black. In a portrait by Velazquez, Philip IV also wears the same Spanish black. As in the age of the Burgundian Empire, it is little surprise that black should reign supreme at the time of the Counter-Reformation, the cruelty of the Inquisition, and the spreading of smallpox into the native Indian population by the Conquistador. Black seemed the perfect colour for the expression of a religious fanaticism, fuelled by a ruthless hunger for power, which demanded a pious and self-effacing submission to its absolute will.

Philip IV of Spain painted by Velazquez (c.1624-1627):



Spanish black becames popular throughout Europe:



At a similar same time around the 1560s, Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Russian formed the Oprichnina and his personal body guards, the Oprichniki, who both wore all-black uniforms and rode black horses bearing the hound’s head emblem on their saddles. With their pious allegiance unto death to Ivan, they terrorised Russia with their orgies of murder, rape and torture.

Black was also widely adopted by Protestants as the colour of aestheticism and piety. Martin Luther always wore black throughout his life. It seemed to suit the spirit of Lutherism and subsequently of Calvinism with their notions such as of the total depravity of a humanity, destined to suffering on a petty earth, relieved only by the joy of death granted only by God – a Deliverance a human act may not hasten, however pitiful human existence might be.

Martin Luther, portrait by Cranach:



It is little surprising that in the Golden Age of the Dutch Empire, black was widely adopted by this Protestant land, as can be seen in many paintings by 17th century Dutch masters such as Rembrandt.

Rembrandt, self-portrait, 1640:



This adoption of a pious, self-effacing black by Protestantism was to reach its own apogee in the British Empire of the 19th Century. Precisely when Britannia ruled the waves under Queen Victoria, she took up the wearing of black. Victoria, like Philip of Burgundy, took to wearing black out of mourning for her husband, Albert and again, like Philip, she continued to wear it long after the official period of mourning was over.



In an age when England dominated men’s fashion, all men in Europe took to wearing black like a uniform. It is Max Weber who noted that in an age of the rise of the Quaker business family, with its severe Puritanism - at the very climax of the Industrial Revolution - that the black, top hatted uniform of the English too reached it apogee. As with the black of Imperial Spain and Venice, the merchant classes avidly adapted the colour.

In an age when a gentleman considered it normal to be surrounded by other men in “decent black” (as Dickens described the dress of "cadaverous" faced villain, Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield), Baudelaire commented that his age perpetually dressed as if it were at a funeral. He was not the only one to note it, for others such as Gautier, Musset, Maupassant, Charlotte Brontë, Dickens and Wilde too commented on it.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde wrote:

The costume of the nineteenth century is detestable. It is so sobre, depressing. Sin is the only real colour-element left in modern life

It was little surprising when black re-emerged in Fascist Europe. The British and Italian fascists wore black. And above all, the black Death’s-Head and uniform were worn by the elite Waffen SS. Again the colour black and its symbolism emerged in an empire at the peak of its power, an empire which demands a pious, selfless devotion to it, of a fanatical, almost religious intensity:



Since the war, black has been the colour of choice of young subcultures. It has become beloved of punks, Goths, bikies as well as black leather jacket clad Hollywood 1950s tough guys such as Marlon Brando:



Japanese designers spearheaded the emergence of black in the 1980s as a favourite colour of the couture houses at the time. It is little surprising, given how black lounge suits are worn today like uniforms by Japanese salarymen, in the same manner as they were once worn by Victorian industrialists: the uniform of an economic empire at its apogee, a symbol of dutiful self-effacement and yet simultaneously of power. Subsequently, black has remained a staple of European couture houses and their imitators, with their billion dollar fashion empires, mass producing clothes of dubious quality, sold at extortionist prices. Fused polyester lounge suits need to be given an aura of having a youth culture Goth-and-Punk shock-and-awe – and for that purpose black is the perfect colour. Industrial fashion empires need to give their clothing that kinship with the Awe of Death and the Macabre in order to convince its audience that their mediocre, mass produced wares such as black sneakers, t-shirts and flip-flops are fetishist objects to be worshipped by the adoring masses. It is an appeal to the same youth culture, which loves to sport Swastikas, and black Waffen SS Death’s-Heads for their kitsch shock value.



It is little surprising that artisans creating high-end classical garments and their clients usually avoid black the most. The enlightened and dress educated modern gentleman rejects that Calvinist and oppressively pious “decent black” of the Victorian industrialist. For we live in a much more secular age than the Victorian one. It is no surprise that radical Islam demands that women be totally cloaked in black, for its mentality is akin to the pious Calvinist severities of the Victorian age, so alien to the modern age.



Nor would an enlightened gentleman of our age have any truck with a youth culture which sports the symbols of mass murderers merely for the delight in shocking others – colours being but further symbols.

The modern age has gone even further and has retreated from black even in formal dress. The Duke of Windsor preferred midnight blue for his dinner jackets. There is also a tradition of midnight blue even for dress coats. Before oppressive Victorian “decent black” became so widespread, dark blue was a popular colour for coats both for day and evening wear.

Evening theatre dress, 1849:



White and cream coloured dinner jackets in the mid-20th century are a further step away from the domination by black of formal dress.

Beau Brummell is himself known to have approved of black for evening formal dress. He himself is only recorded as wearing a black waistcoat and tight black pantaloons. Generally, he is recorded as preferring ‘dark blue’ coats and once commented to someone dressed in black that he looked like a ‘magpie’.

Beau Brummell at a ball in 1815:



Black is unique amongst colours, as a lack of colour – a symbol of mystery, of mourning and even of death itself. It is clear we must learn from the writings of men such as Beaudelaire and Wilde, who experienced how is to live in an age when one was surrounded by uniform black. The suffocating state of society being in perpetual mourning is something we would all be best to avoid repeating, for once the disease of wearing black like some uniform catches on it tends to spread like the plague. Black worn sparingly can still be powerful as it is mysterious but once abused, it fast begins to look ugly and funereal. It is precisely this ugliness that the couture houses have spawned on a mass scale. The enlightened, dress-educated man is best counselled to use it wisely and sparingly, or even to avoid it altogether.


Bibliography

John Havey, Men in Black
http://www.amazon.co...e...6069&sr=1-1
Brent Shannon, The Cut of his Coat
http://www.amazon.co...9...6375&sr=1-1

#2 Chris Kavanaugh

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Posted 02 May 2009 - 03:21 AM

I was walking from my car this A.M. and encountered the local murder of crows being vocal at the dumpster ( dustbin.)

By the pool our local mated pair of ducks dining on escargot presented a measured gentility of colour. Once inside the local ruby throated hummingbird was drinking early and my blue jacketed California scrubjay dropped by for peanuts.

The Orthodox church adopted black, but it is worn in a setting of incense,light,candles and an explosion of coloured ikons. The priests will often don vestments of intense colour and embroidery.

My last generic , small of the back barcoded California blonde GF insisted I should buy a black suit and acquire a daily stubble. I countered if she would embrace black lace garterbelts,stockings,bra ( and me) it might happen.

Black cars show bodywork damage, cosmetic flaws and dirt more than any other colour.

The original colour for our stealth aircraft fleet was a digital pink, said colour researched by the R.A.F. in WW2 as the most difficult colour to see at dawn and dusk when reconnaissance missions were flown. USAF brass decided it was to 'sissy' and went with Darth Vader black.

I still like my black italian grosgrain tie from Sam Hober, bought it specificaly for church duties, although my priest realy likes my deep blue with white crescent moon and star best.

#3 Frog in Suit

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Posted 02 May 2009 - 07:23 PM

May I bring to your attention the works of Michel Pastoureau? I have read the one about the colour blue. Here is a link to a wikipedia article about him:

http://en.wikipedia....chel_Pastoureau

I hope this helps.
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#4 NJS

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Posted 06 May 2009 - 07:16 AM

Has anyone done a study of mourning dress? Black is the usual colour in many societies but some use white.
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#5 Frog in Suit

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Posted 06 May 2009 - 05:13 PM

QUOTE (NJS @ May 5 2009, 11:16 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Has anyone done a study of mourning dress? Black is the usual colour in many societies but some use white.


I do not know of any such study.

My hunch would be to look into a manuel de savoir-vivre (Etiquette guide?) from the beginning of the XXth century or the second half of the XIXth. I know there were such things as "grand deuil" and "demi-deuil", with prescriptions as when and for how long they had to be observed, whether black or grey. I even think people were supposed to hide/veil looking glasses (with black crepe?) for a time....

I do not suppose anyone goes to that much trouble nowadays.
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#6 NJS

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 10:03 AM

I do not know of any such study.

My hunch would be to look into a manuel de savoir-vivre (Etiquette guide?) from the beginning of the XXth century or the second half of the XIXth. I know there were such things as "grand deuil" and "demi-deuil", with prescriptions as when and for how long they had to be observed, whether black or grey. I even think people were supposed to hide/veil looking glasses (with black crepe?) for a time....

I do not suppose anyone goes to that much trouble nowadays.

You will be aghast to learn that I am in the middle of another book; provisionally entitled "Storey's OP [you have to guess that bit] Miscellany For Men - Savoir Vivre-Savoir Faire" - I say "aghast" since you know the standard of my French. Fortunately, it is, otherwise, in English - but does not yet touch on mourning: indeed, the dedication is to the "Spirit of True Britannia and to the Action and Spirit of the Phoenix"... But I imagine that it will drift into and out of life - I just reflect that so do all things.
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#7 Chris Kavanaugh

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 02:00 PM

The earliest known deliberate burials included painting the corpse with red ochre that tinted the skeletal remains. Black was used by ancient Rome and Egypt, though in modern Egypt, and Burma it is now yellow. China and Japan are white, South Africa red and Iran blue. In Thailand the wife will wear purple on her husband's death.
In ancient Europe, green was a mourning colour reflecting the hope of regenerated life. In Ireland's invasion cycles, the Milesians, a celtic group from Spain
forced the conquered Tuatha de Danaan ( people of the goddess Danu/Dianna) to don green as forever mourning their defeat and humbled status 'as low as the grass.'

#8 Frog in Suit

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 05:06 PM

You will be aghast to learn that I am in the middle of another book; provisionally entitled "Storey's OP [you have to guess that bit] Miscellany For Men - Savoir Vivre-Savoir Faire" - I say "aghast" since you know the standard of my French. Fortunately, it is, otherwise, in English - but does not yet touch on mourning: indeed, the dedication is to the "Spirit of True Britannia and to the Action and Spirit of the Phoenix"... But I imagine that it will drift into and out of life - I just reflect that so do all things.


OP? I checked my two references (Harrap's and the Sloane Ranger Handbook !) and drew a blank...

I marvel at your industry: another book already?
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#9 NJS

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 09:33 PM

OP? I checked my two references (Harrap's and the Sloane Ranger Handbook !) and drew a blank...

I marvel at your industry: another book already?


Apart from staring at the sea (which does pall after a while) there isn't a lot else to do in the Sleepy Hollow. I did go shrimping one day and produced a haul for the cats but the sea-fishing reel has seized up for wanr of use and the clutch has justy gone on the beach buggy. So writing keeps me from slipping into an agreeable state of vacancy that could easily lead to an early dotage. There is no likely way that you will find what 'OP' stands for unless you are (and you might be) a widely sampled warm beer drinker.....
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#10 NJS

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 09:44 PM

The earliest known deliberate burials included painting the corpse with red ochre that tinted the skeletal remains. Black was used by ancient Rome and Egypt, though in modern Egypt, and Burma it is now yellow. China and Japan are white, South Africa red and Iran blue. In Thailand the wife will wear purple on her husband's death.
In ancient Europe, green was a mourning colour reflecting the hope of regenerated life. In Ireland's invasion cycles, the Milesians, a celtic group from Spain
forced the conquered Tuatha de Danaan ( people of the goddess Danu/Dianna) to don green as forever mourning their defeat and humbled status 'as low as the grass.'


That's most interesting. I am sure that there is room for at least an essay if not even a book on this. The social significance of various colours too, apart from mourning, is interesting - in England green is associated with envy whereas (and Frog in Suit please correct me if this is wrong) in France it seems to be yellow that has this association - but then the Yellow Jersey is an esteemed prize.
<b></b>NJS<b></b>

#11 Frog in Suit

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 10:39 PM

Hmmmm..

I checked colour associations in two dictionaries (Littré and Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française published by Robert):

Littré has: Fig. Rire jaune, avoir, malgré le rire, l'air du mécontentement. "To laugh yellow: to appear displeased, although laughing" (My hurried translation), i.e., covering up one's mortification/displeasure by pretending to laugh. Jealousy could be the source of one's displeasure.

Dict. Hist., like Littré, only has greeen (fig.) in the sense of an older (usually) man retaining the strength of his youth: un vert galant. I think I have heard, or said myself, "vert de rage" (green with anger), but did not find a printed source.

The colour of the yellow jersey, according to Wikipedia, seems to have decided upon because the newspaper sponsoring the race (in 1919) was printed on yellow paper.

I think the penny just dropped: Theakston's Old Peculier?

I would look into Michel Pastoureau's book Noir, l'histoire d'une couleur, 2008, (http://www.amazon.fr...u/dp/2020490870). I don't think it has been translated yet and, MP being originally a mediaeval specialist, it may only be tangential to your own interests but enlightening nonetheless.


I hope this helps



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#12 NJS

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 11:03 PM

This is tremendous information, Frog in Suit - thank you - and you have rumbled my title - whether the publisher will let me keep it is another matter! I cannot say that I am very keen on Theakston's beer but the OP is a great name.
best,
NJS
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#13 jeeves

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 12:46 PM

Growing up in England sometime ago black suits were seen as fashion forward. They need herringbone or shadow stripe patterning, or a fashionable cut to make them acceptable. A regular cut suit in a solid black was referred to as an undertakers suit (although our local undertaker wore a morning coat). And then in the 1980s as Sator pointed out the black suit really became popular again and remains in the mainstream today.

The nearest people used to get to a solid black suit was a charcoal flannel. This is in the English sense of charcoal as a flecked black rather than a dark grey.

#14 Sator

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 08:17 PM

A regular cut suit in a solid black was referred to as an undertakers suit (although our local undertaker wore a morning coat).


Bridgland and Whife seem to suggest the correct morning attire for a funeral was considered a mourning suit: a suit with black morning coat plus matching trouser and waistcoat. This suggests that cashmere design trousers were considered more something you'd wear to a festive occasion.

#15 Sator

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 08:24 PM

NJS: I'd also suggest you try to get a copy of Phillis Cunnington and Catherine Lucas's book called Costume for Births Marriages & Deaths, London, 1972. It's an extensive history of English customs for these occasions.

The Cunnington's works are indispensible. They were doctors and one day they brought a vintage dress, but could find no information on it. They came up against a wall of indifference trying to find out more about it, and realised that a part of English history was rapidly vanishing before their eyes. So they made collecting everything they could about English costume history their joint hobby, and their collection became the foundation of the costume museum in Bath.

#16 Frog in Suit

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 09:45 PM

Bridgland and Whife seem to suggest the correct morning attire for a funeral was considered a mourning suit: a suit with black morning coat plus matching trouser and waistcoat. This suggests that cashmere design trousers were considered more something you'd wear to a festive occasion.


Dear Sator , I have no doubt you are correct, but would suggest that black trousers have now become in practice obsolete for mourning attire.

For what it's worth in the way of evidence, I remember seeing in the British illustrated press (Tatler) photographs of important funeral or memorial services, for ,e.g., Royal Personages, members of the aristocracy or statesmen, where men wore a morning suit, but with a black waistcoat (same cloth as the coat) and cashmere trousers. That would have been in the past twenty or twenty-five years.

When I had my morning suit made (1991) my tailor at the time suggested having a black waiscoat made as well, precisely for that contingency. I declined and still regret it pour le principe, although I have had no opportunity to wear such a thing, and most likely never shall.
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#17 NJS

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 09:47 PM

Thanks, Sator, I'll seek it out. Also, the literary works of Trollope and Galsworthy; old photographs - family and more generally available are a rich source of the habits and conventions af yesteryear.
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