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The real reason we wear black

February 10, 2011

Hamlet, one of history's power dressers

The common wisdom says that black is a pragmatic color for daily wear in cities. It is not. Nothing shows dirt faster than black; nothing shows dandruff more obviously; no other color is as hard to find a match for (how often have you found two blacks in your wardrobe that actually, magically, matched? Never happens).

This is the real reason we search endlessly to find something to wear with black, because we can’t even make a black pair of trousers go with a black sweater. The dyes are completely different. One will be more yellow, one more blue, and you will go crazy in your poorly-lit closet, trying to find something other than white, cream, grey or red, to put with black.

Black is a difficult color to wear. It’s hard on the skin, casting dark shadows under my aging eyes. In fact, I told myself awhile ago “that’s it, no more black. Never again.” I was weeding black out of my closet, slowly but surely, eliminating all the culprits that made me look sallow, old, or tired, and replacing them, bit by bit, with colors. My closet was shocked, but then, it’s been shocked before, like ten years ago or so, when my daughter declared that she’d had enough, and there were to be no more pastels.

As she slashed and burned and derided my lack of taste, cackling with glee, shredding the last of her fashion-challenged mother’s shapeless pastel running suits, she was heard to sneer a line she learned watching Addam’s Family Values. Morticia, deeply wounded that her beloved brother-in-law Fester has been seduced into abandoning his family by his new wife, the murderous Debbie Jellinsky, challenges Debbie’s taste in decorating with the goad “But Debbie…. pastels???” Such was my relationship with my daughter during her adolescence.

My child’s disdain helped motivate me to go from one of Trinny and Susannah’s “befores” to a relatively passable “after.” I like to think that my daughter transformed me from the bag lady I was becoming, into someone she isn’t ashamed to be seen with. This process required reintegrating black into my apparel, which, by the way, had become replete with pastels because they withstand small children better than black! So inadvertently, pastels were her fault, but this is not something you can ever tell your child and hope to be heard; not until you become a grandmother, that is, and that is just too high a price to pay to be proved right.

So, why do we wear black? The real reason has nothing to do with practicality; how it makes us look thinner; how “everything” goes with black—in fact, very little goes with black, unless it’s done just right. In the 80s, we put black with pastels, and Trinny and Susannah proved to me just how dreadful that combination looks. They have also convinced me that black is, as an elegant color, not really intended for ubiquitous daytime wear and should probably be reserved for nighttime dressing up, just like it was for my mother’s generation.

Instead, we wear black because, like Hamlet, we want to make a dramatic statement. We want a way to say “I am sophisticated,” but we really don’t want to have to make a lot of effort, so black has become our new shorthand way of saying, “no really, I’m very hip. You should see my [insert item: car, apartment, house, handsome husband] for further proof.” Black = I know what I’m doing. Black imparts the cachet that will pull you through a business meeting with aplomb, a word I know how to spell, but don’t really use a lot.

The reason I know all of these things is because I, unlike you, had taken black out of my personal equation and tried to live without it. It isn’t until you try to live without something that you begin to value it, however, and that’s precisely what happened when I stopped wearing black. I instantly felt less coordinated or capable, and started feeling gawky again. I felt like anyone could run roughshod over me, and I would lie down and take it. I felt like I had lost my backbone, my courage, my forcefield.

Once you decipher what black means, you realise we’re projecting a powerful metaphor when we wear it:

  • I am organized
  • I am powerful
  • I am elegant
  • I am capable of making lightning-fast decisions (since it didn’t take me any time at all to decide what to wear this morning)
  • I am in control (this only rings true if your black garments are pristine, with no hems showing, no loose threads, and for god’s sake, no dandruff)
  • I am sophisticated (come on; no other color is as sophisticated as black. For feeling sophisticated, it’s irreplaceable)

So when we wear black, of course, we’re not wearing it to fit in as much as we intend to stand out. Highly ironic since everyone else is wearing it too, but there you are. That’s fashion.

The problem with wearing colors other than black, is that then we don’t feel quite as powerful. There are times, of course, when that’s not true. A vibrant blue that makes people’s eyes hurt can be precisely the shade to tell everyone around you that you really, truly are so confident as to not give a damn that ultramarine burns afterimages on the retina. But think about the messages colors send, and more importantly, think about how you feel when you wear a color, and you’ll see what I mean.

A lot of people like to wear blue because it’s a color that inspires confidence and makes others think we’re friendly and approachable, but people in black (PIBs) don’t want to appear “friendly.” PIBs want to look cool, slightly cruel, like women on catwalks. They want to tell you to back off, but they’re not speaking to you, so they send their color to do it for them. Black says “stay away.” It would like to say “I’m mysterious,” but quite honestly, it doesn’t convey that anymore, not with everyone wearing it and all.

The reason I mention all of this, of course, is because although black is technically ‘out,’ (as in, most fashionable people I see are wearing shades of mushroom, taupe, rust, and dusty greens, which were very in in the middle-70s, by the way, for those of you who think you’ve invented something new—uh, no) the way black makes you feel when you wear it will, like Hamlet’s psyche, lie repressed under the surface of the collective conscious, waiting to burst forth someday. So don’t be surprised if black makes a big comeback, since we all need to feel unique, sophisticated, and mysterious. You can only repress that collective urge to appear unapproachable so long before there’s a tidal wave, and then black will be back.

Until then, I’m keeping black in my wardrobe, if only to have something to wear to a funeral, just like Catherine De Medici, another power dresser.

Click here to find out why we wear black at funerals

Also, take a look at Alison Lurie’s book, The Language of Clothes.

Her perspective on what our clothing says about us and our intentions is absolutely fascinating.

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