Fashion industry people are known for their fondness for black. We have the ‘perfect little black dress’, the ‘perfect black bag’, and the ‘perfect black stiletto heels’. But where did this obsession with black as a must-have come from?
There’s a (perhaps apocryphal) tale that fashion’s obsession with black arises from the 1960-70s, when legendary handbag designer Judith Leiber decided to dress her in-store retail sales force only in black. Her rationale was that what people needed to see in her store were not sales people, but her exquisite minaudieres. With careful lighting, and her now darkness-clad store associates fading into the background, all one would see was the flash and scintillation of crystals on those tiny works of art, set out like a rare gemstone on a sea of black.
But fashion’s obsession with black goes much further back than Judith Leiber’s glorious little bags, and there’s actually an historic economic basis to our continued obsession with this hue.
Once humanity understood that some materials stained, or dyed, other materials, particularly materials that one might use to adorn the body, well, the race was on to find ever newer and more intriguing colors. Prior to the invention of the synthetic dye materials, however, getting a good true black was time-consuming, difficult, and very expensive. This meant that only the wealthiest could afford to wear black, and only the very wealthiest could afford to wear it as more than just an accent color.
Unlike today, when even the retail sales assistants are dressed in black, black (particularly luxury weaves such as velvet) was a premium color. Wearing black allowed wealthy merchants to show their social and financial status without running afoul of medieval sumptuary laws, which prohibited the wearing of luxury materials by the (lower) classes. Black screamed in a slightly subtler way than wearing all of one’s jewels on the street, ‘Hello, I am RICH!’ This was the paradigm for centuries that only the wealthiest could afford an expensive black-dyed garment.
The Industrial Revolution certainly changed how dyes were priced. The invention of synthetic or ‘man-made’ dye materials enabled a cheaper black dye to enter the marketplace for widespread use. Black became commonly used not just as a trim or an accessory, but also as outfits worn even by the poorest. Black was suddenly democratic rather than being reserved as a luxury class color. England’s Queen Victoria’s extended mourning for her Prince Consort, Albert, further solidified black as an almost mandatory color to have in one’s wardrobe.
With this rich history of being associated with wealth and social position, black remains a perennial favorite to use in collections. Black has been cast in various roles, but even when it is only lightly used as an accent color, it can never be said to be a ‘bit’ player in the color spectrum. It still remains an expected basic in our wardrobes, and it is usually the best selling color in most accessories classes. Most apparel collections include black (even spring collections may use it for an accent color however minimally). With its rich history, when we wear black, we can be said to be wearing our history on our sleeve. Old beliefs about wealth and position tend to die hard, and in that context it makes sense that for fashion at least, black will always be an important color.