An Ode To Fashion’s Most Faultless & Seductive Shade


“Unhappy, darling?” asks Gomez Addams. “Oh yes. Yes, completely,” answers Morticia, glancing at her husband and smoothing the glistening black of a corseted gown with a vampire’s collar. Black is to the Addams family what red shorts are to Mickey Mouse – a uniform that signals an identity, a perspective on the world and a way of occupying it.

Black – serious black, gothic black, seductive black, restrained black, sculptural black – is back in fashion. At the turn of 2019, when designers were preparing their autumn/winter 2020 collections, the chic noncolour appeared an elegant proposal, suited to the growing taste for restraint and simplicity as we counted the environmental cost of overconsumption and grew weary of ricocheting trends. Who knew a global pandemic, societal upheaval and the jagged edges of a worldwide recession lay lurking in the wings? What a difference a year makes – today, dressing in black seems both a pragmatic and poetic choice. In these turbulent and transitional times, black has gained a poignant new edge.

Wool jacket, £840, Art School, at Dover Street Market. Pleated trousers, to order, Haider Ackermann. Leather trail shoes, £270, Eytys. Hat, from £660, R13

© David Sims

There are as many ways with black as there are designers and brands. “Although surges in black’s popularity can be attributed to periods of economic decline or political and social unrest, as a display of austerity and rebellion,” says Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu curator in charge at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City, “its fashionability also follows artistic and cultural trends. Black can be an expression of modernism, minimalism or abstraction, and its rise has also been driven by subcultural styles – by beatniks, punk, grunge and streetwear.” This autumn sees the delayed opening of About Time: Fashion and Duration. The exhibition juxtaposes black and white garments from 1870 (the year The Met opened) onwards, highlighting the time-warping similarities across many decades. It opens with a mourning dress from the period. “The prevalence of fashionable mourning attire during the 19th century – which was often described as alluring or becoming – paved the way for the increased use of black in fashion,” continues Bolton, who includes Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking, Chanel’s black tweed, lots of Comme des Garçons, and Balenciaga’s Infanta dress – which was inspired by the paintings of Diego Velázquez – in the exhibition. “The strength of black, and its potential to amplify the dramatic effect of a silhouette, contributed to its lasting appeal with modern designers.”

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Hooded leather top, £5,190. Mesh scarf, £1,330. Printed jersey top with lace inlay, £580. Leather skirt, £4,940. All Paco Rabanne

© David Sims

This season, the black silhouette is dramatic and tender. Consider Pierpaolo Piccioli’s line-up for Valentino, which opened with a rope-tied black cashmere midi-coat over a high-necked sequinned polo neck and lug-soled boots, with glossy black lambskin poncho capes and tunic gowns to follow. “The collection stems from the desire to focus on the humanity of individuals, to depict and exalt their feeling and emotions, despite age, gender, race and disposition,” says the creative director, who looked to Marlene Dumas’s soulful black ink portraits, to the codes of classicism, and the black, blue and grey of tailored uniforms.

Silk dress, to order, Valentino

© David Sims

Weigh up Celine’s tribute to Jane Birkin and Catherine Deneuve in the shape of giant, floppy felt hats, sheer polo necks and A-line skirts. Black can also be devout and valiant: view JW Anderson’s priestesses in trapeze-line silk-satin dresses with billowing sleeves and clerical necks, and Paco Rabanne’s medieval princes in lean trouser suits set off with pure white lace collars and cuffs. “I wanted to either structure a silhouette – to sculpt it and focus on shape, giving black an austere, mystic presence – or to work it really lightly, like smoke, to express the sensation of a darkness around the body,” says the latter’s Julien Dossena. “When I watch somebody wearing black in the street, it’s like a drawing, an abstract shape in the space. You can focus more on the movement and attitude, there is a speed involved that I like a lot.”

Trench coat, from £1,390, Eckhaus Latta. Wool dress, £2,690, Alaïa. Tights, £27, Wolford, at Selfridges. Leather shoes, £185, Aeyde

© David Sims

Black is quintessential to a handful of designers. Coco Chanel sought to perfect the little black dress and little black jacket throughout her career. The noncolour and the minimalist shapes of her nouveau pauvre chic provided go-anywhere clothing that could be livened up with costume jewels. “Women think of all colours except the absence of colour. I have said that black has it all. White, too. Their beauty is absolute,” she proclaimed.

Inky black and polar white characterise Chanel’s packaging, store interiors and even its collection of artworks, which includes Agnes Martin and Erik Lindman. This season, Virginie Viard gave black a leisure spin with soft, popper-sided trackpants, bra tops and blousons.

Cristóbal Balenciaga amplified the drama of black with the architectural silhouettes of his bubble gown, trapeze dress and numerous iterations of the lace cocktail dress. Demna Gvasalia, currently at the helm, seized upon the power of obsidian with spooky pleat-back capes, spiky fetishistic rubber sweat tops and leather pants that the Addams family would adore.

Jacket, £3,020. Asymmetric-shoulder dress, £945. Both Rick Owens

© David Sims

Japanese designers Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo made their mark in Paris in the 1980s with what became known as “scarecrow” style. Voluminous black gowns and raw-edged tailoring repudiated the bourgeois allure of the little black tailleur and challenged the very bedrock of Parisian chic only to become assimilated by it.

Indeed, black in the 1980s became a way of life, a status symbol that signified discretion and sophistication in a decade that revelled in excess, bling and the pulsating colours of MTV. The fashion and creative worlds took to it in droves. Black Yohji jackets and turtlenecks (purchased from black-clad sales assistants at Manhattan designer store Barneys) became the default uniform of musicians and film directors, while the sheer black Alaïa dresses immortalised in Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video represented the apex of sexually empowered style. In offices and homes, glossy obsidian marble, lacquer and jet-black silk-satin sheets became de rigueur.

Wrap blouse, £3,950, Fendi

© David Sims

Black represented a philosophy. In 1991, Carla Sozzani opened her Corso Como store in Milan – a temple of elegiac monochrome clothing, photographic exhibitions by black-and-white masters including Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon, and graphic Fornasetti ceramics. The flaxen-haired Sozzani – rarely spotted in anything but black – appeared like a dark angel in the Italian sun.

Jacket, £5,070. Leather cap, to order. Both Louis Vuitton

© David Sims

“There is black and there is black; there are so many intentions one creates in black,” says Sozzani. “In the ’70s, I followed Sonia Rykiel’s philosophy ‘Black is beautiful.’ In the ’80s, I embraced Rei Kawakubo’s vision of the woman I felt I was. And now, I am in accord with Azzedine Alaïa’s thoughts on black. ‘I like black because it is a joyful colour,’ he said. All have had their time. But the black pieces I would ideally keep forever? One Comme des Garçons, one Alaïa, one Martin Margiela,” she says. “Black is pure, clear, clean and strong; it determinants shapes and forms, and is not frivolous. It gives the mind the opportunity to open up in space and time. And, as it is all colours mixed together, it will support and highlight everything else we bring into contact with it.”

In the mid-1990s, Helmut Lang pushed the obsession to its extreme and produced his staple denim jeans in 12 shades of black that were displayed in-store like holy vestments. “Black is enduring in fashion because it holds a wide range of meanings,” explains Bolton. “Prior to the mid-19th century and the introduction of black chemical dyes, black dye was very costly. So, a garment made from a deep, rich black fabric, especially silk, was a symbol of luxury and refinement. Black became associated with mourning in the West because it could also be seen as humble and sober.”

Dress, £3,955, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello

© David Sims

There is a vast difference between that happy, inky pitch-black that Alaïa favoured and the “sad” black of cheap tailoring. The quality of black dye continues to be prized. “I love a really deep black, so you have to find the right surface that drinks the colour better. I hate washed blacks, so you have to be precise in that choice,” says Dossena. Ink- and jet-black are most revered. Ink-black for writing originally came from the lamp-black residue of burning candles and lamps. The best jet came from mines in Whitby. Jewellery made from the mineraloid was championed by Queen Victoria, who set the trend in mourning style.

Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen skilfully plays the scales of black. One standout dress is cut from a woven length of degradé silk that shifts from cobweb sheer at the hemline to pitch-black with a red heart emblem embroidered on the chest. By contrast, Anthony Vaccarello revels in the fetish allure of black in glossy latex, sequins and leather that Yves Saint Laurent first made outré in the late 1960s with Le Smoking and his sheer blouses. In Tokyo, Comme des Garçons protégé Kei Ninomiya has made his love of black the focus of the label he launched in 2012. You will always find a great black leather jacket and ruffled T-shirt at Noir, alongside extraordinary runway pieces that are feats of construction. His latest collection is about black, too. “I was thinking about how black gradates, and how if you go into the deepest end of the scale you discover red – that’s it – a kind of colour study,” says Ninomiya.

New shades of black continue to emerge. The deepest, darkest synthetic example known to man appeared in 2014. Vantablack was originally created for use in the aerospace industry, and Surrey NanoSystems, its manufacturer, says that “it is often described as the closest thing to a black hole we’ll ever see”. But perhaps Kassia St Clair describes it best, in her book The Secret Lives of Colour: “Seeing it, words fail: it is akin to looking at a piece of sky from the dark side of the moon.” And, “It is so black other black things glimmer murkily by comparison.” This uncommonly dark material triggered a storm in the art world when Anish Kapoor signed an exclusive deal with its maker. A slew of blacker-than-black pigments then entered the market, but Vantablack remains the optimum.

Strike silver with the standout Mac Cosmetic’s Extra Dimension Eye Shadow in Evening Grey, £17.50

© David Sims

Black also continues to bewitch. “To me, black clothing is the epitome of chic and sophistication,” says fashion PR Daisy Hoppen. “When I think of the most iconic fashion images by Norman Parkinson, Edward Steichen, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, the models are often wearing beautifully cut black designs that still resonate with me today.” Her own choice of outfit is often inspired by film wardrobes, too. “Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina or Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the gothic romanticism of The Craft, The Addams Family… I like nothing more than a mid-length black lace dress, boots and thick socks,” says Hoppen, who wears styles from The Vampire’s Wife and Simone Rocha.

Silk top, £2,520. Viscose trousers with peplum waist, £1,320. Both Loewe

© David Sims

Over time, new black acolytes have risen and will continue to rise. Such as Albanian-born Nensi Dojaka, who debuted her first collection of skinny graphic slip dresses and tailoring at Fashion East. “Many years back, before I even started studying fashion, I went to the Tate in London to see a Rothko show. There was one particular piece that was in different shades of black, and all the nuances of it mixed together to form these shapes. It felt so powerful to me, almost drawing you in. Black has both strength and vulnerability that I love. For me, it’s about stripping it back to the power of the design, the fabric and the woman wearing the clothes,” says Dojaka, whose attention-grabbing mesh bodysuit and trousers were worn by Bella Hadid at the VMAs in September.

That’s the magic of black. It can be seductive as well as restrained, an architectural statement as well as a cloud-like spectre, it can be silent or, as the Addams family knew well, delightfully black-humoured. The paradoxes are many. “It is the colour of the sound around the words: black is poetic and we need poetry in our lives now,” says Sozzani.

Hair: Duffy. Make-up: Diane Kendal. Nails: Ama Quashie. Production: Art House. Digital artwork: Skn Lab. Models: Malaika Holmén, Harriet Longhurst, Elisa Mitrofan, Merlijne Schorren

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