Painted black

Black has had a very bad rap, as they say. The colour has long been associated with mourning rituals, evil, and has sometimes possessed unpleasant racialist connotations. Its reputation has been blackened, so to speak. We speak of blackspots and of people being blackballed, though Black Friday and black markets are not entirely negative, neither is being in the black, the ideal financial situation. It is, nonetheless, a particularly prized colour for flowers mainly because of its rarity, so black orchids are especially well esteemed and black roses and tulips were the objects of myth. Coco Chanel was the designer who reclaimed black from mourning during the twentieth century with her concept of the LBD (little black dress). Inspired by the dress of rural peasant widows, this is one of the rare cases in fashion history of a trend beginning from the working classes and working its way up rather than the other way around. Perhaps the most iconic depiction of the LBD is in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s based on a short story by Truman Capote. Holly Golightly, seen below as portrayed by Audrey Hepburn, looks stunning in her ensemble. However, the colour she wears is associated with her superficial and vacuous character; she is colourless and is, in all but name, a prostitute.

ImageOne of the reasons for which black became so popular following Chanel’s vogue for the LBD is that production methods made its manufacture much cheaper in the twentieth century than had hitherto been possible. Historically, black dyes have been very expensive to produce, a rather ironic fact given that black has often been adopted by religious groups as a symbol of penitence and worldly spurning. The puritans had the best of both worlds in that they wore black clothing as a sign of mortification but in reality it was a deep indigo, so they avoided any great expense in their outward display of renunciation.

ImageIn a sense, Chanel was repopularizing the colour. We might imagine that sovereigns were festooned with ornamentation and fine livery in former times in Europe, but really many monarchs wore black from the fourteenth century on, particularly the Holy Roman Emperor, as seen above in Titian’s breathtaking portrait of Charles V who ruled from 1519 to 1556. It was painted in 1548, when the Emperor was 48 years old, yet he looks like a much older man here; the years and events have visibly taken a heavy toll. What I think Titian conveys in a striking way is a man racked by doubt. This is not the face of an imperious, decisive man, and his slightly awkward pose -particularly his legs which do not align with the chair or his sword- reveal a man who is trying to project majesty yet is not quite sure of himself. The fact that the sword is hidden to the right is significant; Charles was dragged into many wars yet obsessively wanted peace. The black that he wears makes him look human and, in a curious way, endearing. It hints at a certain mystery which is certainly real. Within a few years of this scene, Charles abruptly and unexpectedly abdicated in 1556, retiring to a monastery to spend his last remaining two years, surrounded by clocks affixed to every single wall of his apartment.


Black was, in many respects, the very lifeblood of the nineteenth century, not least of which because of the Industrial Revolution. Claude Monet’s magisterial La Gare Saint-Lazare (1877) captures the decidedly unromantic scene of a railway station. The smoke drowning out the sky, the grey and black hues, and the faceless figures all seem to denote the downsides to progress and the terrifying march of progress. Yet this would miss an important point: all of the black in this painting, and it’s the predominant shade of the scene, is actually made up of extremely vivid colours such as vermilion red, ultramarine blue, and emerald green. In fact, Monet used almost no black pigment at all in this painting. Is it possible to see a work of art in which seeing is not believing is depicted so forcefully, almost brutally? It’s in the Musée d’Orsay, a museum that is worth visiting for this painting alone (though, in point of fact, there are many works that could claim this title there).


I have platinum-blond hair, so black is not a frequent sartorial choice, since it makes pale-skinned Celtic lads like me look like freshly revived corpses in a nightmarish zombie holocaust. I did of course, wear it as a trainee priest for two years, though had a bespoke cassock made by Parisian tailors, which was, in retrospect, a sign. However, I love today’s cufflinks, a pair crafted out of black enamel with brass fasteners by Jules Perrier, a Quebec-based founder of a family-run firm that is still going strong, and which was founded in 1956. What I especially like about this pair is the ruthless subversion of the black. They most likely date from the 1960s, given their style. The lozenge shape and delicate gold-painted motif are strenuously futuristic, yet based on the traditional black. This shade is, after all, the colour of space and our cosmos, so what better choice for representing the past, or, indeed, the future? Black truly is and always will be the new black.


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