Black Is the New Black
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 7/10/13

Fashion is always going back to black. Basic black can be styled to suit many attitudes: propriety and rebellion, piety and concupiscence, fascism and anarchy. Nuns wear black, as do dominatrixes. The Duchess of Windsor loved black, but so did the Wicked Witch of the West. (Come to think of it, they weren’t all that different.) We applaud the indefatigable sartorial brilliance of the absence of all color, plus tastemakers who prescribed and documented it.

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Diana Vreeland  (1903–1989 | American fashion editor)
to  Bill Cunningham  (b. 1928 or 1929 | American photographer)

Diana Vreeland was the grandest of fashion’s grandes dames. A horse-faced clotheshorse who dispensed bons mots in a voice so haughty it sounded like an impersonation, she inhabited a spacious Park Avenue apartment done up (by legendary American society decorator Billy Baldwin) entirely in shades of red. Her hair, however, was lacquered jet-black. For decades, as Harper’s Bazaar’s fashion editor and then as Vogue’s editor in chief, Vreeland dictated what women ought to wear.

Bill Cunningham—a balding, plainspoken little guy who wears a blue streetsweeper’s smock, rides a battered bicycle and lives in a dingy studio—is just as redoubtable a fashion force. How so? As the photographer for the New York Times’s On the Street column, Cunningham has for decades recorded what women actually are wearing. Periodically, and inevitably, Cunningham’s photo essays—and now his On the Street videos for the Times website—focus on NYC fashionistas’ undying love of the funerary shade.

Cunningham was in awe of Vreeland: He documented every show she curated for the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. But the imperious Vreeland won only two awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America; the humble Cunningham has so far won three.

Bill Cunningham  (b. 1928 or 1929 | American photographer)
to  Madame X  (John Singer Sargent | painting | 1884)

Bill Cunningham’s On the Street photo essays capture the daytime dress of fashionable New Yorkers—including high and mighty personages like Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who has said, “We all get dressed for Bill.” His other recurring New York Times column, Evening Hours, records the richies rubbing elbows at charity galas and suchlike. You may think of Cunningham’s work as slight and his vocation as frivolous. Or you can see him as a latter-day practitioner of a great artistic tradition: the documentation of the wealthy and their fabulous duds.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)—certainly one of the most skillful realist painters America has produced—belongs squarely within that tradition. Sargent painted all manner of subjects (cityscapes, bedouins, mountain brooks, doughboys), but his masterpieces are mostly high-society portraits. Like every society portraitist since the Roman Empire, he paid close attention to his sitters’ clothes, but Sargent’s meticulous observation of garb transcends most other artists’. His pictures of Theodore Roosevelt (1903), Boston art maven Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888) and, especially, “Madame X” (the social-climbing Parisienne Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau; 1884) present a veritable psychology of clothing—which in the case of these three paintings happens to be black.

Diana Vreeland  (1903–1989 | American fashion editor)
to  The Little Black Dress

To say “X is the new black” is to employ a figure of speech called a snowclone. (“Fifty is the new forty” is another example.) Though the term snowclone was coined only in 2004, this kind of wordplay is much older, and one famous 1960s snowclone—“Pink is the navy blue of India”—is attributed to Diana Vreeland. She never actually uttered that exact phrase, but never mind.

A snowclone is essentially a highly adaptable cliché. The same can be said of the little black dress. Ever since French designer Coco Chanel invented it, in 1926, the LBD—simple, neutral and infinitely accessorizable—has been an absolute essential in any woman’s wardrobe. Which in general renders it an absolute banality.

But LBDs can also be smashing. Arguably the chicest one ever is the Italian satin number designed by Hubert de Givenchy and worn by Audrey Hepburn in the opening sequence of Blake Edwards’s film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).Hepburn’s accessories include a bouffant hairdo, a tiara, diamond earrings, ropes of pearls, sunglasses, black opera gloves—and a takeout coffee and Danish. Hepburn’s LBD wasn’t actually so “little,” given that it was a floor-length evening gown, but let’s not quibble.

The Little Black Dress
to  Widow’s Weeds

Nowadays Americans often show up at funerals in blue jeans. What in the world would Queen Victoria have thought of us? Upon the death of her beloved consort, Prince Albert, in 1861, Victoria donned black mourning dress and continued to wear “widow’s weeds” until her own death, nearly 40 years later. Granted, the tradition of compulsory mourning garb has been withering since Victoria’s day. Even so, is there no longer such a thing as appropriate attire?

The only queen we Americans have ever had—Jacqueline Kennedy—would be equally aghast. Jackie certainly knew what to wear when her own beloved consort died. Immediately following JFK’s assassination, on November 22, 1963, la Veuve Kennedy rang up couturier Hubert de Givenchy—a trusted sartorial adviser during her “Camelot” years—and ordered funeral outfits for the Kennedy womenfolk. Givenchy set his petites-mains, his atelier’s seamstresses, to work, and the garments were delivered by plane from Paris in time for the November 25 cortege down Pennsylvania Avenue. Jackie’s own ensemble—captured by the TV cameras and immortalized in Andy Warhol silk screens—was a little black suit-dress lent somber grandeur by the billowing veil draping her face. Over style, death once had no dominion.

The Little Black Dress
to  Funny Face  (Stanley Donen (dir.) | film | 1957)

No woman ever wore a little black dress better than Audrey Hepburn. And no man ever looked better in black tie—or white, for that matter—than Fred Astaire. (For proof, check out any of the 1940s films Astaire ballroomed through, cheek to cheek with Ginger Rogers.) Hepburn and Astaire teamed for the 1957 movie musical Funny Face, set in the high-fashion arrondisements of New York and Paris. Astaire plays photographer Dick Avery; Hepburn is Jo Stockton, an intellectual bookstore clerk discovered by Avery and transformed into a fashion model, proving that what brainy girls really want is pretty clothes. Joining the romp is Kay Thompson, who plays a magazine editor modeled on (who else?) Diana Vreeland. Though she sometimes wears black, Thompson’s character extols quite a different hue in her signature number, “Think Pink!” A few of Funny Face’s George and Ira Gershwin songs (“’S Wonderful,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?”) are likewise memorable, but all the clothes are astonishing. The film spotlights some tasty little black dresses in a mid-1950s New Look mode. And the all-black sweater-and-pants outfit Hepburn wears in her solo dance number is nearly as iconic as her Breakfast at Tiffany’s gown.

The Little Black Dress
to  Madame X  (John Singer Sargent | painting | 1884)

The cascading black silk dress into which Virginie Gautreau is poured in John Singer Sargent’s portrait Madame X isn’t little, but for the viewers who first saw it at the 1884 Paris Salon, it bared too much skin for decorum to accommodate. The public was scandalized, but the painting (now considered one of Sargent’s best) was not a succès de scandale. The negative reception crushed Sargent’s hopes of becoming a society portraitist in France, and it sent Mme. Gautreau, who had been a fixture on the Paris social scene, scurrying out of the limelight.

Even in our jaded age, the picture retains remarkable erotic power. That power isn’t due just to the expanse of Mme. Gautreau’s white flesh (whose pallor she heightened with lavender-colored powder) nor to the way her cantilevered bustier threatens an imminent wardrobe malfunction. It more profoundly resides in the model’s sinuous yet muscular stance and in the ambiguity of her glance: Is she summoning a lover or sending him packing? For a Belle Époque audience, a lady’s demonstration of such sexual control was intolerably transgressive. Madame X—the sobriquet is itself suggestive—was the attention-getting “woman in the red dress” who happened to be wearing black.

Funny Face  (Stanley Donen (dir.) | film | 1957)
to  Marilyn Manson  (b. 1969 | American musician)

In a tux or power suit, black telegraphs conformity to social norms. In a habit, chastity. But black is also the color of outlaws (bad guys, remember, wear black hats) and cultural and sexual renegades. It seems, though, that every generation has to rediscover black’s effectiveness at signaling disdain for the status quo. In the 1950s the black leather motorcycle jacket—as worn, for example, by Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953)—made nice middle-class folk nervous. In Funny Face, young Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) sartorially sneers at convention—and declares her allegiance to French philosophy—with black turtlenecks and other somber garb. Beatniks clad in black drank black coffee. The Black Panthers wore black, as did (and do) neo-Nazi skinheads, assorted other punks and S&M aficionados, gay and otherwise. Youthful anarchists pull black ski masks over their face before smashing storefronts; Goths accentuate the negative with kohl-rimmed eyes and black lipstick and nail polish. But none of these rebels holds a candle to “shock rocker” Marilyn Manson (né Brian Hugh Warner) when it comes to the deployment of black raiment and makeup to outrageous, gender-bending, sacrilegious, delinquent effect. Of course, it’s all just an act. Costume generally is.

Widow’s Weeds
to  Marilyn Manson  (b. 1969 | American musician)

Black is the color of grief, but it’s also the color of horror. They’re warp and woof of the same fabric. The melancholic Hamlet does not cast off his nighted color, as his mother urges, and by the end of the play the stage is littered with corpses.

Frankenstein’s creature, as portrayed by Boris Karloff in the 1931 James Whale film, looks monstrously dapper in his chunky black suit. Movie vampires from Bela Lugosi (Dracula in the 1931 film) to Tom Cruise (Lestat in Interview With the Vampire, 1994) to Robert Pattinson (Edward Cullen in the Twilight Saga films, 2008–2012) may loathe nightshade, but they love to don the shade of night.

So do characters in black comedies influenced by horror flicks. Morticia Addams (Carolyn Jones in the 1960s Addams Family TV series; Anjelica Houston in the 1990s films) is ravishing in black; daughter Wednesday (Lisa Loring on TV; Christina Ricci in the films) is primly deadpan. When a schoolmate asks Wednesday, “Why are you dressed like somebody died?” she dryly responds, “Wait.”

Horror and ghoulish comedy are combined, of course, in the black-clad shtick of Marilyn Manson, whose stage persona is both scary and, well, kind of daffy.