Pin It
Robbie Snelders Willy Vanderperre Olivier Rizzo
Robbie Snelders for V Magazine, 1999 Photography by Willy Vanderperre, styling by Olivier Rizzo

A brief history of black in fashion

From witchcraft to health goth, we mark Black Friday by tracing fashion’s love affair with the colour

Fashion’s fickleness is well documented – it’s an industry that ricochets from season to season, picking up and dropping trends as it goes. Still, there are some things that will always be in style – and black is one of them. From austere Protestant Pilgrims and mourning Victorian widows to the subliminal sexuality of a well-placed handkerchief in a back pocket, it’s a colour imbued with hidden meanings. We’ve heard the news – wearing it makes you appear more attractive and intelligent, and someone’s even trying to create a version that’s even darker than what we already have. But the lasting love affair has more to it than that.

Written in the darkness of black clothes is the story of Western culture – over hundreds of years, its status and symbolism has shifted, traversing religions, classes and witchhunts, the polished boots of fascism and the leather jackets of a million teenage rebellions. Its power lies in its duality – it is both solemn and sexual, mysterious and muted; black makes it a statement without needing to shout about it. To mark Black Friday, we trace ten key black in fashion moments, from Romantic poets to Raf Simons’ teenage tearaways. 


While in the 14th century expensive black clothes had been adopted by up and coming European middle classes as a way to dress luxuriously (colours were, by law, reserved for the nobility), by the Protestant Reformation it had picked up a new symbolism. Black became the colour of Calvinism, in protest against lavish splendours of catholicism – it was the sober colour of choice of those first Pilgrim settlers in America. But by the  late 1600s, people both in Europe and the US had begun to fall under a spell – the spell of witchcraft. Spurned by religious fanaticism, they began to see evil in black – giving the colour its superstitious associations.


“Black is poetic. How do you imagine a poet? In a bright yellow jacket? Probably not." So said Ann Demeulemeester of the colour, and we have one group to thank for imbuing black with its poetic associations. In the 19th Century, black was adopted as a colour of choice by the Romantics such as Byron, Shelley and Keats, who regarded it favourably for its melancholic aura. Perhaps the most famous a black clad figure from the era is the one to be found in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog – the perfect depiction of the lonely romantic hero.


Unfortunately for the girls, women’s wearing of black was largely confined to maid’s uniforms or mourning clothes. No one dressed grief quite like the Victorians, who devised complicated rules over wearing the colour and hid their bodies in thick dark fabrics and veils. Women were expected to remain in mourning for up to four years after the death of their husbands, but could, as Queen Victoria did, wear the colour for the rest of their lives (forty years, in her case). Lockets containing hair of dead loved ones and other macabre trinkets were not uncommon.

“Black is poetic. How do you imagine a poet? In a bright yellow jacket? Probably not" – Ann Demeulemeester


The inventor of the now-iconic ‘little black dress’ and ‘little black jacket’ (which was the subject of a recent exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery), Coco Chanel was a famous lover of the colour. Known for pioneering a wardrobe for women that eschewed the restrictive clothing of the 1910s, the house of Chanel’s eponymous founder championed simplicity over superfluity – something which spilled over into her colour palette. Before her intervention, black was seen as a colour of mourning and reserved for funerals. “I have said that black has it all,” she said. “White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.”


Known for their uniform of black rollneck jumpers, berets and thick-rimmed glasses, the beatniks were the sartorial and spiritual spawn of American poet Jack Kerouac. Their style was a cliché embedded in the public’s collective consciousness by the media, but these “bohemian hedonists” represented an academic subculture as much as a stylistic one. They represented a 50s and early-60s left-field, left-wing creative counterculture with a healthy appreciation for drinking coffee, smoking pot, bongo drums and Jean Paul Sartre.


London of the 70s and 80s saw a subcultural explosion, as the torn fishnets and bondage trousers of punk became the Victoriana of goth and the oversized proportions of New Romanticism. Black was the colour of choice for teens looking to express themselves outside of the mainstream, and it didn’t just extend to clothing – hair was dyed, and eyes and lips were coated in dark paint and lipstick. In the US, goth culture was championed by alt mag Propaganda, which pioneered the style long after London’s Batcave had closed its doors.


In 1981, the course of fashion history was forever changed when Rei Kawakubo made her Paris debut with label Comme des Garçons. Dark in colour and ridden with holes, the ‘anti fashion’ garments were immediately decried by the fashion press as being “Hiroshima chic” – but also helped assert black as a staple that belonged in wardrobes of women. As fellow Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto has asserted: “Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy — but mysterious. But above all black says this: I don't bother you – don't bother me.”

“Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy — but mysterious. But above all black says this: I don't bother you – don't bother me” – Yohji Yamamoto


Raf Simons’ menswear inspirations are rooted in youth culture. His label began with AW95, but it’s his SS97 Teenage Summer Camp collection that holds a special place in many hearts. Sent down the runway with a guide on talking to your teen (“Tolerate differences. View your teenager as an individual distinct from you”) the skinny black trousers and shirts – immortalised in the designer’s legendary handbook The Fourth Sex – sum up Simons’ particular 90s breed of teen rebellion.


Perhaps one of the most well known modern-day connoisseurs of black clothing is prince of dark design Rick Owens. Flanked by his sidekick, wife, muse and icon-in-her-own-right Michèle Lamy, Owens leads a tribe of black-clad ravens who sit somewhere in the indeterminate space between monasticism, gothicism and grunge. With a mane of flowing black hair and usually seen wearing a sleeveless black tunic, the designer epitomises his own vision.


After rising from the depths of Tumblr, Health Goth was the trend that became 2014’s second most Googled (right after Normcore). The style was known for blending sportswear – think Nike socks and caps, Adidas tennis skirts and lots of mesh – with fetish elements like leather bondage chokers and a dark, goth-influenced palette. The trend was also represented on the runways through designers such as Hood By Air and Alexander Wang.