The shade of night, black has long held connotations of danger and evil in Western popular culture and theology. We unveil the many other, beautiful and mysterious aspects to this faithful shade.When I find a colour darker than black, I’ll wear it. But until then, I’m wearing black.
Science tells us that black is essentially a ‘non-colour’, yet it has assumed central place in the paint boxes of artists and designers. The demands for black pigments and dyes have shifted over centuries, along with the symbolism of the darkest of hues.
Over thirty millennia ago, our ancestors started making black paint from charcoal, burnt bones or manganese oxide to capture on rock faces their views and visions of the natural and spirit worlds. A must-have in Ancient Egyptian make-up palettes was kohl, the precursor to mascara, worn by nobles to beautify and protect the eyes.
From the 1500s the European demand for black dye escalated as black clothing, communicating piety and dignity, was adopted by puritans and the new merchant class wishing to set themselves apart from the aristocracy. This posed an expensive dilemma as available vegetable dyes proved unstable. A fixative for dyes was found in logwood trees harvested by the Spanish in Central America. Though a solution to the dye problem was found, the demand for logwood would contribute to over a century of clashes between the English and Spanish, with pirates and smugglers from both sides looting indigenous territories and one another.
The roaring twenties put jet to a different use as flappers bobbed to jazz beats with long strings of dark beads round their necks. Retaining its association with decorum, designers renovated black for stylish urbanites. The secret, however, was how it was worn. Enter Coco Chanel. Alongside beige and white, black was key to Chanel’s palette and her versatile ‘little black dress’ simplified design without compromising quality.
Black attire further became vital for those longing to show independence and individuality, or revolt and dissatisfaction. Over the course of the twentieth century it was adopted by intellectuals, creatives and several subcultural groups that we know as bikers, punks, goths, metal heads and emos.
One can also consider the negative legacy that language has carried for the colour, with the meanings of ‘black sheep’, ‘black market’ or ‘black mood’. But from the early twentieth century African activists from the continent and diaspora used their words, music and art to promote and foster pride in the beauty of Africa’s diverse peoples and cultural heritage. Following in these footsteps are the contemporary African creatives whose work continues to honor the maxim, that ultimately ‘Black is beautiful’.
Keen to read more about the history of colour? Learn about the history of blue.
Currently completing her PhD, Annemi Conradie is an artist and writer who shares insight into the history of a colour in every issue of ELLE Decoration. Annemi feels that everyone should be reading more, be it books or blogs. ‘We need to broaden our minds. We also need to make more time for exploration and doing what we enjoy.’