When Public Enemy released ‘Fear of a Black Planet’, they were, of course, talking race and not a certain point on the colour spectrum. That was just as well, as a scientist might point out - since it doesn’t emit or reflect light on any part of the visible spectrum, like white, black hardly counts as a colour. Black is more, as Leonardo Da Vinci had it, like the absence of colour. But taken figuratively - with all that colour suggests of joy, fullness, vibrancy - it is perhaps no wonder that, as Chuck D accidentally suggested, some people find black more than bleak. They find it upsetting. There is even a term for it: melanophobia - fear of a literal black planet.
Most cultures would appreciate why such a fear exists - by association, black has a symbolic potency that has accrued over millennia. While in Japan black might be associated with honour and nobility, this is an aberration. While many colours may have different meanings, depending on where and when you are - yellow, for example, by turns suggests royalty and light, but also illness and aging - black offers the strongest universal associations of all colours. And black most often speaks ill. The Romans, for example, who rather coveted black ceramics, had two words for the colour - niger and ater - and both of them also meant ‘sad’, ‘ominous’, ‘dreadful’ or ‘malicious’. It’s not so bad if you’re dreaming: in the second century CE the Ancient Greek Artemidorus Daldianus wrote that while black is a symbol of slavery, in a dream it represents only “minor misfortunes”. So dream on.
But black - as an obsessive Queen Victoria made clear for 40 years - is, after all, the colour of mourning, and typically of death. It is more than because a tell-tale sign of infection was black spots on the skin that the bubonic plague of 1348 - which wiped out an estimated half of all Europeans - became known as the Black Death. Or that the occult adopted black as its most potent colour - leading it to become, via mythologies and fairy tales, the shade of choice for witches, vampires, ghouls and trick-or-treaters. The unlucky cat crossing your path? Black, of course.
Black, it seems, is the opposite of white’s wedding day dress virginity - and time and again culture has set the two in opposition. Indeed, in one experiment Enivrance, a company that specialises in new concepts for the food industry, devised a black milk. General repulse indicated just to see how rail-roaded our thinking is by our expectations about colour. Milk, of human kindness of out of udders, should be pure. It should be white.
And it goes deeper still than what we are taught to associate with black. At a fundamentally, primevally human level, black is also the colour of night, the colour of your childhood bedroom when the light goes out, the colour - even moreso, oddly, than the equally blank white - of nothingness and emptiness. Perhaps this is because, as the latest research suggests, 80% of what we assimilate through the senses is visual - and so black the colour of our most potent sense deprived. No wonder it scares the bejeebers out of some of us.
But not so fast, says the Goth, the product designer, the marketing executive and the fashionista. How can it be that a colour so deeply imbued with negative connotations can also be so, well, cool? Or, in other words, be set in an opposition on itself - good black versus bad black - as much as it is set in opposition to white? Could it be that, for every panic-attacked melanophobic, there are more chromophobics sharing society’s extreme if no less illogical prejudice against proper colour, regarding it as essentially infantile (think candyfloss), cosmetic (think rouge), superficial (a hindrance to seeing the ‘truth of form’ beneath, as Aristotle reckoned) and, above all, vulgar or cheap?
Black’s absence of colour may not be down or depressing - as in talk of black moods, black sheep, blackmail or Black Mondays - so much as liberating: the freedom to express one’s personality without the interference of colour. Black may have a message but perhaps it still speaks it more softly - or, appropriately, more obscurely - than, say, hot pink, serene green, flamboyant red, zesty yellow or mystical blue. Or, conversely, maybe it is because black has such dark overtones - literally and figuratively - that it is also the most powerful of colours. When the monolith appears on the Moon in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, it is, of course, a foreboding, impenetrable black. What other colour could the monolithic be? Our earliest images were made in the black, deep inside caves. Millennia on, Caravaggio understood there was no light, or emotion, without shadow.
Black’s presence has clearly been understood when it comes to clothing. It has been recognised by the unlikely company of priests and nuns, in their vestments; bikers, with their black leather jackets; fashion designers - who, for all their insistence on wearing the colour of the season, rarely stray from the dark stuff themselves; country and western singers, as with Johnny Cash’s ‘Man in Black’ persona; and Nazis, whose elite insisted on the blunt menace of black uniforms. Even aliens come dressed in black - one of the most frequently recoded types of alien close encounter is with unusually pale and tall men in black suits claiming to be government employees, their choice of colour presumably aiming at anonymity, the flip-side to black’s stark ostentation.
Certainly black has long been the colour of the ominous power of the state, of the man whose personality is effaced to become a tool of authority, from Mosley’s Black Shirts, to Mussolini and the Gestapo, but long before them too: in the 1560s, Ivan the Terrible of Russia was building his personal guard, the black-clad Oprichniki, or ‘men apart’. Be it real, the executioner, or fictional, like Dracula or the bad cowboy in a western, evil does not wear leaf green or a nice sky blue.
When Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel created a sleeveless, pin-tucked and draped black crep-de-chine dress based on the simple lines of a chemise - austere when dresses were all flamboyant frills, short and comfortable when they were floor-length and disabling and, most notably, dour and mournful when they were wearable rainbows - Vogue declared that it was fashion’s answer to the Ford Model T.
That was a compliment, meant to suggest that the little black dress - dismissed by Elsa Schiparelli as “widow’s weeds” - was a statement of being above or outside of the fleeting whims of fashion (because, darling, classics rarely come in bright colours). But, of course, it was also a nod to Henry Ford’s own, commercial dictim that a customer could have his Model T “painted any colour that he wanted, so long as it’s black” - despite then launching the car in four colour options, none of them black.
Men too have long felt secure in the dark, suggestive as its power is of sobriety and self-control, traditionally masculine traits. Beau Brummell, the 19th century ‘tailor’s dummy’ responsible for killing the flamboyant in men’s dress - for, yes, men of rank and wealth once flaunted it by dressing as colourfully as clowns - stressed that a lack of ornament in fashion placed the emphasis on the serious calling of cut. This “penitential garb of soot”, as Dickens, himself a dandyish fan of black clothing, put it in Little Dorrit, cuts through the flim-flam. It defines. Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor and men’s style pioneer, insisted that his black-tie dinner dress actually be made in a midnight blue fabric, because, he had observed, in evening or low-light conditions it looked blacker than black. And who would you rather do business with: a bank manager in sharp black suit, or one dressed like a pina colada?
LBD or Reservoir Doggish black two-piece, the colour, or lack of it, is a last line of defence, a sartorial armour against all the challenging moments that life might throw at you. But black goes further and deeper. Red may take the prize for overt sexiness - with its hints of blood flush and primed labia (though how odd, perhaps, that it should then also be the choice of Catholic cardinals) - but black wins on the more understated, mindful, teasing kind - the black of classy lingerie perhaps. “With the common blackbird and even with one of the Birds of Paradise, the males alone are black,” noted Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man. “And there can hardly be a doubt that blackness has a sexually selected character…”
Nature, as Herman Melville noted, “paints like a harlot”, but we prefer to imbue the man-made with finesse, refinement and a sense of correct composure by removing colour altogether, as though colour was a distraction from the quintessence of a thing. Colour matters - the majority of people make an initial assessment of an environment, or even a person, based on its colour; it’s more important than the way a product feels to our assessment of it.
And, it would seem, right now our culture esteems the monochrome more highly, imbuing it with sophistication and contemporaneity. That is not an entirely new idea. When the Spanish court of the 15th century first made black fashionable throughout Europe, it was because the quality and quantity of dye required to achieve a proper, deep black also made the garment hugely expensive. Indeed, before dyeing techniques improved in the 14th century, black was considered an ugly colour in stylish circles, strictly for the peasantry. The advent of printing helped too, re-imagining the gaudily illuminated page seen by the few as the black on white one seen by the many more - books opened up a more intensely personal black and white world in parallel to the full spectrum all around.
Six centuries of appreciation on, we regard black’s minimalism as somehow the hard pinnacle of civilisation, even if our history is weak - minimalism originally embraced the commercial colours of pop art, just as those classical Greek statues were once arrayed in dazzling hues. Black, for instance, is the best-selling colour for prestige cars, because it speaks of luxury, and even of prestige cows - the livestock industry will pay more for black-hide cattle than any other, regardless of the fact that it has no bearing on the meat and the bon viveur will remain blissfully unaware when sat before his steak.
Similarly, the bubblegum iMac has given way to the black iPhone or iBook, with glossy ‘piano black’ currently the electronics industry’s go-to choice when seeking to package its products as premium ones - the dream bachelor pad is all black leather, high-shine lacquer and hi-fi. Black and white photography and film aspire to art and high drama, trashy, flashy colour only to the disposable Kodak moment, musicals or fantasies - in fact, when Technicolor, the first ‘natural’ photographic colour system to be commercially successful, was introduced to cinema in the late 1920s, still it took four decades to eliminate black-and-white, so deeply ingrained was the association between colour and spectacle and the absence of colour with narrative. Black even suggests permanence or the heft of quality: faced with two identical boxes, one white, one black, most people will make the assumption that the black one is heavier.
No, black cannot be ignored, despite - or rather, perhaps, because of - its conflicting attributes. The polarity that black expresses - on the one hand the gloomy, on the other, the potent - is as stark as that between black and white, its age-old nemesis. Is any colour quite so ambivalent, while also being so absolutely sure? Is any colour so loaded with association with all that is important in human society? Is any colour so chillingly, thrillingly visceral, so magical as black?
SOUP/ Josh Sims