The History and Innovations of the Black Fashion

Kathryn Simon
Kathryn Simon

A constellation of moments became visible in the arts/visual culture (painting, fashion, branding) that contested any notion that black can only be said to function as surface, as a colour. Rather, one is impressed with the substantive material qualities of black clothing, which could never have held the same degree of intensity or form had they been designed in a “colour.” This will be shown through the design work of Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, and Junya Wanatabe, which rely on the vocabulary and diversity of black for their collections.

The allure of black has been the preference of many fashion designers, including Christian Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga, and Coco Chanel, who are credited with the birth of modern fashion.

Coco Chanel’s “little black dress” designed in 1926, to which Vogue dubbed “Chanel’s ‘T’ after Ford’s model,” has endured and become a staple in every woman’s wardrobe, earning its own acronym “LBD” in the dictionary.

This more recent descent into darkness was not the first time black has dominated fashion. In fact, Dr Steele comments, “Every time black goes out [of fashion], it comes right back in.”

The fashion exhibition ‘Zwart,’ at The Museum de la Mode, Antwerp, 2010, traced the history of black from the Spanish courts, through the Duke of Burgundy, Elizabethan England, to the wealthy dyers in Antwerp, who perfected the art of making the finest black dyestuffs.

Emmanuelle Dirix’s essay in the exhibition catalogue states that black appears as “the colour of the counterculture, and is omnipresent in the wardrobe of various subcultures” and intellectuals. She cites the French Existentialists in the 1950’s, the Beat poets, and the Goths and Punks of the 1970’s.

Beginning in the late-70’s, fashion began evolving into a new language. Punk aesthetics smashed what was left of conventional ideas, many hanging on since the late-50’s, whose power to signify was now reduced to a nostalgic nod.

As the century drew to a close, fashion had become a personal narrative rather than one dictated by designers and magazine editors. Tattoos, piercings and other body augmentations are some examples of this personal, more tribal style.

From this period onwards, without pause, fashion existed progressively as fragments, but all of them were black.

About every hundred years fashion sheds a skin, usually closely tied to innovations in technology, as it registers the currency of the present culture.

A renewal was already underway in the late-70’s, but a critical moment ripples through fashion in 1981, when two Japanese designers: Yohji Yamamoto79 and Rei Kawakubo80 (Comme Des Garcons) presented their all-black collections in Paris. The impact of their arrival was on the magnitude that Derrida spoke of as “l’avenir-a future to come,” not simply the “next” bright thing, but a departure from the norm, the uncharted, impossible to anticipate, “unpredictable.” Barbara Vinken cites their arrival as marking the “next 100 years” or “post-fashion.”

When Yohji and Rei captured the Paris couture scene in the mid-’80s, they cut into a landscape dominated by Punk and New Wave aesthetics, proposing instead a fresh aesthetic, away from the bondage, referrals and critique of western historical forms that held Paris captive.

It is not hard to imagine that their work, voluminous, unstructured and often strongly asymmetrical, was referred to as “Holocaust” clothing, recalling scenes of destitution and homelessness, rather than allure.

Paris and the fashion world were under the spell of the cyber sexy, shapely, and body-conscious signature of Thierry Mugler and Azzadine Alaia: “When Yohji Yamamoto presented his first collections in Paris in winter 1981/2 (the brand had been launched in Tokyo 1972) the fashion of the triumphant 1980’s was characterized by strong body sculpturing and corsetry, fitted waists, pronounced silhouettes, a look of strength, his strange new ideas would propose a new geography of the body.” Indeed.

What they brought was a new proposal for an easier second skin, sheltered in voluminous amounts of black fabric, as carefully articulated as any corset. They proffered a radical rethinking of fashion itself. Their clothing, in some sense, might suggest the kind of the beauty of a Japanese tea ceremony, reminiscent of wabi-sabi, where the asymmetry of the bowl that one uses to prepare the tea is prized for its irregularities.

A number of individuals, including Vinken and Steele, have referred to this as a decisive moment that broke through the fog of the fashion system, redefining how it functioned and expanding beyond its known vocabulary.

Their work challenged notions of beauty, radicalizing the whole idea of what fashion could be by showing collections that were predominantly and unapologetically black, broken only by rare moments of red or white in mostly large amorphous shapes.

In her book, ‘Fashion Zeitgeist’, 2005, Barbara Vinken reiterates: “colour when Yamamoto uses it, is red, or black and reads as a light value of black,” and states that “Kawakubo’s powerful use of black made the bright splendour of the other collections seem completely colourless in comparison….”

Yamamoto is well documented for his experiments with black, recalling his signature black, one that he achieves by dyeing the fabric indigo over and over again to achieve this deep inky black.

The clothing appears to be a metaphor for the intensities of black one finds in calligraphy rather than comparable to the dense black preferred in fashion, especially at this time. He has a sustained meditation with black to this day with no sign of letting up.

Even in a profession that esteems itself on the new and the radical, the press was merciless, calling Kawakuko’s work “post-atom-bomb-fashion.”

It was an intervention into conventional western aesthetics that took Punk one step further — pushing it into a fresh language, like water on parched ground. These clothes embodied a fresh aesthetic; this was a page out of a new playbook. Their work not only deconstructed the narrative that held ideals and Western aesthetics in place, but proposed its own style, one that challenged essential notions of beauty in the West — offering instead a poetics that was incapable of being copied in an industry that thrives on “knock offs.” To this day, no one has tried.

When black is explored it is usually framed with scenes of mourning, and death, often referencing long stretches of time when death/illness (wars, the plague, AIDS, etc.) are prominent.

More recently and in the interviews with Steele, she connects black to absence, blankness, or removal/obliteration, as in funerary and other kinds of veiling, but there is a broad spectrum of blacks, including the black that engenders, a radiant or luminous black, that creates life in addition to the black of mourning and overcoming.

I would suggest that perhaps unconsciously, both Yamamoto and Kawakubo found this black of new beginnings, one still unformed, and that the copious use of black in their collections also suggests in the amorphous shapes of those first collections.

The designers mentioned here — Coco Chanel, Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, Ann Demeulemeester, and Martin Margiela, among others, have all created and are known for their own shade of black: Yohji’s is inky, indigo dyed over and over again until it appears “black” (and is sold as black), Rei Kawakubo’s (Comme des Garcons) is referred to as “vintage-like”, and her use of black is so pervasive that, in Vinken’s words, even her red is “a light point of black,” Anne Demeulemeester’s is poetic, Baudelairean and Goth-like, Martin Margiela’s is so deep, so saturated to be almost “bright,” and Chanel’s is “timeless,” created to be easily replicated, to which the countless copies attest.

On the very last page of ‘Talking to Myself’, which is a massive book of Mr Yamamoto’s work, is a simple line drawing of a silhouette of a girl, reminiscent of the children’s game “connect the dots,” that form one of his enigmatic shapes. What does he elude to when after all this blackness in the end only the dots remain? This study of black suggests qualities that resonate with the conclusion that Yamamoto seems to suggest; it is both full and empty, invisible and arresting, some call it “potential engagement” — an apt term to parse what is happening in this colour/substance.

Yamamoto’s work is a meditation in form. This idea of black as both fullness/emptiness, absolute/indeterminate runs throughout this study.

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