Wearing black, a feminist interpretation (maybe)

BLACKBAG

This post has been prompted by an article I recently read on nymag.com, Why New Yorkers Have Always Worn Black.

I don’t always find it easy to explain and defend my predilection to wearing black, which is often a very unpopular choice. But in the past year or so it has become clearer and clearer to me that black just feels right. I am currently adding mostly black things into my closet and dying a lot of what I own black. Not only clothes, but also accessories. In the top image, the bag has been dyed. It used to look like this:

WHITEBAG

But it was not only the bag that changed colors—wallet used to be white too, and the Kindle cover was brown in its previous life. I can’t tell you how many times I have resisted the impulse to make that blue pouch black too.

The New York Magazine article I mentioned is nothing really to write home about: black takes the grime of the city well, it is sexy, but most of all, it’s cool “you are part of the band” not the audience kind of cool. Eyeroll!

The author (Amy Larocca)  does make an interesting point though, that before chemical dyes, deep black used to be difficult to achieve (my RIT dye experiences have shown that it can still be true today), so it was an extremely costly color, and it symbolized power, elegance, and luxury. Apparently, in Europe at some point there was such a thing as sumptuary laws that, among other things I imagine, forbade the lower classes from wearing black! Why is it that so many of the things on which we place value as a civilization are direct symbols of  how better some of us are than the rest?

Black also used to be, for a long time, a color reserved kind of exclusively for men’s garments. I haven’t researched this properly, but as I see it now, women have always been encouraged to be colorful, and only when their womanhood was no longer their strongest identifier, when they were placed by society somewhere at the periphery of womanhood (I’m thinking of widows and nuns here) they shed their color and wear black or white. Black has always been associated in Europe with death, darkness, religion, the heavy, serious stuff.  Women were supposed to play a role that was at odds with such connotations. Women’s duty was to lighten the mood, to make men’s lives more pleasant, lighter, less stressful, homey, comfortable. That was why women had to be colorful. A woman wearing black is not a source of entertainment or decor for anyone (but herself).

The comment section of the New York Magazine article was much more interesting than the article itself, as it often happens. One commenter brings up the popularity of the Japanese avant-garde fashion (Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake) in the 80s and to today as a vehicle through which black became so popular. The Japanese designers created dark, oversized, somewhat raggedy garments that didn’t follow the natural lines of the body. The women were not constrained to the dreaded “feminine form” anymore. The style was obviously not well received at first. Rei Kawakubo’s followers were called “the crows” in the Japanese newspapers. When Yohji Yamamoto was making a first appearance in the west, in 1982, the fashion press had this to say : “Yamamoto’s clothes would be most appropriate for someone perched on a broom” (Mary Long, “People”, quoted in this research article: When the West Wore East—love the title!).

As a crow and broom perching enthusiast, I love all of that. Witches are women who embrace their power. They are not to be taken lightly. Witches wear black. Witches were not exactly known as the most law abiding of citizens and they must have been able to afford black dyes because of the deal with the devil thing. Good for them! If that’s what a woman must do to be taken seriously. And to be able to wear black as she pleases.

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