Black Is Back—but It Makes Us Go Ack!

“Wear green, and you will be wearing black soon!”

I vividly recall a neighborhood laundress named Mrs. Murnain hurling this warning at my mother, Betty, back in the 1950s. Every time this good-hearted–but–toothless lady clocked my mum wearing a certain olive green sweater-set, out would pop this sinister adage. The implications were clear: If you wear green, the unluckiest color in the rainbow, then you will somehow cause the death of your Aunt Mavis, thereby obliging you and your entire family to wear black.

Fast-forward 11 centuries.

Fall 2009: Black is this season’s great white hope. Long since disassociated from death, black is now synonymous with rebirth … one hopes. Fashion designers, in an effort to stimulate consumers, have returned to the tried-and-true cool of BLACK. An avalanche of edgy graphic garb—Lanvin, Alexander Wang, the Row, Zara, Club Monaco—has arrived in the stores.

Will it work? Has black still got what it takes? Can the old bitch still create a frisson? (Colors, like ships, are female.) Black was chic in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s early ’60s. She was punk in the late 1970s. She was avant-garde in the Yohji ’80s. She was hip and happening in the Helmut Lang ’90s. But is black as compellingly cool as she used to be? 

It has become what people wear when they wish to phone in a bit of convenient style gravitas.

The magic of black is a function of her multiple and conflicting resonances: Black is priestly piety, but black is also naughty and nasty; black is a rebel, but she is also a fascist follower; black is celibacy and self-denial, but she is also sizzle, sex and sadomasochism. Black has more layers of meaning than there are sibilants in that last sentence.

Unfortunately for Miss Black Thang, her outlaw cachet has been flogged to death. We have all habituated to the nuances of her edgy charms. As a result, black has become what people wear when they wish to phone in a bit of convenient style gravitas. Black is what red-carpet celebrity handlers now wear to look anonymous but acceptably groovy. Black has become so moderate that even nuns have stopped wearing it.

Black has lost not just its edge, but also its usefulness: The “little black dress” no longer packs a Holly Golightly punch. The black turtleneck—paging Simone de Beauvoir!—was only useful when gals had normal-size boobies. Stretched over those massive porno-industry hooters, that classic black sweater looks matronly rather than existential. And, unless you happen to be Tilda Swinton, black does not look good on TV. So, in an era when we all want to be on TV, who needs it? Black has become, for all intents and purposes, the new beige: an unimpeachably safe color with little or no intrinsic power.

Full disclosure: As a disciple of Color Me Beautiful (remember Carole Jackson’s 1980 book about aligning your skin tone and your color choices with a particular season?) and an avowed Autumn, I am actually forbidden by my spiritual leader from wearing black. (Chocolate brown is my best friend.) Per Carole, black is for pale-skinned, dark-haired Winters only: See Megan Fox, Ed Westwick, Katy Perry and the entire Kardashian clan.

If you are Kourtney or Khloé or Kim, then this will be a bumper season for you. Caution girls: If you buy black, try to remain objective. Make sure you love the design of the garment, not just the color. And when you flaunt your precious purchases at new chic eateries like the Hotel Griffou or the Boom Boom Room, please remember to ask for a black napkin. Nobody likes a linty Winter.

Black Is Back—but It Makes Us Go Ack!