Moda   Tendências  

English Version | Back to Black

30 Sep 2021
By Carolina Queirós

Darkness, void, universality, grief, death, luxury, royalty, sobriety, discretion, esoterism, contrast, simplicity, absence, beginning and end. A hymn to black – that hidden and familiar place where we take refuge, now and again.

Darkness, void, universality, grief, death, luxury, royalty, sobriety, discretion, esoterism, contrast, simplicity, absence, beginning and end. A hymn to black – that hidden and familiar place where we take refuge, now and again. 

It’s as simple as this: a circle + symmetry of two perfectly opposed colors = duality of the entire universe. Step by step. Positioned on the two opposite extremes of the spectrum, both black and white are not, in fact, what we would normally call “colors”, or at least not as the others we know. They are achromatic pigments, meaning that they don’t possess real tone, but rather a particular relationship with light itself, which makes them an object of fascination and symbolic projection. Black, in this case, results from the total absence of light, of its complete absorption, being the target of the obscure, the underground, the occult, and of darkness. It’s not that surprising. Everything we can observe, the entire share-range of colors, even the very same images we project in our imagination, are only there because there is light. Let’s take away that little detail. Eyes closed, switches off, and in an instant, the world is swallowed by an infinite sense of blindness. In the dark, we’re forced to confront our own vulnerability, how defenseless we become with a simple switch off and, instinctively, we’re afraid. Black becomes, thus, the standard measure for all we cannot anticipate or predict, the counterpart of an eternal dichotomy: yin versus yang, day versus night, life versus death, benevolence versus evil. There. We frankly could leave it at that, but under the pretext of not falling short on the multiple possibilities of the topic, we’ll continue. 

Looking at the aforementioned facts, and rationally speaking, we should, pardon my French, run like hell from this non-color. A practical example: nightlights. Please come forward those who, as a kid, implored their parents for an innocent bedroom light that would stop the underworld monsters (clearly hidden inside the closet and under the bed), or thieves/ burglars/ demons from coming out as soon as we closed our eyes. There was no need for complex analysis for us to realize that the biggest weapon we had, as children, against the nocturnal assiduity of these occult figures was, precisely, light. Until one day, slowly (and on the fence about the whole thing), we became “grownups” and discovered the pleasure of being surrounded by darkness. Truthfully, we discovered (some of us), that it is absolutely necessary for restorative sleep and that the thinnest ray of light provides enough justification for seven years of sleepless nights. 

The human relationship with black is, thus, perfectly evolutive. We start by fearing it, then we let ourselves get intrigued by its multiple facets, and, in the end, after fighting so hard against its apparent lethargy, we fall in love with it. Perhaps that learning curve is the reason why there is no other color we feel so at ease with. No other in the whole chromatic history (or achromatic) could ever be this familiar, intimate, or comfortable. Those among us that nurture some form of special appreciation for this oh-so-absolute shade become real preachers of the wonders it has done and continues to do for them, at every level. Let Fashion be the ultimate evidence of this theory. 

As a constant in an equation, there is no Fashion, nor could it ever be, without it. It is with black that the creators we admire the most have embroidered our sartorial dreams. It’s with black that they cut and sew an infinite multitude of universes of textures, and it is just as important to note how there is not just one single “shade” of black. Each facet of the pigment has its own DNA, a fingerprint characteristic of the legacy it defines. Take Huber de Givenchy as an example. Born in 1927, in Beauvais, he became an icon of the Haute Couture as we know it today, being frequently described as one of the last of the “Era of the Elegant Ones”. Givenchy honored black by making it a synonym of the purest of elegancies, draping it as a second skin of Audrey Hepburn. Likewise, the so-called l’irrégulière, Gabrielle Chanel, revendicated it to confer her creations with a signature of exquisitely modern simplicity, ignoring the social convention that reduced it as only appropriate for mourning. Cristóbal Balenciaga – one of Coco’s contemporaries and described as “the architect of Haute Couture” by Hubert de Givenchy – explored luxury’s favorite “shade” like no other couturier. Through the juxtaposition of textures, transparencies and material manipulation, Balenciaga colored the darkness of his designs, while turning them into an eternal soft spot for all lovers of timeless style. 

To fill up pages and pages naming all the marriages, hot affairs, fleeting crushes and one-night stands that Fashion still holds today with its favorite color? Easy. Yves Saint Laurent, Maison Margiela, Rick Owens, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Christian Dior, Giorgio Armani, Tom Ford, Issey Miyake... They all attest to the undeniable persuasive force that black wields over the masses, over luxury, and each one of us. On an individual scale, we know the sense of refuge that certain pieces are capable of conveying. That t-shirt everyone hates, but that we could never get rid of; the skinny jeans from five years ago we will continue to wear until they tear (literally); the ripped vintage sweater that cost as much as a latte from Starbucks, but that we adore; the lucky socks we frenetically search for before our driving test… It’s an odds game, but we would risk saying that, in the middle of this idiosyncratic comfort zone, at least one of those refuge items is painted black. 

Let’s reserve a minute to consider the following expression, one we use so often as an illustration of rationality and clarity (and even more so, its contrary): “black and white”. Just like a blank sheet, all the musical figures, clefs, and lines, construct the most incredible melodic conversations and debates and, like the words I now write, it was through this same contrast that this non-color gave us the most beautiful of presents, one again: music. The “black and white” turns us into composers: some of words, others of melodies. And speaking of refuges, is there anything more comforting and intimate as music? 

As the excessive ink crosses through the other side of a sheet of paper, the indelible mark of this pigment has overflowed those five horizontal lines into what would become the underground realm of music. In an act of pure revolution, black has anchored itself in the growing need we felt for some kind of disruption and rebellion. With the kick of Punk Rock, Rock&Roll, Heavy Metal, or even the Blues, Hip Hop or Rap, the world of music changed the lingo, the way we did cinema – and Fashion along with it – forever. However, History shows us how, oftentimes, the transition from the underground to the ground level is not that simple. Despite many of these styles having their origins in almost ancestral practices, some with African and Latin roots, such as the Blues, Rap or Hip Hop, their affirmation as a valid form of expression took… too long. In the western world, culture and classical influences were so strongly felt, that the receptivity towards other music genres was many times edified via some social turmoil. To look at things as “black and white” is almost never easy. It can be extraordinarily difficult to ignore the calling that whispers and tells us to keep certain parts of ourselves away from others, in the dark. Sometimes that’s the best option, the most attractive one, at least. However, there are moments when we must go beyond the grey areas and recognize that our own darkness might become so much more when shared with the world, in broad daylight – no matter how much more comfortable we would be in that Velvet Underground. Pierre August-Renoir once said: “I spent 40 years discovering that black was the queen of all colors”. Recognizing him as one of the Impressionism princes, and an expert sailor in the waters of those pastel strokes of bright colors, the affirmation sounds quite inadequate. Perhaps if we were discussing the Dutch Realism, with the detailed darkness of Johannes Vermeer, or even the Baroque, under the dim light of Rembrandt or Caravaggio’s masterpieces, then we could have hesitated. But how could an Impressionist, whose universe acts as a balm to the soul of those who dream of violet water lilies and green fields of Provence, declare black as the “queen of all colors”? It’s not that crazy, after all, black is the beginning. 

Found in the most obscure remains dated back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic, this pigment was used in cave paintings, making it, consequently, one of the first-ever colors to be used in any form of art. During the rule of the Roman Empire, different social classes would wear specific colors and shades that identified them – black was reserved for artisans and artists, contrasting with the church, for example, who dressed in white. In Ancient Egypt, contrary to what happened in Ancient Greece, this pigment had very positive connotations, for instance, due to how the Nile’s fertile soil was of the same shade. In Greek mythology, the non-color was a symbol of the underworld, of the kingdom of Hades, the god of the dead, separated from the world of the living by the Acheron River, whose water ran black. The first premise is thus established, and Renoir confirms it once more: “One morning, one of us ran out of black, it was the birth of Impressionism.” 

Amongst all the other quotes I could have chosen within the topic of this piece, I would say this one is by far the most relevant for several reasons. Firstly, because it is brutally honest. Renoir, like many others who chose to paint life in pastel colors, has nothing to prove regarding his chromatic choices. What he does, he does it extraordinarily well, which leads us to the second reason, somewhat elementary and “anatomical”. If we look at the world like a giant system, composed of the most intricate and complex molecules and interstitial relations, darkness is the atom. Like a subliminal layer to everything that exists in perfect incompletion, we, human beings, live in darkness. Sometimes, in moments of intermittent clarity, we realize that we were born from it, we live with it, and we’ll return to it once more. But the true epiphany is to understand that this is not necessarily a bad thing. The unit of measure of everything that is color, light and life, is its respective counterpart: the most fundamental black underground with which we fight and always evolve. It is likely that Renoir’s quote has moved aside from such analysis and reflection. Perhaps. However, there are two things we can be sure of. The first is that we’re indebted to black. The epitome of the underground that must be celebrated, just like our own darkness. The second one is easier: it doesn’t matter how many times they try to dethrone it, there is one thing we can guarantee – black will always (always) be the new black. 

Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's Underground issue, published October 2021.Full story and credits on the print issue.

Carolina Queirós By Carolina Queirós

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