Elegance & Power - Black In Men's Fashion History

ELEGANCE & POWER - THE COLOUR BLACK IN THE HISTORY OF MENSWEAR

Undoubtedly, black can be considered one of the most important colours in the history of culture. It was one of the first colours used in art and has always carried powerful associations with darkness, magic and mystery, evolving further into a symbol of power, simplicity and elegance.

THE RARE COLOUR

In ancient Rome, black was worn by craftsmen and artisans. It was also considered the colour mourning; since in the 2nd century BC Roman magistrates began to wear a dark toga, called a toga pulla, to funeral ceremonies. Under the Roman Empire, black became the official colour of mourning for the family of the deceased. 

In the early Medieval period, black was associated with evil and death, until the Benedictine monks decided to choose it for the colour of their habits, using it as a sign of humility and penitence. In spite of its growing use, the black dye produced at the time was more resemblant of a faded grey or dark brown; the vegetable dyes were not solid enough to last long and create a strong colour. 

In the 14th century, the status of black clothing began to change. High-quality black dyes began to arrive on the market, allowing the creation of garments in a deep, rich black. The newly developed dyeing method included dipping the silk or wool in a woad or indigo bath that gave the cloth a blue undertone, and then over-dyeing the fabric with red dye, madder, on an alum mordant.


Philip the Good

It is claimed that black first started being worn by nobility of northern Italy, by the Duke of Milan and the Count of Savoy amongst the rulers of Mantua, Ferrara, Rimini and Urbino. In France, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1396 - 1467) was considered to be one of the first noblemen to popularise black for court fashion. After his father was murdered in 1419, he decided to wear only black clothes, making a statement amongst other the courtiers who were dressed in rich, vivid colours. 

As in some parts of Europe the wear of certain vivid colours was prohibited to anyone except the members of the nobility, black became an alternative for the magistrates, government officials, wealthy bankers and merchants. Concerning the cost of the pure black dye, wearing a black garment was a visible sign of status and wealth, whilst still creating an impression of seriousness and austerity. Popularity of black clothing quickly spread across European courts, with Spanish Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) and his son, Philip II (1527-1598), becoming known for wearing black on a daily basis.

In the 16th century, black also became the emblematic colour of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the Puritans in England and America. It served as a symbol of modesty and purity, and was considered simple, respectable and discreet. 

Philip II of Spain

THE REVIVAL OF BLACK

The common use of black colour in fashion continued throughout the 17th century. It became slightly less prevalent in the 1700s, only to grow back in popularity after the French Revolution. The late 18th century saw a growing appreciation for British men’s fashion, characterised by simplicity and dark, sombre colours. In the early 19th century, the British dandy Beau Brummell redefined and popularised the style, establishing a tailored three piece suit in dark colour as the dress of the modern man.

Brummell wore black at night creating the foundations of evening wear as we know it today. Black was also associated with the romantic movement, as the colour of melancholy and mystery, associated with famous poets of the time. On the other hand, it became the colour of the industrial revolution both metaphorically and virtually.

Due to the coal smoke, the buildings of the large cities of Europe and America gradually grew dark. By 1846 the industrial area of the West Midlands of England was commonly called 'the Black Country'.

Black was also the colour commonly worn by Victorian businessmen. The invention of more affordable, synthetic black dyes and the industrialisation of the textile industry made black clothes available to the general population.

With black clothing being available to the emerging middle class, the practice of wearing mourning dress extended beyond the aristocracy. By the mid 19th century, all-black dress during the mourning period became a matter of social expectation and respectability. After the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria herself decided to wear only black colour until the end of her life.

Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection

Although black clothing was a clear sign of mourning amongst women throughout the 19th century, the same colour became the most popular everyday choice for menswear. Newly developed concepts of style and elegance, defined and explained in numerous publications, considered modesty and simplicity to be the ideals to strive towards. Black was the perfect colour for every occasion - morning wear, day wear, evening wear, even sportswear. It was considered vulgar to wear a jacket or a coat in a bright colour - fashion allowed variations only when it came to waistcoats and sometimes, trousers. Respectability was the most desired feature one could possess in the Victorian era, and the choice of clothes worn would be one of its defining factors.

The colour black also made its mark on sports fashion and workwear. Although the nature of both allowed more freedom of colours, fabrics and cuts (especially with workwear, the style being dictated by practicality and affordability). Black was a versatile choice, suitable for any type of activity and occasion, except for light sports summer clothing. 

At the end of the 19th century, black became an acceptable colour choice for women’s evening wear, following the concept of a seductive, decadent femme fatale, immortalised by turn-of-the-century artists.

In the 1920's, black was highlighted as a fashionable everyday colour of the modern woman, suitable for any occasion and not necessarily exclusive to mourning. The creation of Chanel’s iconic ‘’little black dress’’ was a decisive step in establishing black as the most classic and elegant colour choice for future generations of women. 

As the colour palette for menswear broadened in the 20th Century, black remained a popular choice for some. In the business world, the black jacket and waistcoat - combined with striped morning suit trousers - suggested reliability and honesty. Along with the black bowler hat and black umbrella, this semi-formal loom became the uniform for British city workers and politicians. This look became known as ‘Black Lounge’ in the UK, the ‘stroller’ (after the floorwalkers in large department stores) and the ‘Stresemann’ in Germany, after the 1920s political leader of that name.

Marie Curie

The colour remained a constant factor in menswear worldwide for many years until, in the latter half of the 20th Century, it became seen as old-fashioned; Black was the colour of bankers and ageing civil servants. Or it was for school uniforms and the double-breasted blazers worn by the chairman of the local golf club. It was definitely not cool. 

As a result, black all but disappeared from youth fashion. Where black remained popular was for society’s outsiders, the people who inverted the respectability of the look; It was the colour of choice for biker gangs with their leather jackets and caps, or for rebellious singers like Johnny Cash.Black was for the bad-boys who identified with the gunslingers in the westerns they watched at the cinema; after all, everyone could recognise the villain by his black hat. In the film ‘The Singer not the Song’ Dirk Bogarde portrayed the ultimate outsider, a gay cowboy, dressed in black shirt, black hat, black boots, black gloves and black leather trousers. It was a bold, and controversial, look.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, black fashion reappeared along with new youth cults: Goth, New Romantics and New Wave. Inspired by punk singers such as Dave Vanian of The Damned and Siouxsie Sioux, a new generation adopted the colour. Just as in earlier centuries, black was once more the colour of rebellion, rather than respectability.

Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols.

THE BLACK NORFOLK SUIT BY SJC

In today’s menswear, black is still considered the primary colour choice for official occasions. Even though today’s sartorial world verges into the sphere of experimentation, over the decades, black has remained the most popular colour of mens’ suits, especially in business and politics. There is something about black that is alluring and powerful. It is elegant in its simplicity, and even when modest, it is also a statement of itself. Black never goes out of fashion, and a black jacket is a necessary addition to any wardrobe. 

The fascinating role of black in fashion throughout the ages has inspired SJC to choose the colour for its latest design, the Moleskin Norfolk Jacket. Moleskin, a tough tightly woven cotton cloth, was chosen since it was a traditional cloth for country clothing, can protect you from the wind and rain, and is both soft and strong making it an incredibly comfortable cloth.

Inspired by an original 1917 black Norfolk jacket, we decided that black fabric would make a faithful, versatile garment, perfect for a range of occasions. Going back to the tradition of Edwardian sportswear and 19th century sombre elegance, the jacket can be styled in many different ways, either choosing the bold statement of an all-black look (by pairing it with SJC’s black moleskin trousers) or combining with a range of colours and fabrics for a less serious look.  Dress it up with a collar, tie and formal boots, or dress it down with jeans, t shirt and work boots, and you will experience the true versatility of the garment.

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