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The Colour Black: History, Symbolism and Its Use in Clothing

Black Is Mysterious

Black Is Mysterious

Is it possible that something can symbolize luxury and poverty, humility and power, as well as evil and penance? It shouldn't be, but it is! All that and more can be said about the colour black.

Black sends out very mixed messages. Even though the meaning of colours vary among cultures and people, black has a wider range of symbolism and meanings than any other colour. Black can send totally opposite messages depending on who you ask. For example, black is sometimes regarded as dark or even invisible, but it is also used as a sign of power, and while black can stand for minimalism or even poverty, it can also be a sign of luxury.

Common topics regarding history, symbolism and the use of the color black include:

  • Whether or not black is a colour.
  • Usage and meaning of black in Christianity.
  • Historical symbolism and usage of black.
  • How black became the colour of grief and mourning.
  • How black can be used to show power as well as invisibility.
  • Why black is considered by many to be a sexy colour.
  • What wearing black says about you.

Is Black a Colour?

This has been a subject of debate for many years, and there is more than one way to look at it. The answer depends on whether you define colour as something generated by light or if you simply look at it as a colour.

Black is a colour that absorbs light, meaning a black object absorbs all colours and no colours are reflected back to the eye. So with that reasoning, I guess one could argue that black isn’t a colour.

Some say that black is the absence of colour, but if you combine the three primary colours—red, yellow and blue—the result is very close to black. So one could argue that a mix of three colours should be regarded as a colour.

So I conclude the following about black: a black object absorbs all colours and none are reflected back to the eye. If colour is seen as something generated by light, black can be defined as the absence of light.

Black is the mix of several colours and can, therefore, be regarded as a colour.

How Black Is Used in Christianity

The colour black has been used symbolically in religion for centuries. Historically, religion has been the authority that created social rules, ethics, morals and guidelines. Because of that, religion continues to influence the way we regard black today. Here are some symbols that black has had throughout history.

In the Bible, the book of Genesis claims that darkness was present before light, and therefore believers sometimes say that black was the first of all colours. Black has been perceived to have a negative connotation since life as we know it can’t exist in darkness. Black has been regarded as evil and a symbol of darkness, whereas light represents life and something pleasant and good.

During the Middle Ages, priests wore black clothes as a sign of humility and penance. To be a priest meant to reject all worldly pleasures and live according to the laws of religion.

Black is also used in Christian churches today in many of the liturgical styles and ecclesiastical textiles. Black symbolizes sorrow or grief and is commonly used during Easter as a reminder of Jesus on the cross.

Historical Usage and Meaning of Black

Animals

During the 1000s, the view that black was evil led to superstition about animals. Black animals like ravens and cats were regarded as evil and were thought to have supernatural powers.

Black in Storytelling

In old stories about knights, the colour black is used to symbolize something mysterious and secret. Take, for example, the character Black Knight in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. The mysterious knight dresses in black to conceal his true identity as he helps the hero to victory. Stories like this helped create an association between people dressed in black and mystery and concealment.

Black as a Sign of Mourning

Today, black is acceptable attire for funerals and is a symbol of grief. This may be because death is often associated with eternal sleep or darkness.

For centuries, people saved their best and most valuable clothing for going to church and funerals. For those special occasions, the dresses they had were usually black, especially in the countryside and amongst common people. Because of this, prior to World War I, it was common for wedding dresses to be black. That could also be one explanation as to why black attire is an appropriate colour at parties and festivities.

But black hasn’t always been a colour for grief. The French kings once used red as a sign of mourning, and later that changed to purple. White was even used for mourning in the past. It was Anna of Bretagne, a French duchess, who introduced black as the colour of mourning in the late 1400s.

American Mourning Dress, 1850-55

American Mourning Dress, 1850-55

Does Black Symbolize Power or Invisibility?

Almost universally, blue symbolizes control and calm, red symbolizes passion and power, but black's meaning varies depending on the situation.

The colour black can speak volumes about a person and how they perceive themselves, and it can also say very little about a person. It is contradictory that being dressed in black is a symbol of power and being dressed in black is also a way to blend in.

Power

Men and women in positions of power often wear black. One reason is that it used to be difficult to dye silk and other fabrics black and have the colour be even. As the dying process became easier, black cloth was still expensive to make, so only people with power and money were able to afford black clothes. It was a long time before common people could afford black clothing.

During the 1700s, black became a fashionable colour and started to be worn for celebrations or festivals. Even today there aren’t many women who haven’t worn a 'little black dress' to a party or event. The same goes for men who wear a black suit or tuxedo on special occasions. King Edward VII of Great Britain started the tradition of wearing a white shirt with a black jacket and trousers to special events and celebrations.

Powerful Judges Wear Black

Powerful Judges Wear Black

Invisibility

While black can be a symbol of power, it can also be worn to blend in with others and avoid standing out in a crowd. If you look at a group of men in black suits, each individual becomes more or less invisible. The next time you visit a domestic airport early in the morning, look around and you will see most businesspeople are dressed in black. They are everywhere, and they all look the same. The people who stand out from the crowd are those dressed in either bright colours, or who have a brightly coloured accessory. Those individuals will catch your attention, but the rest will blend in with each other and become invisible.

If you want to reduce the impact of wearing black, you can add a contrasting colour to your outfit. Black compliments and emphasizes all other colours in a fantastic way. Depending on the situation, using colourful accessories can either reduce or reinforce the message you are sending. For example, if you want to look powerful and in control, use traditional black and white. But if you want to be noticed in a crowd you should use bright contrasting colours. Red and black, or yellow and black, generally give a warmer feeling than black on its own.

There's something about black. You feel hidden away in it.

— Georgia O'Keeffe

Black Is Sexy

Black seems to evoke strong emotions in all humans, regardless of culture. In many cultures, black is associated with sex and the forbidden, making it one of the most common colours of sexy lingerie.

This association may come from sex being regarded as a sin in some religions, and even though religious regalia tends to be black, it can sometimes be seen as a symbol for the devil or darkness. Yet another contradiction in the way we regard black.

What Wearing Black Says About You

Since the colour black is a contradiction and sends out very different messages, how do we know if the colour is right for us, or what message we're sending out when we wear it?

The only way to know is to consider the history of and the current stigma associated with the colour black. After all, we are the ones that create all those mixed messages. Remember that black is associated with the absence of light. One of our greatest fears as humans is darkness, which may be why black has such a significant amount of symbolic value.

It's good to consider where and when to use black. Both the environment and the room where we use the colour matter. So when we use black we need to think about both the message we want to send, and who is going to be receiving that message. You must also consider that it has different meanings in other countries and cultures.

After considering all of the meanings of wearing black, my conclusion is that this colour is associated with many of our basic raw emotions: excitement, sex, power, luxury, fear and mystery. This clearly shows that we really do like the colour black!

There is one thing you can be sure of when you wear or use black. No matter the situation, you will be sending a message!

Sources and Further Reading

Comments

Christina Lornemark (author) from Sweden on March 03, 2013:

Hi SealBeach and thank you for the fantastic comment! I am so glad you liked this article. Colors can be so powerful and we can all feel like a King any day we like! I appreciate the comment,

Tina

SealBeach on February 22, 2013:

How aptly named are you-- "thoughtforce." Who else besides you could

present such an insightful article? Now--I feel like a King....And the black

suits; no other color of suits, express dominance than black. Awesome!

Christina Lornemark (author) from Sweden on January 26, 2013:

Madhukar, I think you can read about the benefits and advantages of black color in the text above, but maybe it is a bit hidden. Black is a very powerful color with many different symbols attached to it but it all varies depending on where and how you wear black color. If you are among many people all dressed in black you will not be sending out any significant message, instead you will be lost in all the black. On another occasion black color can be the color that give you advantages over others or makes you more visible. It also depends on the culture where you are. Thanks for the comment!

Tina

madhukar on January 18, 2013:

Tell me some benifites and advantage

of black color

Christina Lornemark (author) from Sweden on March 17, 2012:

Vinaya, Yes it is strange and it seems like it is the same in many places around the world. Maybe it is because we connect light with warmth from the sun and also with fire that gave us heat, food and a feeling of security and has done so from the beginning. Black is one of my favorite color and there are so many ways to use it!

I appreciate your visit and the comment

Best wishes

Tina

Vinaya Ghimire from Nepal on March 17, 2012:

I sometimes wonder why our our languages and cultures associated black color with evil. Black is wonderful color in a sense that it can absorb anything.

Your analysis is very interesting.

Christina Lornemark (author) from Sweden on October 17, 2011:

Hi Koffee Klatch, yes it really is one of the most elegant color and almost everyone looks great wearing it. Thanks for reading, I appreciate your visits!

Tina

Susan Hazelton from Northern New York on October 16, 2011:

I love to wear the color black. I was always taught that black was the combination of all colors. All I know is it can be the most elegant color around when used right.

Christina Lornemark (author) from Sweden on August 21, 2011:

Prasetio, There is absolutely no need to feel sorry, you are always welcome and published hubs remains:)) It is interesting with history and trends because we are influenced by both even if we don’t know or think about where the influence come from. And black is fascinating because of its mixed and powerful messages. Thanks for giving your vote to this hub, I so value your opinion!