Last night at Fashion Institute of Technology, Dr. Valerie Steele discussed her latest book, The Black Dress. Centuries before Coco Chanel set up shop, black was a coveted color. The dye was so expensive that even aristocrats could afford only a few clothes made of black. After the discovery of the new world and rise of Spain’s economic and military might, Spanish black became the most fashionable color in Europe. It was even chic in non-Catholic that considered Spain an enemy.
Its popularity lapsed when the French rose to power and white became the preferred color. But it came roaring back in the 19th century when chemical dyes were formulated that made black affordable to everyone.
She also talked about how designers can get so many varied effects from black—wet shiny looks to muted matte tones to midnight velvety blacks. She showed Greta Garbo in black and coq feathers, Helmut Lang’s laser cut leather dress and Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Steele, who is the Director at The Museum at FIT, even explained why black is so popular in New York. Since black can be aristocratic, elegant, punk, dangerous, sexy, stark, rebellious and bohemian, it is suitably complex and perfect for all parts of town, from Wall Street to the Upper West Side. Black is a city color. “No one wears black in the country,” she said, “unless you’re Amish.” There is also the quality of light to be considered. In sunnier and tropical climates, heavily saturated colors look better next to the skin. But in a clear and cloudy city filled with stone, glass and steel, black not only looks better, it also resonates with the abstract feel of the city.--Sherry Mazzocchi