The hidden meanings in wearing black

Black is also a practical colour. Many Islamic countries make expert use of black, using its heat absorption to cause hot air to rise. Draped garments in dark colours, such as the thawb and the abaya, create a convection current of cool air through the garment’s layered folds.

Black, it seems, has enthralled us since time began. “There have always been black luxuries: ebony wood, black marble and, in Ancient Rome, fine black wool,” continues Harvey. But black also signified virtue and duty, and from the 11th Century onwards was worn widely by clergy. Later, royals, such as Philip II of Spain (1527-98), adopted it, aligning themselves with the respect and authority of the church. “Black had become a colour which said you were serious; it said you meant business; it said you were strong, possibly formidable,” says Harvey.

There has long been this duality to black, he explains. “On the one hand, black is class, wealth and distinction; and on the other hand, black is humility, service and dedication.” The distinction between the two had much to do with the materials. Rich black dyes were expensive to create. Commoners had to content themselves with course black fustian, a thick, hard-wearing twilled cloth. Only the nobles had velvets and satins.

In time, black spread to the merchants and business folk of the middle class, but it was rather dull and severe. Leading dandy Beau Brummell, the 19th-Century equivalent of a social influencer, saw how industrialisation was shifting power to the rising middle classes. His reinterpretation of the colour in his sharp, close-cut suits was not only a nod to this group’s growing impact, but made black fun again. And though the more austere reigns of William IV, and later Queen Victoria, put a stop to the frivolity, black reinvented itself and remained in fashion, seeming a perfect fit for the morality and modesty of the new era.

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