Fashion designers can't leave black alone. And neither can our columnist Rebecca Willis. She explains why ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2011

Towards the end of the last century, a friend of mine took a taxi to London Fashion Week. The driver gawped in puzzlement at the moving sea of people dressed head-to-toe in black, and asked: “What’s that, then? Some religious cult?”

He had a point. There is something bordering on the cultish in fashion’s devotion to the colour black—it’s the equivalent of white for Moonies or orange for Hare Krishnas. Since that taxi journey in the 1990s the wardrobes of the stylish have brightened up a bit, but although trends such as colour blocking or floral prints may float by on the surface current, underneath there is a deeper, darker tide that pulls us back towards black. Despite pronouncements at intervals by the fashion industry that red or pink or blue is the new black, the old black is still very much with us. 

Visiting eBay, the auction website, confirms this. A search in “Clothes, Shoes and Accessories” for the word “black” yields more than 3m items—that’s twice as many as “blue”, and five or six times as many as “brown” or “grey”. This ratio remains more or less the same in winter and summer, and when you narrow the search to “women’s clothing”. (Black also predominates in men’s clothing, though there’s slightly more blue.) A pedant might argue that these are the clothes that people are trying to get rid of—certainly if they were all thrown away we’d be left with a very large, black mountain. But the website of the upmarket fashion retailer Net-a-Porter tells the same story, with black significantly more dominant in its wares, be it January or June. 

What is it about, this infatuation with black? It’s a question I am often asked, since I wear black most of the time, and therefore one upon which I have spent much time reflecting. My friends and colleagues might say I wear little else, though it doesn’t feel like that to me—I wear colours sometimes, particularly in summer, but black is what I feel most comfortable in. Putting on black in the morning feels as natural as breathing. If I enter a clothes shop, I am drawn towards the rails of black. I will happily wear black to weddings as well as funerals. I own black sandals and black sundresses. I even wore black when I was nine months pregnant in a July heatwave. This habit of mine is an adult-onset condition, which developed when I spent a dangerously long time working at British Vogue magazine; I didn’t work in the fashion department, but I absorbed black osmotically. I know I’m far from alone in my preference for wearing black, so—for all those others who are asked why they wear so much black, as well as for myself—I’ll try to answer that question here for once and for all.

To do that means asking some other questions about black’s significance in our society generally. How is it that black can betoken both oppression (the Nazis and Fascists) and also the rebellion of youth (punks and goths)? How can it be the distinctive feature of religious garments (nuns, priests, Hassidic Jews), and also of rubber and bondage fetishists? Why is it the uniform of dons and anorexics alike, of waiters and witches, of judges and suicide-bombers? No colour performs so many duties, in so many fields of clothing—smart, casual, uniform, anti-uniform—as black does. It is uniquely versatile and flexible. How, exactly, does my friend and ally pull that off?

Picture: (above) Portrait of Rebecca Willis, by Jillian Edelstein; (below) Viscose dress, £69, Cos; opaque “Ultimate Magic” shapewear tights, £6, M&S; suede boots, £475, Diane von Furstenberg