Wearing black has been fashionable in many times and places since the fourteenth century. For example, black clothing had become the color to wear at the Spanish court by the late-sixteenth century, but was modified by adding a white collar or muff. Spanish black soon became the color to wear in Holland, Italy, and England as well.
Due to many others wearing it, Spanish black was considered old-fashioned by the mid-seventeenth century. It suggested age and religious piety. Puritans and pious merchants wore it.
For the next hundred years or more, black with white accents became respectable rather than daring. Wearing black started as a trend in England and America in the latter half of the nineteenth century when England’s Queen Victoria wore only black dresses after the death of her husband, Prince Albert.
Also during this time, there were two sorts of black clothing: the everyday sober and the dramatic, distinguishable black. Servants, clerks, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and the elderly wore the sober; while the rich and fashionable wore dramatic black. What distinguished the two sorts were the richness of the materials, the details of the design, and the wearer’s manner and appearance.
Black was the fashion for deep and elaborate mourning. In America, one was expected to wear black for a year after the death of parents or children, and six months for grandparents or siblings; even tiny children wore black. A widow or widower was supposed to mourn visibly for two years, and might—like Queen Victoria—choose to do so permanently.
Today, formal mourning is only observed for heads of state, and very few men wear formal black and white except at society weddings and balls.
“The little black dress” became popular again in the 1950s and is still seen today. (This item was first introduced by Coco Chanel in 1926 as a fashion color and statement. Before, black was mainly relegated for mourning use.) It’s usually worn with colorful accessories, one or two pieces of jewelry, and is the modern equal of the black satin or broadcloth of the Victorian woman.
A recent version was the slip dress: slip-like in design, but with a very short hemline, while the top was low. They either fitted tightly or hung straight, and looked best with black high heels. (To wear these, a great body figure was required.)
They’re considered a “must” in every fashionable woman’s closet. Simple and unobtrusive, a little black dress would make one look proper, discreet, but well-dressed and never out of place. If such clothes are elegant and of rich material, they suggest worldly power and sophistication, often with an undertone of evil or danger.
The wearing of black or nearly all black can have many meanings. When everyone else is in bright or pale colors, the entrance of someone in black can have tremendous dramatic impact. Depending on the situation and costume style, the wearer may seem holy, grief-stricken, dangerous, or any combination of these.
It can be very slimming (taking off at least five pounds!). The “new blacks” are dark plum, cranberry, wine, blue (particularly the darker and navy blue shades), and chocolate brown.
If you’re attending a party that’s not fancy, not casual, but somewhere in between, such as brunches, informal dinner parties, restaurant parties, graduations, bar mitzvahs, after-work cocktails, art gallery openings, and life events like bridal and baby showers, you can wear a dress (among other options), but not black. It’ll look either too dressed up or overdressed. Navy blue’s okay, but pale shades, such as ivory, would be better. An exception would be if an event’s immediately after work, or if you’re there because of your job.
If you want to look younger without looking too trendy (or foolish), get the item in black. It’ll look more grown-up and sophisticated.
Black, one of the most common and important colors in fashion, is not technically a color at all, but a representation of the absence of light.