John Harvey on the Colour Black

Men in Black, Reaktion Books, London 1995

The Story of Black, Reaktion Books, London 2013

 Even when brilliant, rich, powerful women have worn magnificent black in the past, they have usually needed the pretext of mourning to do so. And what has seemed to me a curious point of interest for study is the way which, through time, the use of this colour – the colour that is without colour, without light, the colour of grief, of loss, of humility, of guilt, of shame – has been adopted in its use by men not as the colour of what they lack or have lost, but precisely as the signature of what they have: of standing, goods, mastery…It relates to the relations between people in society, and to the relations between men and women; and to the way in which people display externally what in some ways is a ‘dark’ interior of human motivation.

 

This is John Harvey in his introduction to the first of these two fascinating studies of the colour black. In Men in Black he goes on to examine how and why black became the default colour of dress for men, associated with the world of work and professional dignity, contrasting with women who tended to wear white (or various other hues from the colour spectrum) – often in ‘vicarious display by men’; most jobs were ‘closed to women’. The period of black dominance in clothing for men dates largely from the early nineteenth century until shortly after the First World War.

 But both black and white are colours of denial; and what they deny is colour.

Thereafter it became the colour of Chanel’s little dress. In the 1930s it represented for the fascists the ‘most complete and intense way of marking off a group of people from the polychrome ordinary mass’. Himmler, the head of Hitler’s terrifying SS, admired ‘the disciplinary principles on which the Jesuits were organized, and was called by Hitler his Ignatius Loyola.’ More recently it has become the colour of rebellion and youth, from bikers and beatniks to punks, goths and emos.

John Harvey, Men in BlackAlthough men have in the past of course worn all kinds of colours, these books trace the reasons for the shift to sombre black clothes, with a focus on the representation of black in art and literature. Baudelaire is quoted as saying of the frock-coat:

 ‘Is it not the inevitable uniform of our suffering age, carrying on its very shoulders, black and narrow, the mark of perpetual mourning? All of us are attending some funeral or other.’

He also remarked that ‘a uniform livery of grief is a proof of equality’; as Harvey points out, ‘For Baudelaire, black, like death itself, was a leveller.’

John Harvey, The Story of Black These are scholarly but lavishly illustrated works and furnished with copious academic notes, but as that opening extract I hope shows, the texts are written in highly engaging prose, with carefully modulated, elegant sentence structure and, despite the formidable erudition, an accessible style and enthusiastic tone that encourage the reader to devour the text greedily.

Both books are packed with well-researched detail. As Dr Harvey is a literary scholar there is not surprisingly an emphasis on the literary aspects of the significance of the colour black: there are long sections on Victorian literature in particular, with perceptive accounts of Dickens’ dark cities and their inhabitants, and, for example, the saturnine characters in Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot.

Last year I reviewed John Harvey’s excellent novel The Subject of a Portrait, which is about the relationships between John Ruskin, his young wife Effie Gray, and the artist Millais, with whom Effie fell in love. There are supplementary posts by Michael Flay here and by Dr Harvey himself here (where he discusses his novel in the light of the film ‘Effie Gray’, about this triangle of Victorian characters, that was about to be released at the time of the post). Ruskin believed that the Victorian climate was changing as a result of a malignant ‘plague-wind’ of darkness, and that this ‘moral gloom’ was connected with the pollution – real and metaphorical – of industry, and in turn with ‘blasphemy’, ‘iniquity’ and social injustice – and Empire. Victorian morality was founded upon inequality and fear, and on ‘a terrifying faith’. On p. 169 of Men in Black the Millais portrait of Ruskin that features on the cover of Harvey’s novel is again reproduced. This is what he says about it:

 Ruskin is keen but cold like the water, and indeed was himself so damaged by strains of the most intimate British asceticism that he was unable to be a husband to his wife…There are elements of personal pathology in Ruskin’s obsession with the plague-cloud, as possibly there are in Dickens’s darkness: but their pathologies were of their culture, involving as it were ethical injury, and sensitized them to a greater pathology.

 

Elegantly and eloquently expressed. I particularly like that phrase ‘ethical injury’: it sums up succinctly the personality of the enigmatic Ruskin.

I was surprised to discover in Men in Black that dandies like Beau Brummel tended to favour tight-fitting, well-cut black clothes rather than peacock displays, at least at night.

What I found so interesting about these two books is that they take a topic as mundane as the colour black – one which I for one had never really paid much heed to; it’s rather like what’s been said about Jane Austen’s novels: she doesn’t mention the domestic arrangements of the country houses in her fiction because the maids are taken for granted, invisible. That’s how I was with the colour black. These books have enlightened and enthused me.

In Men in Black we learn that dandyism ‘played with discipline, and self-discipline, and the style was, not surprisingly, popular with the military’ – Brummel had been a captain in the Hussars (what a splendid name), and Wellington was thought a dandy.

 Wellington in turn had to reprimand the officers of the Grenadier Guards for riding into battle, on a day of foul weather, with their umbrellas raised.

 

There are sections on black as the colour of ‘self-effacement’, especially in religious contexts – although Christian priests had originally tended to wear white. Nevertheless black gradually became the predominant colour of dress for ascetics, hermits, then monks, friars, Jesuits and priests:

 A perfection of self-denial may make one holy, a person to be heeded with reverence and awe: and black, as the colour of power over oneself, has come to be associated with impressive, intense inwardness.

 

Another felicitously expressed sentence.

Then black is associated with the melancholy lover, and with melancholy in general – the ‘black bile’ of the ancient lore of the bodily ‘humours’; Hamlet is a key figure here (‘a man whose black clothes, finally, are the dress of his dark ontology’) and Robert Burton’s encyclopedic Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621.

Black also became the colour favoured by merchants, especially Calvinist Protestants in the London business community; ‘pious asceticism’, as Weber suggests, is connected with capital. Also, perhaps, it was associated with trustworthiness, fair dealing: ‘Black is serious and means business’ –

 But black is a paradoxical colour, ostentatious through the show it makes of renouncing ostentation. The man in black can sidestep the social staircase because he seems to take his stand on a moral stair instead, and indeed to take the high ground precisely through humility.

 

Other areas explored by Harvey include black as a skin colour, and social/literary attitudes to ‘négritude’ – in Othello, for example. Devils (and the devil), of course, were also frequently depicted as black.

The extracts I have quoted are an indication of the elegant lucidity of Harvey’s writing, as well as of his capacity for conveying a great deal of information in a manner that is as rewarding as a well-written, pacy novel.

Men in Black concludes that the social significance of black is polysemous, ‘because all statements made by clothes are ambiguous, and even one colour will have different meanings’; but the dominant meaning of the widespread use of black could be that it

 is associated at once with intensity and with effacement: with importance, and with the putting on of impersonality. Alone or in ranks, the man in black is the agent of a serious power; and of a power claimed over women and the feminine. Black may be a shadow fallen on the feminine part of man.

 

I’ll conclude by stating that The Story of Black covers much of the same ground as the earlier book, but with very little repetition and a host of different material, and a closing section that looks at some developments in the world of art in the last few years. Both books belong to a series produced by Reaktion that use copious illustrations as the basis for historical analysis.

I’d recommend these texts to anyone with even a passing interest in literary, artistic/cultural, social, political or philosophical history.

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8 thoughts on “John Harvey on the Colour Black

  1. A fascinating review, beautifully written, I want to read these books and understand more about ‘the colour black’

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  4. Just reached this lovely piece. Brought to mind “My Name Is Red” by Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. SEE Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (August 27, 2002) – ISBN-10: 0375706852; ISBN-13: 978-0375706851

    Below is some text from a summary, for context. Very unusual structure:

    [The story surrounds a sultan who commissions a book to celebrate his life and times, as well as a set of talented artists hired to recreate the work in the European style. But when one of the artists disappears, the answer to his whereabouts seems to lie in the images themselves.

    The novel has an architectural structure made up of 59 chapters, each one representing the perspective of every character involved in the plot, besides inanimate objects (a corpse, a coin, THE COLOR RED, death), figurative characters such as a dog, a horse, and Satan. The result is a cubistic outlook in which each piece has its own autonomy and at the same time remains dependent upon each other. Although “BLACK” is the main figure, none of the characters is fully developed; they serve as means to painstakingly and repeatedly address the central issues of the novel: the political allegories and the philosophy of art.]

    MM

  5. Hi – yes, that was of huge interest to me, thanks for pointing it out – and can tell from the extracts how well-written and inviting the text is. Shall certainly follow this up. Nice to have come across you online!

    • Moira – I’m delighted you found John H’s texts inviting. He writes particularly well, I agree, and wears his erudition lightly. His novel on Effie Gray is worth reading; he develops the notion of Victorian obsession with black clothing in the characterisation of Ruskin. Just took a look at your blog – fascinating. i must admit I’d not paid too much attention to clothing in lit (despite Mr Harvey’s promptings), so shall endeavour to be more attentive in future. and maybe suggest things for your consideration? As you say, it’s always good to make these happy meetings online: it’s one of the main reasons I blog…

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