In the 19th century, black was not only worn during mourning but was also considered a very fashionable colour. Black was seen as timeless and dignified, characteristics that also applied to mourning clothes and fitted within Christian morality. Black clothing distanced the wearer from the frivolities of everyday life, but black was also the perfect base for a multitude of jewels. Black clothing also created the opportunity to focus strongly on form or to play with a variety of fabrics and textures. This focus on form and materials was a central feature of the recent Cristobàl Balenciaga exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag, in which black played the leading role.
Before 1850, in the Netherlands, Spain and other European countries, black was restricted to the wealthiest members of society because of the costliness of black dyes. Creating black fabrics entailed a delicate and labour-intensive process, which was the result of endless experimentation. For centuries, dyers had searched for the ‘blackest black’, of which the so-called ‘Noir de Flandres’ was a fanatical attempt. To achieve this deep black, aggressive iron compounds were added, which damaged the fibres. Most black garments and textiles slowly degenerated or faded to a brown tint. It is therefore quite exceptional that Mrs De Greve-Dubois’ dress is still such a strong black after more than 140 years.
Only from the second half of the 19th century – following the Industrial Revolution – did black fabrics become cheaper due to the mechanisation of the dyeing process. At the end of the 19th century, synthetic dyes were developed, resulting in a democratisation of colour and making it increasingly visible in everyday life. Since then, black has no longer been the preserve of the rich or been restricted to mourning attirebut has grown in popularity for its timeless character, partly thanks to Chanel’s iconic ‘little black dress’, the work of Cristobàl Balenciaga, and Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ of 1947. Today, black is an indispensable part of our wardrobe. Its stylishness and timelessness fit in with the increasing awareness for sustainability and ‘quiet luxury’, in which garments with a strong cut, good quality and in neutral colours play a prominent role. But the symbolic link with death and mourning also remains and is unlikely to disappear any time soon.