Black: The History of Black in Fashion, Society and Culture in New Zealand, curated by Doris De Pont (Penguin, 2012), 239 pp. $59.99.
In the beginning there was black. As Samuel Butler wrote in his novel Erewhon, pronouncing on the awesomeness of God’s Own Country in the 1860s and describing the Southern Alps: ‘sometimes black mountains against a white sky, and then again after cold weather, white mountains against a black sky’; while in the late nineteenth century the North Island was the land of the long black cloud, the result of the burning off of the rainforests, leaving swathes of carbonised stumps and charred landscapes, the deed as dark as the forests once were. Black was also the colour of the Maori Void – Te Po – and Maori millennial prophets of the nineteenth century made the connection with the Bible: the black-covered Word of God. The tohunga Papahurihia of Nga Puhi in the North created the Blackout Movement, based on the absence of light, and so confirmed black as the colour of holy dread.
Black has ever been a secretive troubled part of the spectrum, sinister in its exclusion of light, redolent of suppression and the confessional. Black has also always constituted a forceful fashion statement, and today this colour – or rather absence of colour – when seen on the catwalk, carries a range of emotional associations from the grim austerity of the distant past to the decadent indulgence of the near future. And, as Black: the History of Black in Fashion, Society and Culture in New Zealand establishes, it has for New Zealanders a particularly powerful resonance. This anthology of cultural perspectives is a set of ten essays by eleven commentators, which in its obsessive devotion to that sombre hue rises again and again to a barracking chorus of ‘black … black … black … black.’
But at the same time basing the history of a country around a single colour is a somewhat reductive exercise, as Doris de Pont’s Introduction reveals; in fact it is a gimmick, a device which here serves to endorse our era’s elevation of the manufactured commodity to the ultimate arbitrator of value, with the shopping mall as its cathedral, policed by surveillance cameras and regulated by personal credit. Black provides an easy narrative of cultural continuity: a smooth, even glossy, transition from colonisation to modernist nationalism to postmodern globalisation.
Black, the most paradoxical colour of them all, has been co-opted into embroidering the facade of national unity. This book argues that, while the blockbusting cinematic fiction of Lord of the Ringsmight have enabled New Zealand to relaunch itself as a marketable version of Tolkein’s Middle Earth, with the national airline’s Boeing 747s painted with hobbits and elves, that iconography is temporary. More durable is the appropriation of black as the major chord in the New Zealand hymn book: ‘New Zealanders bleed black’, the ubiquitous rugby slogan asserts, and we bow the head and bend the knee. At a time when the so-called free market has created an atmosphere in which countries are promoted like branded goods to be merchandised around the world, the All Blacks have become a winning brand, one that offers maximum visibility, certainly locally, vested as it is with the nation’s sense of self-esteem.
De Pont suggests that ‘black’ offers a point of difference, of sorts, in the global marketplace, with its jumble of colours and logos. Diluting the colour range would be like diluting identity. Black has become an anchor for design opportunities, a beacon for photo-opportunities: witness Prime Minister Helen Clark during the Helengrad Years, in buttoned-up black wool trench coat, striding towards a war memorial to lay a wreath, either at home or overseas.
But the ideology of black is not homegrown, rather, like much else, it is imported. In her essay ‘A Maori Perspective on the Wearing of Black’ Chanel Clarke at first tries to isolate black as the paramount colour for traditional Maori society, but is finally forced to admit that it was actually just one in a range of colours used: commodification as we understand it did not exist in their holistic world.
According to essayist Prudence Stone, black dye was chosen for monk’s robes in medieval times because it ‘represented Satan’, and so symbolised a form of self-abasement in the eyes of God. Associated with sackcloth and ashes, black stood for penance, shriving, catharsis. But by the Reformation it also represented ‘a civic code’ of public authority and virtue, and both of these meanings can be found in the Puritan use of black in England and then in New England, and afterwards other English and British colonies, including New Zealand.
Essayist Jane Malthus has a field day with black cloth in her ‘Black in the Victorian Era’, because black cloth was the exemplary emblem of Queen Victoria’s reign, beginning with the all-conquering missionaries. In the wake of the example of Queen Victoria’s permanent adoption of ‘widow’s weeds’, following the death of her husband, whole families who had had a bereavement would wear black continuously, until by the end of the nineteenth century there were attempts to limit the wearing of this obsessively funereal look. But black remained representative of genteel respectability, as well as associated with the wowser, the temperance movement, the sectarian.
Through most of the twentieth century, too, black remained invested with the power of the clergy: the priest’s cassock, the nun’s habit, the minister’s suit. Black was sober, uniform, monolithic, able to conceal a multitude of sins. Black’s pre-eminence only began to be challenged during the 1960s with the emergence of a bright rainbow of fashion colours driven by a synchronicity of events: industrial innovation, mass-media advertising, pop culture, generational disaffection. Suddenly black began to be sidelined as a colour, and started to be associated more predominantly with outsiders and marginal groups: motorcycle gangs, beatniks and hipsters, political protestors (Nga Tamatoa, Black Power, the anti-apartheid movement).
These trends were found elsewhere – marginalised nihilist zealots from Anchorage to Zagreb wear black to emphasise their radical chic – but, as essayist Claire Regnault points out, black, though it was temporarily eclipsed by beige, orange, brown, turquoise and other minor colour chords in the 1970s, soon returned to the centre, where it has remained, symbolically serving to box the compass of Kiwiland. Regnault offers the following observation: ‘[Contemporary Wellington] in mid-winter … can be navigated by its different modes of blacks. Lambton Quay and The Terrace presents [sic] a sea of buttoned-up corporate black. Cuba Street … reveals blacks of revolt – jeans, leather …Doc Martens … at the City Gallery it’s expensive and arty. On Courtney Place in the wee hours, it’s all sexed up.’ For New Zealanders, then, it’s about moderating fashion’s fickle changes by adopting a utilitarian colour. But if New Zealanders can sometimes seem like so many Shakespearean Hamlets garbed in ‘inky mourning’, broody depressives, they are also capable of mocking it, even as they wear it, whether in slapdash carelessness, holey and shabby, or with sardonic flamboyance, for the sake of fashion. Nom*D fashion label, for example, craftily provide an ironic take by using possum fur, dyed black.
The wave of new fashion design that began in the late 1970s helped to promote the re-emergence of black amongst movers and shakers, beginning with Miranda Joel’s Pussyfooting boutique in Auckland which outfitted punk and post-punk bands, while Nom*D in Dunedin was to take inspiration from students, in particular the black jersey associated with Flying Nun bands. In the 1990s fashionmeisters Zambesi, Nicholas Blanchet and Karen Walker promoted what one Australian journalist at an Australian Fashion Week described as New Zealand’s ‘darker outlook … more intellectual.’ Walker, in turn, cited one inspiration as Auckland city’s rolling blackouts in the mid-Nineties caused by power shortages.
Reinventions of black as a theme in clothing collections have also been staged more recently by Natalija Kucija, Lela Jacobs, James Dobson and Shona Tawhiao – the latter combined Maori weaving with high fashion garments. The quest for the new black then is a circular one: it’s not that loud colours are not allowed, it’s more that black has been fetishised into a love affair that crowds out all other options.
Black, with its contradictions in meaning, by absenting itself from the spectrum, confirms it is as well the shyest, the most elusive of colours, evoking caves, crevasses, abysses, gaps and silences. This ‘meaning’ of monochrome accords with the Mansfield ‘woman at the store’ theme, the Mulgan ‘man alone’ theme, the Frame ‘state of siege’ theme, and the Gothic strain in New Zealand literature in general, for more on which see what could be considered the companion volume to Black, namely Gothic New Zealand: the Darker Side of Kiwi Culture, edited by Misha Kavka, Jennifer Lawn and Mary Paul, published in 2007. Together these books amount to a kind of girl guides and boy scouts jamboree of ‘black’, jubilant that whereas in some cultures black remains a saturnine, monobrowed colour associated with frowns and scowls and pirates, in New Zealand, paradoxically, it is the colour of welcome and celebration, albeit occasionally grudging.
New Zealanders by being staunch about black affirm that part of its glamour is that it’s perennial. Incorrigibly we welcome the same old black again and again: any colour, so long as it’s black. Natalie Smith and Elaine Webster in their chapter ‘Black as a Fashionable Colour’ state that black has always been indispensable to the wardrobes of New Zealand women, and illustrate this with period-era slogans, which range from ‘the poor lady’s stand-by’ (1901) to ‘Always Smart’ (1956) to ‘Black drama all dressed up and everywhere to go’ (1970s) to ‘looking right by day and night’ (1990s). Black began to emerge as a popular colour for weddings and similar festive events in the late nineteenth century, partly in response to the sheer range of garments and accessories in that shade: black fringing braid, black lace, black-dyed feathers, black jewellery, black bead embroidery on bodices, black bonnets, bolt upon bolt of black fabric.
Besides which, black conceals dirt and stains; it endorsed a do-it-yourself work ethic where sweat stains didn’t show up; in town they gadded about swaddled in black, while on the farm they stripped to that now-classic item – the black wool bush singlet. In her chapter, Stephanie Gibson describes how this cynosure of Kiwiana began as a black woollen undershirt with the sleeves ripped out, affording the freedom of arm-movement favoured by gum-diggers, wood-choppers, shearers, hunters, miners and slaughtermen, as well as cow-cockies. It was the flag of New Zealand masculinity, representing ‘hard work, rural values, sporting prowess.’
The black singlet, accessorised with black gumboots, received iconic status in the 1970s with its adoption by a gaggle of cartoonish creations: Fred Dagg, Billy T. James, Bogor and Wal of Footrot Flats. Historically, its use had been paralleled for women by the black serge gym frock, but in the 1980s feminist fashionistas turned the prosaic coal-black singlet of yore into a simple short dress, and then a later wave of designers made it glitzy, over the top, with the addition of see-through fabrics, or else bling.
Other essays in Black make more tenuous connections. Andrew Clifford considers ‘black’ as a value in music, while Helen Martin examines ‘black’ as a value in film. Both conflate the term with other equally amorphous terms, such as ‘dark’ or ‘Gothic’. In other words they begin to transpose abstractions which supposedly have ‘resonance’. Often the iteration of such connections have a pub’s ‘trivia quiz night’ ambience – one could as well go looking for the frequency of other colours appearing – and meanwhile this speculative approach invites the question of why there are not other essays here examining the colour black in other arts: painting, sculpture, literature, architecture, dance. Neil Ieremia of the Black Grace dance company, for example, has described how ‘black’ was used as an epithet at his high school to describe the bravest or most foolhardy, and Douglas Wright choreographed a show entitled Black Milk, and so on.
Local architecture’s black buildings include the former BNZ headquarters high-rise in downtown Wellington, which Ian Athfield memorably dubbed ‘Darth Vader’s pencil box.’ Noel Lane’s coastal ‘Piha House’ (1996) was inspired by Jane Campion’s movie The Piano, and Ken Crosson on the Coromandel and Gerald Parsonson on the Kapiti Coast have also designed spectacular black baches, while starchitect Thom Craig has invested black structures with mystery in Christchurch.
The use of black in contemporary sculpture abounds – think of works by Michael Parekowhai, or Peter Robinson, or Ralph Hotere or Paul Dibble – but if in such examples the link to the chimera of national identity seems shadowy at best, black is undeniably a major trope in New Zealand painting, thanks to Colin McCahon, who registered a landscape essentialism which a legion of other artists have been mining ever since his pioneering great black flags of canvas flapped up onto the wall in the 1960s. Even earlier, painting hard-out, his celebrated use of a can of black Dulux enamel on hardboard effected a breakthrough in home-grown abstraction with ‘Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is’ (1958).
In search of instances of ‘black’ in popular music, Andrew Clifford points to Chris Knox’s album cover graphics, as well as his ‘black sleeveless T-shirt’, before waving airily in the direction of ‘low-budget posters’ and offering the ‘noir’ imagery of Headless Chickens, the Gordons, the Skeptics and others. But is miserabilism in music black – or is it blue? At any rate it’s yet another chance to trot out a roll-call and see if the putative adjective ‘black’ sticks to a bandwagon of gallows-humour suspects, ranging from Shayne Carter to Don McGlashan to name-your-favourite Flying Nun group – and then there are those black-and-white harlequin suits worn by Split Enz back in the day.
Helen Martin revisits Sam Neill’s ‘Cinema of Unease’ thesis, and again the identity parade seems a little too pat, both a little too familiar and a little too forced, even as we pause to acknowledge Once Were Warriors, with Jake the Muss’s black ‘wifebeater’ singlet pulled out of the line-up for closer examination. At this point it began to occur to me that too much interrogation of the concept of black could lead to pretentions of the kind signalled by one fashion designer’s quoted statement that black had ‘a heavy, ominous, slightly restrained kind of feel’. Perhaps that’s the feeling of exploitation.
It is left to Ron Palenski to return us to tried and true dour Kiwi understatement as he explores the origin of the label ‘All Blacks’ and looks at the use of the colour black in sports uniforms and in sports marketing. Black was originally the colour of the Wellington provincial team, and was adopted as the colour worn by the national side in the 1890s. The term ‘the All Blacks’ was popularised by the UK’s Daily Mail when the 1905 team, officially known as the Originals, toured Great Britain. The name All Blacks was trademarked in 1906.
Now the adjective Blacktastic! signals the triumph of the concept: a knee-jerk enthusiasm driven by such marketing events as the 1990s Blackout campaign around the Bedisloe Cup competition against the Wallabies. Brand Black, it is said, appeals to the democratic, the egalitarian; and so we have the Black Caps, the Wheel Blacks, the Tall Blacks, the Black Sticks, the Ice Blacks, the Black Sox and Black Magic – the black-hulled yacht in the America’s Cup, while even the Silver Ferns wear black.
Following a black thread almost jingoistically, Blackplays down the way other cultures also use black as a motif: there’s American Gothic, Australian Gothic, Canadian Gothic and Swedish Gothic for example, as well as regional variations of noir. Spain is another country which claims black as a national colour, while black is, or has been, a dominant colour in some Mediterranean regions as well as parts of the Middle East. New Zealand fashion designers who use black, as well as borrowing from fascism and fetishism, have also learnt from the constructionist ensembles of the post-atomic, nuclear-winter Japanese fashion designers who emerged in the early 1980s.
The colour black itself remains un-owned. Non-fleeting, it has an accumulative power, depending on context. It can be associated with dubious preachers and dodgy car salespeople. As a graphic element it is simple, sharp, well-defined: at once ostentatious and self-effacing. Worn by wait-staff as well as world leaders, it offers both a cloak of invisibility and a psychological security blanket, setting up a don’t-touch-me barrier. Is there any colour more aggressive, more bossy, more dominant than black; and yet is there any colour more redolent of loss, of what is no longer there? For now it accords with the Zeitgeist; but watch this space. Fade to black.
DAVID EGGLETON is the Editor of Landfall and Landfall Review Online.