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.’