Golden Globes Blackout: A Short History of Fashion's Charged Relationship With the Color Black

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"Black is probably the most multifaceted color of any other color in fashion," says Valerie Steele, curator and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the author of 'The Black Dress.'

If all goes according to plan, the brightest color we're likely to see on the Golden Globes' red carpet this Sunday will be the carpet itself.

As a silent protest against Hollywood's boy's club culture that allowed decades of sexual harassment and misconduct to go unacknowledged and unpunished in the industry, many women (and some men) have chosen to wear black to the ceremony. They will also affix their gowns and suits with a Time's Up pin to show support for the just-launched organization, which provides legal aid to women across industries struggling with harassment in the workplace.

 

But why black? 

“This is a moment of solidarity, not a fashion moment,” Eva Longoria told The New York Times of Time's Up dress-code request.

That being said, one can't help but think of the color's long and complicated history with fashion — one that is charged with meaning, whether the actresses care to acknowledge it or not.

In fashion, the color black is loaded with contradictions. It is at once mournful and powerful — both modest and opulent. Black is the banner color of beatniks in their pretentious inky turtlenecks, of the punks in their well-worn coal-colored leather jackets, of royals in their ebony tuxedos and priests in their modest noir robes. It can be warm and safe, or cool and aloof.

"Black is probably the most multifaceted color of any other color in fashion," Valerie Steele, curator and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and author of The Black Dress, tells The Hollywood Reporter. Over centuries, adds Steele, the color evolved from one typically associated with mourning to one worn by aristocrats wishing to showcase the expensive color (materials to create a true black dye were pricier, and the process was also more labor-intensive) — and demonstrate their power. By the 18th and 19th centuries, it was once again the color of paupers, worn by governesses and workers because it didn't show dirt. All of these various meanings and more, ranging from morbid to violent to elegant, find ways to resonate in the present.

"People say Coco Chanel 'invented' the little black dress, but that's not true," says Steele of the more modern iterations of black in fashion. "Little black dresses were common in the early part of the 20th century because of WWI — so many people were in mourning, and black was ubiquitous," she notes. "But even if you were mourning, you were wearing fashionable frocks."

One can imagine that there is an element of grief layered within the actresses' decision to wear black — a nod to the suffering of women who were victimized at the hands of the Hollywood machine that did nothing to protect them from powerful predators. Although a well-placed Hollywood stylist said earlier this week that the display "is not a funeral."

Sex appeal, however, is not to be overlooked. Steele recalls the seductively body-hugging dresses by Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana that flourished in the '70s and '80s, all done in black. Ask any modern feminist, and they will tell you that a significant component of the movement is ownership of one's sexuality, and what better way to take charge than to put your sexuality on display on your own terms?

Of course, there is also a component of rebellion. Countercultures throughout the decades have flocked to the color: beatniks, punks, goths, emos — all had a chosen uniform of black, as it represented both power and the "charisma of evil," as Steele puts it, and instilled fear with its mystery. Plus, it looked cool.

Political protesters, too, have often opted for black. The Black Panthers chose black as the color of their uniforms during the Civil Rights era of the '60s, wearing black berets as a foil to the military's army green ones. More recently, the color has been adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement, whose members carry out their protests in black attire. Black tees and hats are a canvas for stark white letters spelling out slogans like "I can't breathe," the last words of Eric Garner, the unarmed black man who died in 2014 after being put in a chokehold by police.

An all-black sartorial protest is also easier to coordinate among large groups. Though Rei Kawakubo has famously stated that she works "in three shades of black," coordinating the hue is much easier than, say, the multitude of hues that come to mind when one thinks of red or green or blue. "It says 'we are unified,' " adds Steele.

"I think [the actresses] are trying to hit several different meanings — mourning because bad things are happening and have happened to women, but there's also the powerful, punk aspect that says 'We’re going to fight back,' " she adds.

“For years, we’ve sold these awards shows as women, with our gowns and colors and our beautiful faces and our glamour,” said Longoria in the Times piece. “This time the industry can’t expect us to go up and twirl around. That’s not what this moment is about.”