Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Reflections of Gotham: Why Do New Yorkers Wear So Much Black?

This week AiP investigates our relationship with fashion. On Monday, we probed the appeal of high-heels. Today, we’ll discuss a particular color trend in New York City. And on Friday, we’ll explore the psychology behind brands. 

New Yorkers wear a lot of black clothing. Or at least they appear to. During the colder months, jackets tend toward the darker spectrum, with black, brown, and navy leading the way and an occasional lady in red thrown into the mix (who serves to remind us that we’re really in the Matrix). Like tulips, lighter colors do attempt to break through as the weather warms up, but the general fashion trend continues to maintain the more “serious” colors. Perhaps this is a reflection of the business-like nature of the city, where power suits can easily move from the boardroom to a baseball game. But the monochromatic perception that New York City projects runs counter to the life and vibrancy that are inherent to the city. Times Square is awash in color. There are still spaces where graffiti enlivens neighborhoods. And can we really overlook the blooms of Fashion Week? And we have not even mentioned the colors and textures and tastes that our senses are steeped in at any of the restaurants, plays, or museums that make New York City their home. So there is color in New York City, but it seems masked. What is the basis behind this tendency to don darker clothing—or at least outerwear? Why is it that in New York City, despite whatever the color trend for the season may be, black is always the “new” black?

Awash in Color

History links wealth and power with some of the more dynamic examples of pigments: purple has long been tied to royalty, and its limited distribution saw the rise of brilliant violets, yellows, and greens among the aristocracy and nobles. But cloth does not spring from the loom so vibrantly hued:
To obtain a small vial of saffron, for example, it was necessary to collect stamens from hundreds of crocus plants. The royal purple of Byzantium and ancient Rome was made in vats in which the adrectal glands of thousands upon thousands of small whelk-like mollusks, the Murex or Purpura shellfish, decomposed and putrified, secreting a yellowish and foul-smelling liquid that, when exposed to the sun, yielded tones that ranged from rose to dark violet. Kermes, famous for giving clear bright reds on wool and silk, were none other than the little globules of a pregnant female insect’s secretion, which women collected from the leaves of evergreen oaks and shrubs. Each globule contained worm larvae, hence “vermillion” (1).
An example of a murex snail.
It wasn’t enough to have access to dye materials, you also needed a skilled labor force: chemists who understood the process of fixing and shading color. This craft likely originated in India around 2,000 BC, and spread throughout Old World, specifically Asia and the Mediterranean, where access to alum, an early mordant, was readily available. But this localization was two-fold: Dyers obviously wanted to be close to raw materials of their trade, but they were also favored by the towns and cities that had established dyeworks. The result was that the distribution of the labor force for this trade paralleled the distribution of quality dyes, and the trade routes along which they moved. For example, indigo, murex purple, saffron, kermes, and brazilwood—dyes known for their beauty and durability—were tropical or oriental, derived from materials that could not thrive in typical European climates (2). And in cities or regions where dyeworks of this caliber could be established, the craftsmen enjoyed privileges and exemptions—though they were also carefully monitored as they had the ability to intentionally produce low-quality goods if so inclined.

The silk trade route (red) and spice trade
route (blue) parallel the routes along which
dyes were traded. (Source: Wikipedia)
Thus, while a rich trade in dyes developed in Asia and the Middle East, Europe was largely a bystander. Oh, there were dyes, but they lacked the resiliency and the brilliance of those found along the silk and spice routes: woad (for blue) and madder (for red) were derived from plants, to say nothing of the cloth itself (wool), which, though fine, was far from the sumptuous silks available in the Orient. This begins to shift in the Middle Ages when two Christian Monks smuggled silkworms into Constantinople, adding a rich element to the already booming Byzantine trade within Mediterranean Europe—that already included fine woolens and linen embroidered with gold and silver thread. So Constantinople became the pinnacle of polychromatic displays in the Mediterranean, supplying princes, prelates, noblemen and merchants with the clothing necessary to establish their status. Unfortunately, this didn’t extend into Northern Europe: removed from the trade routes and rich natural dye resources, this region produced the necessities, rather than the luxuries of life (3).

What did Northern Europe have? Wool. England in particular was known for a competitive wool industry in the 14th-century. This becomes an important point as the Flemish, who were strategically placed between French, German, and British civilizations, became key exporters of English wool, which they wove into gray or “blank” cloths that was then sold at a profit to Italian craftsmen who dyed and refinished the cloth for sale.

The Rise of Black

Black has long been regarded as a color of mourning. But this designation overlooks that black has been a color of royalty, the church, and the common population:
Even though the use of black and the practice of Christianity coincided to a large extent, there was considerable variation in the social conditions of those who wore black. They were men and women, rich and poor, Protestants and Catholics. Perhaps the greatest contrast was between deeply ascetic and egalitarian critics of the established order, committed to a life of apostolic poverty, and kings or dukes and their courtiers, for whom black dress came in satins and velvets, lined with fur and embroidered with jewels or gold and silver thread (4).
Certainly, Medieval Christians helped shape perceptions associated with black clothing: they turned away from the royalty of purple and likened the color to death and melancholy, red they associated with the devil, and yellow with sickness. Black became a monastic color. And monks helped drive trade in this color as their robes were fashioned from this deep hue, and they also began the practice of giving away their worn garments to the poor (they received new ones every year or so), further spreading clothing of this color.

But there are also economic factors and nationalistic tendencies to consider. As we’ve discussed above, polychromatic tones were difficult to come by and even more difficult to fake, so if you weren’t regionally disposed to resources that would add brilliant tones to your industry of finery, you were essentially stuck. Black cloth, on the other hand, was relatively easy to produce (the dye was a mix of tannin and iron), and of a higher quality than dyed cloth in this region. Unable to sell dyed merchandise, Northern Europe turned its attention the exportation of black cloth, and encouraged citizens within its territories to turn away from colored finery in support of local economies.

These efforts were reinforced following the fall of Constantinople in the 15th-century. Brightly colored cloths came to heavily represent the East and Europe sought to stop the advance of the Ottoman culture in part by closing the door on the colors that they had given the world. The 15th- and 16th-centuries also saw a movement away from the lavish decoration. This curtailed the use of colored cloth not because of their association with wealth, but because the dyes themselves were so precious and implied indulgence (5).

Darkness in Gotham

Wall Street, 1866. Credit: NYPL
Digital Archives, 809982
Clothing has a dualist nature: it at once touches the body and faces outward, representing individual and collective identities that are not always in sync (6.) New York City began life as a diverse Dutch colony, but grew up under a strong English influence. Clothing would have been imported England until about the 18th-century, and this trade emphasized darker hues. As this industry developed in New York City and the other colonies, craftsmen likely faced the same challenges: access to dyes would have been costly and trade with other powers would have been highly regulated. And we can’t overlook the function of darker clothing in the early days of the colony when life was generally a dirty affair—unpaved streets, shared quarters with livestock, the construction of the city itself, would have made favorable conditions for clothing that hid the day’s ventures.

New York City is a cosmopolitan center. The black coats and dark clothing worn by natives today may also help foster a sense of community and belonging similar to that promoted by European powers seeking to stop the advancement of the East. A remnant from our colonial ancestry and historical development, darker clothing serves to bind New Yorkers together. But it might also enhance our sense of individuality while preserving the personality of the city, which is one of function and flow. That is to say, rather than dark colors being viewed as modes of conformity, they may actually present definitions to the person that can blend with others in larger group settings, as compared to a cacophony of color. This image, one of a mosaic of complementary though individual colors, seems to move more easily in sync with one another, and in tight quarters such as the subway, the sidewalk, or the elevator, these colors let New Yorkers come together and separate easily.

Why do New Yorkers seem to wear black more frequently than other colors? It may simply be a matter of perception: there are so many of us that the repetition of a particular color can seem to dominate the landscape. Or it may be that black—far from a desolate and dispassionate color—links us back to a history that lingers in the personality and culture of the city overall. A color of power and community, black is always in.

Photo by Film Bros from Pexels

Hansen, K. (2004). The World in Dress: Anthropological Perspectives on Clothing, Fashion, and Culture Annual Review of Anthropology, 33 (1), 369-392 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143805

Schneider, J. (1978). Peacocks and Penguins: The Political Economy of European Cloth and Colors. American Ethnologist, 5 (3), 413-447 DOI: 10.1525/ae.1978.5.3.02a00010

1. Schneider, Jane (1978). Peacocks and Penguins: The Political Economy of European Cloth and Colors: 419. | 2. Schneider 1978: 420 | 3. Schneider 1978: 421 | 4. Schneider 1978: 414 | 5. Schneider 1978: 432 | 6. Hansen, Karen Tranberg (2004). The World in Dress: Anthropological Perspectives on Clothing, Fashion, and Culture: 372.


  1. Nice bit of history. I've had this conversation with others, and one theory stuck out. Theater workers traditionally wear all black so they aren't seen by the audience, and during the 1950's, the Beatnicks and artists crossed paths with them, hanging out in the same bars and nightclubs. The artists and other thought the black attire was cool, so they adopted it, and it came to be associated with artsy, creative, fashionable types.

  2. Black doesn't show dirt. The subway is dirty and the many automobiles emit a lot of sooty, oily bits. When I live in the city, I was always amazed at the soot and grime that piled up on & around the windows.

    Great history of color and dyes, but I think the NYC reason is heavily functional.

  3. Interesting post. My preferred theory at the moment is ethnicity. New Yorkers often have Jewish, Italian, African, and Latino ancestry. With dark features, they look good in black clothing. On the West Coast, features are more often blond and blonds look bad in black.

    You see this same divide in Canada. Toronto has many more of the darker featured ethnicities and black is the dominant colour. Out West, there are more fair-featured people and the colour palette is brighter.

  4. Great post.

    I agree with the commenters and have a couple of additional points.

    One is that black doesn't work in a place like San Diego, where it is sunny a great deal of the time, because it pulls in and retains heat.

    The other is that I wear black a lot because it makes my nondescript wardrobe look a little bit classier. I tend toward jeans and t shirts. Blue jeans and, say, a red t shirt = casual. Black jeans and a black t shirt, not as much.

  5. These are all great ideas—and I love that you're sharing personal reasons for adopting black.

    My reading of the literature and my own personal experience suggests that persons of Italian, African, and Latin backgrounds come from cultures where colors are celebrated and woven into the patterns of clothing. Italians especially, as they were a part of the rich trade in dye and cloth that occurred in history. So I'm not so sure that I necessarily buy the ethnicity theory. On the 7 train here in New York City, it's not uncommon to see East Indian women in brightly colored saris and shalwars.

    Wendy, I'm intrigued by your comment on climate. To a certain degree, I do think our clothing reflects our environment, and you make a valid point about the reflectivity of certain colors.

  6. I'm not an anthropologist (though I'd like to be), but I am a New Yorker. I really believe we wear a lot of black almost purely for practical reasons.

    As Anonymous pointed out, NYC is dirty, very dirty. And the majority of us are not navigating it in cars; we are taking the sidewalks and public transportation and occupying very heavily trafficked spaces. Dirty.

    Most of us have small apartments without washers/dryers/elevators. We have to heft our laundry onto our backs and take it to laundromats which are often none too clean themselves. So we probably don't do laundry as often as the rest of America. So we need clothes that hide the dirt. And if all your clothes are black, you can wash them all in one load.

    As Wendy Caster said, black is classy. This is a town where fashion matters a bit more than in most places. If money's an issue (and with the rent around here, it's an issue)dark cheap clothes look less cheap than bright cheap clothes, and dark expensive clothes will last longer, show less wear-and-tear, get you more for your money.

    Black goes with everything and it goes everywhere. You can wear the same top and skirt to a funeral in the morning, school at noon, job in the afternoon, opera at the Met in the evening, and a bar/party at night. Then, because black is subtle, you can wear the exact same outfit the next day, and unless people are paying close attention to your outfits (which they are too self-absorbed to do), they will never realize you stayed out all night and didn't go home.

    In addition to all that, many of us are orthodox Jews. Even more of us are waiters. Some of us are Goths. And a couple of us are S&M enthusiasts.

    So that's why we wear black all the time, really.

  7. someone said "blonds look bad in black" -- but actually people with blond hair look fabulous in black.

  8. I keep meaning to come back and add something insightful and interesting here; it's a wonderful topic!

    But, since I don't have time I'll just share two tidbits of information.

    First, I am one of the more brightly-clad members of my social circle. It's not that I dress like a parrot or anything, but I don't wear black much. Some wear black for religious reasons, some wear it for community - many are "goths" - and some for the simple practicality that you can dye *anything* black. It's odd, because this represents a generally younger crowd; I've not seen anyone over 40 with such a monochromatic wardrobe.

    Second, I have a friend who is studying in Japan for a year. One of her first tasks was to order her scholarship kimono (apparently a formal kimono for certain occasions). In her own words "I chose a blue fabric, which one of my doukyuusei insists is more appropriate for older women; my understanding is that colors like pink, orange, and yellow are particularly appropriate for younger women while colors like green, blue, and gray are more appropriate for older women." No mention of black, but perhaps there is an association between darker colors and maturity?

  9. You forget that New York has a strong Protestant history lending to dark, drab modest clothing.

  10. Good coin laundries run on change machines.Toronto laundromats If a customer cannot get change, they are going somewhere else

  11. Let us blend in black..let our City do the it always does.

  12. Let the people blend in black..let our City do the it always does.