Black Won’t Always Be In Style
Valerie Steele (Ph.D., Yale University) is Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). She has curated more than 20 exhibitions in the past ten years, including Love & War: The Weaponized Woman; The Corset: Fashioning the Body; London Fashion (which won the first Richard Martin Award for best costume exhibition from The Costume Society of America); Femme Fatale: Fashion in Fin-de-Siècle Paris; China Chic: East Meets West; and Form Follows Fashion.Editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture (Berg Publishers), which she founded in 1997, Dr. Steele is also the author of numerous books, including The Black Dress (Harper Collins, 2007), Ralph Rucci (Yale University Press, 2006); The Corset: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 2001); Paris Fashion (Oxford University, 1988; revised edition, Berg Publishers, 1999); Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now (Yale University Press, 1997; Paris; Adam Biro, 1998); Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power (Oxford University Press, 1996); and Women of Fashion: 20th-Century Designers (Rizzoli, 1991).
She was editor-in-chief of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion (Scribners, 2005.)Her latest book and publication are both titled Gothic: Dark Glamour (Yale University Press in conjunction with FIT, 2008).
Dr. Steele lectures frequently and has appeared on many television programs, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and Undressed: The Story of Fashion. After she appeared on the PBS special, The Way We Wear, she was described in The Washington Post as one of “fashion’s brainiest women.” Often quoted in media, she was herself the subject of a profile in Forbes (1992): “Fashion Professor,” and in The New York Times (1999): “High-Heeled Historian.”
Question: Will black ever go out of style?
Valerie Steele: Black’s an interesting color because we think of it as having once been the mourning color, and then later on become sort of the fashion color. But in fact, for centuries there’s been a good black and a bad black. And black has been about mourning and also evil, death, night, etc. But there’s also been a sense that black was an elegant color. Black dye was traditionally very expensive, so aristocrats wore black, and it was ascetic, nuns wore black, but also it was sexy. Prostitutes wore black stockings.
In the 20’s you had the little black dress and it sort of had a chic, as a real reaction to the bright colors that had been in fashion a few years before. Then it went out again. In the 50’s, black was very much a fashion color the designers like Dior and Balenciaga liked because it drew your attention to the lines of the dress. There were no distractions from color or pattern; you were focusing on the silhouette of the dress. And then it went out again for decades. And then the Japanese helped bring in a new kind of sort of avant-garde black, which picks up on all of those things, the charismatic, black of the elegant, and also beatnik black, and the black leather jacket, that kind of charisma of evil that was associated with black. Because not just princes and priests but also executioners wore black. It has layers of meaning. And I think that makes it very useful as a fashion color because you can tilt toward the elegant side, or the diabolical side, the devil’s the prince of darkness, but the dandy’s the black prince of elegance. I think it’s not accidental Chanel made black so central because she was really the first female dandy. So, certainly, everybody loves color, but color comes and goes, but black keeps coming back with all these myriad meanings.
Recorded on September 24, 2009
From prostitutes to nuns, it’s a color with layers of meaning, says fashion historian Valerie Steele. That doesn’t mean it’s here to stay—for now.
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