Men in Black

Overview

Mr. Pink:
"Why can't we pick out our own color?"

Joe:
"I tried that once, it don't work. You get four guys fighting over who's gonna be Mr. Black."

—Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs

Men's clothes went black in the nineteenth century. Dickens, Ruskin and Baudelaire all asked why it was, in an age of supreme wealth and power, that men wanted ...

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Overview

Mr. Pink:
"Why can't we pick out our own color?"

Joe:
"I tried that once, it don't work. You get four guys fighting over who's gonna be Mr. Black."

—Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs

Men's clothes went black in the nineteenth century. Dickens, Ruskin and Baudelaire all asked why it was, in an age of supreme wealth and power, that men wanted to dress as if going to a funeral. The answer is in this history of the color black. Over the last 1000 years there have been successive expansions in the wearing of black—from the Church to the Court, from the Court to the merchant class. Though black as fashion was often smart and elegant, its growth as a cultural marker was fed by several currents in Europe's history—in politics, asceticism, religious warfare. Only in the nineteenth century, however, did black fully come into its own as fashion, the most telling witnesses constantly saw connections between the taste for black and the forms of constraint with which European society regimented itself.

Concentrating on the general shift away from color that began around 1800, Harvey traces the transition to black from the court of Burgundy in the 15th century, through 16th-century Venice, 17th-century Spain and the Netherlands. He uses paintings from Van Eyck and Degas to Francis Bacon, religious art, period lithographs, wood engravings, costume books, newsphotos, movie stills and related sources in his compelling study of the meaning of color and clothes.

Although in the twentieth century tastes have moved toward new colors, black has retained its authority as well as its associations with strength and cruelty. At the same time black is still smart, and fashion keeps returning to black. It is, perhaps, the color that has come to acquire the greatest, most significant range of meaning in history.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this thoughtful, scholarly work, Harvey (English, Cambridge) explores the use of the color black in menswear in Western Europe during the last 500 years. By numerous quotations and illustrations from historical and literary sources, he proves his thesis that black, ostensibly a symbol of piety, humility, or sorrow, was actually a form of "power dressing." From early clergy, Renaissance kings, and aristocracy through the 19th-century middle class, when it seemed that all men wore it, black connoted financial, social, or political success. As women gained power of their own in this century, so did they, too, adopt "basic black" for more than just mourning. Harvey examines the place of black in today's multihued culture. Arguably the best contribution to the growing body of literature on the meaning of clothes and colors (joining the works of Anne Hollander, Fred Davis, et al.), this title is highly recommended for academic and specialized collections.-Therese D. Baker, Western Kentucky Univ. Libs., Bowling Green
Booknews
Everything you always wanted to know about the black suit, and the men who wear them. Harvey (English, U. of Cambridge) integrates the histories of fashion, culture, and art with the rise and fall of the color black among the Spanish aristocrats, through the 19th century, as worn by Mussolini's minion, and to the present day's leather jacketed "punks." Richly illustrated (black and white, of course) by photographs and reproductions of the artists of each period, the color black is given a thorough historical treatment. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Donna Seaman
Men began wearing black for all occasions during the early part of the nineteenth century. Harvey, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, analyzes this somber color preference from several intriguing perspectives. He conducts a deft but detailed survey of the wearing of black in Europe over the centuries, noting that black has long been the color of mourning and that its use was further restricted by the difficulty and expense of the manufacture of black cloth. Once the Industrial Revolution got under way, black cloth became readily available and very popular. Many writers of the day, especially Dickens and Baudelaire, reflected on the implications of this funereal trend, a theme Harvey explores in extended chapters of literary analysis. He also discusses the work of such painters as Manet, Tissot, and Sargent and their interpretation of the power of black clothing: its authority, elegance, sexuality, melancholy, and romance and how it worked in sharp contrast to women's airy white attire. As Harvey's history progresses, he tracks the emergence of black in women's fashion and discusses religious and military garb as well as the twentieth-century black-leather mystique. A touch academic but the subject is irresistible.
Salon
Colors talk. And black, writes Cambridge academic John Harvey in his new history of sartorial darkness, says, "Don't see me, and see me." What else? "I am death and freedom beyond man and woman. I am what is not. I am no self and sheer self. I am undivided power." I am hip, Harvey might have added, but that may be covered by the previous statements.

Prior to the 19th century, men dressed in a splendid array of colors. Even a poor man could afford a brown or green outfit topped with a red or blue hat. But in the 1820s everyone began going black. First the dress coat, then the trousers, the cravat and finally the waistcoat. Black as Newcastle coal. Baudelaire, Dickens, and Balzac all wondered why the men of their prosperous age chose to appear around town in mourning clothes.

It was no coincidence that black became the vogue at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Prosperous industrialists from northern England were some of the first men seen about London in dark duds. These thrifty, sober men got rich, moved to town, and brought their severely Calvinist taste in clothes with them.

What the 19th century Scrooges didn't count on was black's beauty and sexual attractiveness. Black hints at death, darkness, danger, the unknown, the nocturnal world. It brings together three volatile gods: Eros, Thanatos, and Kratos (sex, death, and power). You don't have to be Robert Mapplethorpe to recognize the attraction of black leather.

Harvey is terrific on the history of black garments, quoting sources from Castiglione to Courbet. (My favorite tidbit: 12th-century Cistercian monks wore white, Benedictines black, and each ridiculed the other.) But Harvey's take on the contemporary meanings of black is disappointingly slim. If black shirts were used by fascists in the 1930s to connote deadly power, one suspects they have an entirely different meaning today, something having more to do with the rejection of mainstream consumerist society -- a defiance available for $16.99 at your local Gap. --Bruce Barcott

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226318790
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/1995
  • Series: Morality and Society Ser.
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.38 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

John Harvey is a novelist and critic. He has taught for the University of Cambridge English Faculty since 1974 and in 2000 became University Reader in Literature and Visual Culture. He is a Life Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Clothes, Colour and Meaning
1: Whose Funeral?
2: Black in History
3: From Black in Spain to Black in Shakespeare
4: From Black in Art to Dickens's Black
5: England's Dark House
6: Men in Black with Women in White
7: Black in our Time
References
Photographic Acknowledgements
Index

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