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I'll Stop Wearing Black When - A Short History of the Non-Color Black



I’ll stop wearing black when they invent a darker color - Wednesday Addams



Writing about the history of black is probably a bit strange here in the middle of spring with flowers blooming up a storm in all sorts of beautifully varied and cheerful colors.  But just like Wednesday Addams of the Addams Family fame, black has always been a color (or non-color as it turns out) that I enjoy wearing.  Black has a very long and rich history, something I found most fascinating.  I kept reading and reading and reading some more:  interesting information and tidbits about black, both the elegant side and the more “evil” connotations.  So, I decided to share some of the information.  And also highlight unique handmade items from artist friends that feature black prominently in the design.  Other photos of interest about black are also scattered in.  All photos are linked.




Vantablack is made of carbon nanotubes and is the blackest substance known, absorbing a maximum of 99.965% of radiation in the visible spectrum.  Photo courtesy of Surrey NanoSystems




In the visible spectrum, black is the darkest “color”, an actual absence of color since no visible light reaches the eye.  It is the opposite of white where all colors are reflected back to the eye.  It is achromatic, literally a color without a hue, a “non-color”.  It is one of the four colors, along with cyan, magenta and yellow, used in color printing to produce all other colors.  According to surveys in Europe and North America, it is the color most commonly associated with death, mourning, the underworld and evil.  On the opposite extreme, black also represents elegance, formality, authority and power.  




Etched Black Lampwork Glass Beads with Fine Silver Handmade by Charlotte of Covergirlbeads 




The modern word for black was originally drawn from the Proto-Indo-European word bleg  (burn).  Old High German (spoken from around 750 to about 1050) had two words for black: swartz for dull black and blach for a luminous black.  Middle English (from about 1150 to around 1450) also developed two words for black based on the German: swart for dull black and blaek for rich, shiny black. Swart still survives as the word swarthy, while blaek became the modern English black. 




Crocheted Infant Girl's Black Bolero Sweater with White Lace Collar and Cuffs and Matching Headband Handmade by Pamela of MagdaleneKnits




Black was one of the first colors used by artists in cave paintings.  The famous Lascaux Cave in France contains drawings of bulls, horses, red deer, stags, other animals and mythical creatures drawn by Upper Paleolithic artists between approximately 15,000 and 17,300 years ago. They began by using charcoal, but then made more vivid black pigments by burning bones or grinding a powder of manganese oxide.



"Great Black Bull" - Upper Paleolithic painting of a bull or auroch using manganese black in the Lascaux Cave, estimated about 17,000 years old; photo by N. Aujoulat



Black had a very positive association for ancient Egyptians since it was the color of the rich black soil caused by the flooding of the Nile River.  It also was the color of Anubis, the god of the underworld who was often portrayed as a black jackal.  He was bleived to offer protection against evil to the dead.




Statue of Anubis, guardian of the underworld, from the tomb of Tutankhamun; photo courtesy of Jon Bodsworth




For the Ancient Greeks, black was also the color of the underworld, separated from the world of the living by the black waters of the river Acheron.  Those who had committed the worst sins were sent to Tartarus, the deepest and darkest level. In the center was the palace of Hades, the king of the underworld, who sat on a black ebony throne.




Klimt-style Black and White Necklace and Earrings Jewelry Set Handmade by Julie and Harry of Blue Morning Expressions




In ancient Rome, purple was the color reserved for the Emperor; red was the color worn by soldiers; white the color of priests; and, black was worn by craftsmen and artists.  Since the vegetable dyes used to create black were not long lasting, most blacks faded out to gray after a short while.  


Black was also the Roman color of death and mourning.  In the 2nd century BC, Roman magistrates began to wear a dark toga, called a toga pulla, to funeral ceremonies. Later, the family of the deceased also wore dark colors for a long period of time.  After a banquet to mark the end of mourning, a white toga was exchanged for the black.  Ater is the Latin word for black and is associated with darkness.  Because of this, the devil in most Medieval art is painted black. 




Black Daisy Applique with Yellow Vintage Rose Center Handmade by Jacki of Christie Cottage




The Germanic and Scandinavian peoples worshiped their own goddess of the night, Nott, who crossed the sky in a chariot drawn by a black horse. They also feared the goddess of the kingdom of the dead, Hel, whose skin was black on one side and red on the other. Crows were held sacred since it was believed that Odin, the king of the Nordic pantheon, had two black crows, Huginn and Muninn, who traveled the world for him, watching and listening.




Nótt rides her horse in this 19th-century painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo.




"Free Spirit" Cracker Horse at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Florida, Black and White Photo by Joanne Carey of Joanne Carey




In the early Middle Ages (app. 500-1500 AD), noblemen and the wealthy usually wore bright colors, particularly scarlet cloaks from Venice and peacock blue fabrics from Florence.  In the 14th century that began to change when high-quality black dyes began to arrive on the market.  Magistrates and government officials began to wear black robes, as a sign of the importance and seriousness of their positions. The passage of sumptuary laws in some parts of Europe prohibited the wearing of certain colors by anyone except members of the nobility.  Wealthy bankers and merchants of northern Italy responded by changing to black robes and gowns, made with the most expensive fabrics.  Then the kings and nobility began to take note and dress in sumptuous black fabrics.  By the 16th century, black was a color worn by almost all the European monarchs and their courts.




Portrait of Charles V at the Age of Fifty Years by Francesco Terzio, 1550. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.




Black and White Original Watercolor Painting Pendant and Earrings Set Handmade by Roxanne of watercolorsNmore




The invention of new, inexpensive synthetic black dyes and the industrialization of the textile industry meant that good-quality black clothes were available for the first time to the general population. In the 19th century black gradually became the most popular color for men’s business suits in the upper and middle classes in England, Continental Europe and the United States.  However, black gradually gave way to navy blue.  In general, black evening dress and formal dress were worn less and less often by the mid-1950s.  In 1960, John F. Kennedy was the last American President to be inaugurated wearing formal dress.  Lyndon Johnson and all his successors were inaugurated wearing business suits.




Personalized Magic Show Favor Tags with Boy Magician Handmade by Natalie of adorebynat




Women's fashion was revolutionized and simplified in 1926 by the French designer Coco Chanel, who published a drawing of a simple black dress in Vogue magazine. She famously said, "A woman needs just three things; a black dress, a black sweater, and, on her arm, a man she loves." Other designers quickly contributed to the trend of the little black dress (LBD).  One of the most famous black dresses of the century was designed by Givenchy and was worn by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  




Audrey Hepburn wearing the famous little black dress designed by Givenchy in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"




Vintage Black Crystal and Vintage White Opal Glass Teardrop Earrings Handmade by Linda of Victorian Style Treasures 




In the 1950s, black came to be a symbol of individuality and was associated with intellectual and social rebellion, the color of those who didn't accept established norms and values. In Paris, it was worn by Left Bank intellectuals and performers and by many members of the Beat Movement in New York and San Francisco.  Black leather jackets were worn by motorcycle gangs, such as the Hells Angels, and street gangs on the fringes of society in the United States. Black as a color of rebellion was celebrated in such films as The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando.  By the end of the 20th century, black was the color of the punk and goth subcultures.  Goth fashion, which emerged in the 1980s in England, was inspired by Victorian era mourning dress popularized by Queen Victoria after the death of her beloved Albert.




Adjustable Black Onyx / Sardonyx Puffed Coin Gemstone Charm Bracelet Handmade by Connie of Thesingingbeader




Of course, the history of black isn’t complete without delving a bit into its “dark side.”  In the United States and Europe, black is usually worn to funerals and memorial services. In some traditional societies such as in Greece and Italy, widows may wear black for the rest of their lives.  In contrast, across much of Africa and parts of Asia, like Vietnam, white is a color of mourning and is worn during funerals. 


In the second half of the 17th century, Europe and America experienced an epidemic of “witchcraft.”  People widely believed the devil appeared at midnight in a ceremony called a black mass, usually in the form of a black animal, accompanied by his familiars, black cats, serpents and other black creatures. This is the origin of the widespread superstition about black cats and other black animals.  Witch trials were common in both Europe and America during this period. Conducted by the Puritans (who mainly wore black), many perople were accused of having familiars in the form of black dogs, black cats and a black bird during the notorious Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in 1692–93.  Nineteen women and men were hanged as witches, one man was pressed to death, while another 150 men, women and children (one only 4-5 years of age!) were accused.  In 1992, at the 300th anniversary of the trials, a park was dedicated in Salem to commemorate the victims of the trials.




"Jazzy Triangles" Swirls on Black Dichroic Fused Glass Dangle Earrings by Jo of Umeboshi




In western popular culture, black has long been associated with evil and darkness.  It is the traditional color of witchcraft and black magic.  Vampires of classic literature and more modern movies dressed in black and could only move about at night.  The Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz became the embodiment of the typical witch for generations of children to come.  In more modern times, Darth Vader of Star Wars fame, dressed in flowing black, was the epitome of evil.




Darth Vader, courtesy of StarWars.com




Black has been co-opted for use by several very evil people in modern history.  Benito Mussolini organized the Fascist Blackshirts as a military tool for his politics, using violence and intimidation against his opponents.  Black was also adopted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany.  The black swastika symbolized the Aryan race, which, according to the Nazis, "was always anti-Semitic and will always be anti-Semitic."  Black became the color of the uniform of the SS, the Schutzstaffel, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, worn by SS officers from 1932 until the end of World War II.  The Nazis also used a black triangle to symbolize anti-social elements:  the mentally disabled, mentally ill, homeless, alcoholics, the Romani, prostitutes, draft dodgers and pacifists, most of which, along with Jewish people, were shipped off to concentration camps to their deaths.  The Black Standard (“banner of the eagle”), a historical flag flown by Muhammad in Islamic tradition, is now used by the more radical Islamism and Jihadism factions.



Black Onyx Leaf Pendant Necklace w/ Black Onyx Rounds and Copper Handmade by Suzanne of RivendellRocksSedona 




I could go on and on about the non-color black with everything I found.  But I’ll leave all this here, just barely scratching the surface of its history.   If you are interested in learning a bit more, check out this interesting post by Google Arts and Culture:  The Secret History of Black 




Sleipnir Viking Horse Scrimshaw-inspired Pendant Necklace with Black Onyx Handmade by Catherine and Seamus of Shadow Dog Designs



I hope you enjoyed the I'll Stop Wearing Black When . . .  blog post and will visit the shops of the artists featured here. If you would like to make my day and the day of the artists highlighted, please leave a comment.  And any promotion you can do will be greatly appreciated.  Thanks!


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Beautifully Unique Handmade Jewelry

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Enjoyed reading this.

Thanks for featured items too.

Tweeted all and the post.

Love Black!

As I sit here in my black shorts and grey t-shirt, I can relate to this post and enjoy the fashion statements that black make. My fav non-color for everything. Fascinating read, especially the crows. Have to just love crows and ravens! Have shared all of these black beauties across the internet. Thank you for including my Klimt style black and white necklace and earring set. Many treats to the desert dog from hurricane harry.


Thanks for inclusion and a very interesting article @black.

Thanks, Catherine

I enjoyed reading all about black. I instantly got the song in my head, "Black is Black"... I want my baby back by Los Bravos back in the mid 60's. lol Also, "Paint It Black" by The Rolling Stones. Thank you for including my onyx charm bracelet. Sharing!

Thank you

Love reading this as I sit in a black blouse that perfectly coordinates with my denim skirt! Love all the information. Thank you for including our Black Onyx Leaf necklace in this wonderful, enlightening blog.

Thanks so much, Catherine! I

Thanks so much, Catherine! I feel so honored to be a part of this wonderful blog alongside al these remarkable artisans, including yourself! So awesome how you explained the history of the black color along with really interesting pictures. Black is the loveliest color or "non color" there is!

Fascinating Read

Thanks so much, Catherine, for this fascinating and informative blog about black. Never thought about the origins of black dating back so far in time and how many subjects there is surrounding black. Thanks for including my silver wrapped black lampwork beads. Shared on Twitter and Pinterest.

Thank you!

What a great and unique article about Black, Catherine. Interesting to read indeed. I think I have black and grey the most in my wardrobe. In fact, I am wearing black pants now :-) Thank you so much for including my magician tags. Off to share now.

Thanks so much Catherine

Wow Catherine you did it again. A wonderful blog and beautiful beauties to go along with the blog.
Thanks for sharing my black and white earrings. Now my turn to share.

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