Color in Menswear

Exploring the psychological meanings behind the color black in men’s fashion.
How did black come into fashion? What do people perceive when they see black and what does black mean around the world?

“I’ve been 40 years discovering that the queen of all colors was black.”
-Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The History of the Black Suit

The black suit is one of the more formal color choices in mens suits. It’s similarity toformal wear, for example the tuxedo, is always subtly implied.

The shade of black began to work its way into formal menswear around the time of the French Revolution (around 1789).

Until that time formal wear came in a wide variety of flashy hues. The Revolution and it’s sweeping reforms in French culture, which started with the masses in the streets, also created a fashion backlash against the bright colors of the nobility.

Thus the well dressed Frenchman adapted by sporting the inky, dark, colors of the common man.

By 1828, the popular English author Edward Bulwer-Lyton wrote “people must be very distinguished to look well in black”. This was taken as a challenge by many of England’s dandies who took a shine to the color.

The wearing of black was also aiding by another revolution-The Industrial Revolution. During this time the air was filled with soot and smoke, making black a very practical choice. During this time, a long period of mourning was also decreed by Queen Victoria upon her husband’s death in 1861 which also played a part.

Twenty years later, Pierre Lorillard IV made a splash in New York with his newest fashion invention: The tuxedo jacket. Throughout the next century the need for formal evening wear gradually dissipated giving way to the fashionable black suit.

What Does the Color Black Mean?

“Without black, no color has any depth. But if you mix black with everything, suddenly there’s shadow – no, not just shadow, but fullness. You’ve got to be willing to mix black into your palette if you want to create something that’s real.”
– Amy Grant

Black is the color of mystery. Of sophistication. Of power. This is the reason that judges robes, priests’ garments, and tuxedos are typically made in black. A gentleman sporting a bespoke black blazerinstantly sends the message that he his empowered, elegant and difficult to manipulate. So while it may be a perfect choice during a legal interview, it might not work as well for a salesman appealing to customers.

Black is also a contradiction. People may view a black square as heavier, or larger than a white one of the same size. Yet sporting a pitch-black suit can lead one to appear slimmer. True black rarely, if ever, occurs naturally. As the deepest shade, black is the absence of all color, creating the darkest of shadows. Because of this black functions perfectly as a matte to a wide variety of colored shirts and ties.

Black is known as the signature color of choice for the counter culture. It makes us feel inconspicuous and mysterious. It is the go-to color for anyone trying to appear as “different”. It is quite often seen on many a creative or eccentric man. Johnny Cash. Steve Jobs. Edgar Allen Poe. Because of this designation black has become both a stereotype, and a reality in many graphic design and advertising agencies.

Black Around the World

  • In China, colors correspond to the elements, directions and the seasons. Black is the color of water, north and winter.
  • Aztec culture considered black as a color of war. Battle swords of black obsidian. It also had religious connotations as priests wore no other color.
  • In Western culture, black symbolizes mourning. A custom dating back to the Roman Empire when a dark colored Toga was worn to mark a person’s death.
  • In most cultures a black cat crossing your path is bad luck, except in England where the opposite is true.
  • Orchestra pit musicians wear black so they don’t draw attention away from the stage performers.