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For millennia, black and white, the two most common colors in fashion, have maintained a status that has made them the most powerful tones around.

From the contemporary couture runways and back through the mists of time, black and white have never been out of fashion.



At the Chanel haute couture show in Paris in January the cavernous show space was filled with gigantic bowers of paper foliage that had taken 40 people 15 weeks to create. The scene was all white, and the breathtaking collection that marched through it was predominately white with notes of black.

Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld spoke about creation and the rebirth of ideas encapsulated in the symbolic representation of a clean white page. This tabula rasa of cleanliness that pulsed through the couture was a purging of worries about global economic doom.

The white and black color story made a strong stand throughout the Paris spring haute couture showings. John Galliano used it to break up his ode to Delft, creating porcelain-like silhouettes and dramatic Vermeer collars in white lace trim. Ricardo Tisci at Givenchy draped bands around his models like sultry mummies, dashing a dose of erotica on ancient Egypt. Stéphane Rolland looked to simple dresses that created interest through unexpected cuts and sprinklings of spangles.

Jean Paul Gaultier used his collection as the metaphorical blank white page. His pen seemed to sketch over every outfit whipping up millefeuille organza layers tipped in black and using the beguiling bluntness of guipure and passementerie to trace a vivid link to the corrida.

Christian Lacroix’s attraction to the white page is different. In the book that accompanied his stunning “Histoires de Mode” exhibition at Paris’s Les Arts Décoratifs, the French couturier admitted "Of all colors, to me white is the most foreign.... I prefer a black or a red page to a white one which gives me a feeling of frustration, the same way the white toile of a dress always seems unfinished to me".

Black, on the other hand, has provided a constant source of inspiration and a powerful conduit for expression to this man generally acknowledged as a master colorist. "It's black that first sets out a look on paper before the chosen fabric comes along to distract attention” he said. “Black radicalizes and dramatizes. Chanel's little black dress invented in 1927 or the distressed black of the Japanese designers whose shows I discovered at the beginning of the 80s brought sea changes to fashion. They were landmarks and anchors for the future."

By removing the preconceptions of other colors to femininity, the adoption of black and white as basic components of any wardrobe has freed the wearer from being worn by their colors and allowed them, with a distinctly limited palette, to enjoy a greater level of self-expression.

Black, as Lacroix noted, was highly important to the pioneering Japanese designers that first caught international attention in the 1980s. In the West black has long been the color of mourning, but in the East it’s white that symbolizes death, a fact that allowed the Japanese to make such an impact with dark designs.

“Black became major in my work after several trips to Japan, where its power and proportion with other colors are overwhelmingly important” said the late American designer Geoffrey Beene in 1994. “In (the US) black has always been looked upon as 'dead'. Black is not a trend, it is forever -- it frames all the color and lines around it."

In mid-16th century Europe, the bright colors and fantastic forms encouraged by the German domination of fashion -- rebelling German peasants had even demanded to be allowed red clothing like their betters -- gave way to Spanish-influenced modes: tight-fitting, sombre and black. Color has long been tied to political and religious movements and in this case the growing power of Spain and the influence of the Emperor Charles V were motivating factors.

The white dress has been no less important throughout history. Though Chanel’s celebrated little black dress had only appeared a few years before, by 1930 the definitive end of the 1920s short-skirted flapper was signaled with a Paris season that saw every couture house devote its evening offerings to the long white satin dress. After the blue jean, two of the most iconic and immutable components of any wardrobe are white (or at least classically thought of as such): the white shirt and the white t-shirt. Designers from Ralph Lauren to Anne Fontaine via Gianfranco Ferrè and, of course, The Gap, have integrated them into their world and, in cases, built empires on the back of them. The white t-shirt, which really came into its own in WWII, has become one of the most alluring sartorial sex symbols of the 20th century.

Strangely enough, the eternal reference for white dresses, the languid draped chitons and togas of ancient Greece and Rome, were almost never white, at least not among the leisured monied classes who we envision to have worn them. Wealthy wearers, since they could afford it, had their clothes dyed bright tones like red, yellow and purple and patterned, too. Even some members of lower class Greeks developed a trend for dyeing their garments a reddish brown, though this was apparently disproved of by the authorities.

Speaking of how color influences our appreciation of form, fashion historian Lourdes Font notes of late 19th-century dress "In black, the graceful curves of the general silhouette are emphasized; in white, the eye gets lost in the surface richness of delicate materials".

And the ironic richness of virginal white plows a long furrow through sartorial history. From baptism to wedding to the deathbed, white is the traditionally enforced color of choice for many of the important parts of a woman's life. And that white is often heavily embellished - from the antique heirloom lace that swaddles an infant to the starring role in a pouf of white for the First Holy Communion, right the way through the traditional debutante dress (only really particularly appropriate these days if one lives in Vienna and is comfortable with public waltzing) and onto the wedding dress which, whatever about a woman's normal dress leanings, tends to be an overblown affair employing a multiplicity of dressmaking techniques and trims. Yes, modern wedding dresses are frequently off-white or champagne in color, but that's just splitting hairs.

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