New Zealand's dark obsession

By Rebecca Barry Hill

New Zealand's fascination with black is a lot more involved than meets the eye, says Doris de Pont in a new book.

A Nour Hassan design. Photo / Supplied
A Nour Hassan design. Photo / Supplied

When Doris de Pont recently hosted visitors from the Netherlands, they couldn't get over how many people were dressed in black. It's a trend we've probably all noticed, particularly at the airport after a trip away. So much for the land of the long white cloud.

Why do we wear so much black? It's a question the former fashion designer and trustee of the New Zealand Fashion Museum poses in Black: The History of Black in Fashion, Society and Culture in New Zealand, a book that you can judge by its dark cover.

"What's interesting to me is the duality of wearing black," says de Pont. "When we choose to represent the country with black, it's not at all about modesty. While we might embrace that wearing it, it's not the story that Brand New Zealand tells about it."

De Pont wrote the introductory chapter and curated Black in conjunction with the Black in Fashion exhibition that drew more than 10,000 people during the Rugby World Cup. With essays by fashion academics and striking fashion and historical photography, it reveals a swathe of fascinating reasons for our addiction to the dark side.

"Clothing reflects what's going on in a culture," she says. "It's valuable to look at in order to consider how society was at that time."

Whether it's laziness, a nod to our black singlet culture, a uniform showing sporting loyalty, a reflection of the weather and landscape, a design aesthetic or a way to blend in, wearing black might not always be a conscious choice. But it has a power that no other colour, with the exception of perhaps white, possesses. Black is associated with a raft of meanings and connotations. It's the colour of royalty, rebellion, status, religion, death, sophistication, modesty, fetish, conformity, rock 'n' roll and anonymity. Wearing black is all about context, says de Pont, but its great power is its ability to communicate something about the wearer. Arming yourself in a black leather jacket for instance hints at a dangerous lifestyle that requires protection. Perhaps living in a small country makes it less desirable - and necessary - to stand out.

Our reasons for wearing black appear obvious. It's practical, sensible and hides the dirt. It's timeless, stylish and safe. But black's popularity in New Zealand, the book explains, goes back to our colonial days when settlers escaped the class system in Britain, where black was the colour of status, which was not attainable to everybody.

"Black was embraced by those who could afford it to demonstrate that they had done well in the colony," says de Pont. "People who hadn't done quite as well wore fabrics that were more natural fabrics, like canvas in white and grey colours. Black was a more expensive cloth and harder to launder."

Black was the colour of Maori ta moko and woven attire, and signified the void from which the world began. During the Victorian period, it remained a marker of status but for women it started to dissipate in the Edwardian era. Traditionally a colour of mourning, the use of black in fashion became prevalent in the 1920s. Just about everyone in New Zealand knew someone who'd been killed in World War I. Coco Chanel's "little black dress" also caught on in the 20s.

"But for young women, black being a widows' colour, it was a marker of sexual experience," adds de Pont. "Young women wore black flapper dresses to demonstrate the freedom they'd won by being engaged in work outside the home."

Our top sporting teams wore black at the 1920 Olympics, and black soon became our national colour. Our "passion for team sports exemplified the co-operative spirit and the country's egalitarian aspirations", writes de Pont.

Although it remained a staple in women's wardrobes, black's popularity tapered off after the 1940s. However, New Zealand designers Gus Fisher, who had the exclusive licence to produce Christian Dior originals in New Zealand, used black during the chic ball gown era of the 1950s. The black day suit became popular. But the arrival of synthetic fabrics and washing machines also meant that light and bright clothing was easier to launder.

Although the 80s were all about bold colours, it was also the decade of power dressing and punk, the wearing of black denoting both authority and anarchy. Black was the colour of the rebel, as epitomised by Auckland style icon Judith "Black Lips" Baragwanath. Around this time, designers such as Elisabeth Findlay of Zambesi, and Margarita Robertson of Nom*D, were beginning to establish themselves. Japanese designers Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto were hugely influential in the cultivation of black in their designs. Nom*D's Dunedin roots and music scene also inspired the label's Gothic sensibility. Karen Walker used black as a literal inspiration for her collection Live Wire, which was inspired by the 1998 Auckland power crisis. As Claire Regnault writes, she transformed the negative incident into a witty collection, sending frizzy-haired models trailing electrical cords down the runway dressed in a range of black and white garments.

"The 90s were a decade of the taupe, neutral colours," says de Pont. "Black was the colour of the fringe within fashion, of alternative, intelligent fashion, in contrast to the flashier, sexier style of the Australian designers."

Others such as Tanya Carlson, Nicholas Blanchet, Lela Jacobs, and Jimmy D became known for their prolific use of black.

"Black, black, black. They love it," wrote Lisa Armstrong, fashion critic for the London Times, who visited New Zealand Fashion Week in 2004.

De Pont points out that black is, by default, a masculine colour, consistently worn by men since Victorian times, which could explain the androgyny of many New Zealand designs.

"I do think that even New Zealand's women are masculine, strong, can-do. We're not a frilly country. Black is very much about the silhouette and shape and texture than the detail. There's no confusion in the message."

But the recurring quote of New Zealand fashion being "dark, edgy and intellectual" - a compliment bestowed on us at London Fashion Week in 1999, may not be totally accurate, says de Pont.

"I think it's an image of ourselves we like to embrace but it's not necessarily reflected in reality. At the moment black is a little out of favour - we have quite a diverse palette. But it's not out of favour with the consumer."

Readers of fashion blogger Isaac Hindin Miller's site wondered if it might have something to do with being outsiders. Wearing black, they said, was a way of disavowing the "established norms and tropes of fashion, e.g. colour, pattern... that we are dark and subversive and not ever going to be 'on trend"'.

"Most people have an idea about what black means to them," says de Pont."It's very much socially determined. The venue or place or context is what gives it meaning."

At the Black in Fashion exhibition, the figures of Tame Iti and the Governor-General were displayed side-by-side to demonstrate black's contradictory connotations of authority and its opposite.

In the 90s black also became a marketing tool to differentiate us from the rest of the world. That became increasingly important as New Zealand embraced free trade and risked being overwhelmed by global brands. Along came Black Magic, the Black Caps, the Black Ferns.

The correlation between our brooding landscape, weather and art has always been strong but as Lisa Armstrong thought, our friendly, relaxed natures meant we weren't suited to wearing black. Perhaps she should have taken in some of New Zealand's other artforms.

Local musicians including Straitjacket Fits, The Chills and SJD speak in the book of their emotional connection to black (while wearing it in true rock 'n' roll style, of course). Listing the likes of The Piano, Colin McCahon's paintings and Neil Finn, Karen Walker is quoted as saying they had an "ominous, slightly restrained kind of feel. And I think that comes from our culture and our landscape and just the personality of the country. There's a heaviness to it."

Regnault says it's a sentiment shared by Sam Neill's personal response to New Zealand film, The Cinema of Unease (1995), which describes New Zealand film as a "uniquely strange and dark industry".

"There is a dark aspect to our nature, a melancholy," agrees de Pont. "I do think black suits us. It's understated, it doesn't shout at you for attention. That reflects New Zealand's persona."

Had the All Blacks lost the Rugby World Cup, de Pont doubts our love affair with wearing black would have wavered. It's too deeply embedded in our national psyche. Don't believe it? In a chapter titled "A Culture of Ease", Regnault observes the many faces of black in Wellington: the corporate black of Lambton Quay and The Terrace, the "blacks of revolt" in jeans, leather, studs and Doc Martens, the expensive, arty black at City Gallery, and the "sexed-up" black of Courtenay Place.

De Pont, whose own designs are inspired by Auckland's colourful Polynesian influence, agrees it's ironic that someone with little black in her wardrobe is behind the book and exhibition. People who know her well gave her sideways glances when she wore black during the exhibition. But the question seemed an important and inevitable one.

"There's a resonance in black that speaks to our hearts as New Zealanders. I hope the book gets people thinking about why they wear black."

* Black: The History of Black in Fashion, Society and Culture in New Zealand ($59.99; Penguin) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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