We love our All Blacks, but the new flag debate shows our obsession with the darkest hue may be fading, observes Lindsey Dawson.
This is going to be a black kind of year, driven by two events. First, the Rugby World Cup, starting on September 18. Second, the first of two referendums that will decide the look of the New Zealand flag - dates yet to be revealed. Both will be the cause of high patriotism, feverish debate and surging blood pressure.
On the footy front the boys already have new jerseys, described by All Black captain Richie McCaw at last November's uniform launch as "the blackest we've ever had".
But should our flag be black too? Prime Minister John Key used to be keen on a midnight flag adorned with a silver fern but by last October he'd pulled back on that, favouring instead a red and blue fern-and-stars design by Kyle Lockwood. By then, of course, images of black-clad Isis fighters waving their own black and white flag were all over the news - not that Key was admitting the terrorist banner is responsible for his change of heart, not even after comedian John Oliver cheekily inserted him into a picture that made him look like he was grinning in front of an Isis flag - an image chuckled over by Oliver's fans around the planet.
The Change the NZ Flag Facebook page (liked by close to 26,000) is full of new concepts. Every design prompts raging feedback from "love it" to "loathe it".
But it does reveal a tide-turn against darkness. One recent comment on a flag with just one small dark corner insisted "no black!" No black? But it's our very own colour. We love the All Blacks' moody outfits. At the Olympic and Commonwealth games, winning athletes do victory laps draped with the dark flag. At major rugby matches the crowd is a mass of black. Some of us love the sight of communal blackness in the stands; others think it makes us look like we're attending the world's biggest funeral.
That's the thing about black - it stretches to accommodate every shade of opinion. It can be sinister or sexy. Drab or luxurious. Shabby or chic. Submissive or authoritative. Mournful or triumphant.
Black has a long, rich history. It was one of just a handful of hues - along with ochre, whitish and red tones - first used by humans to create art. It's on cave walls from Africa to Europe to Australia, the legacy of artists who daubed pigments and paints made from earth and plant juices on rock up to 40,000 years ago.
It was also a staple colour for Maori in pre-European times - mixed into inks for moko and natural dyes, called pure, for fibre.
And yes, black is a colour, though for a long time many regarded it as just an absence of all other colours.
Blame Leonardo da Vinci, who was so adamant black had no place in the colour palette that his view held sway for 500 years. It was a radical move when in 1946 a Paris art gallery staged an exhibition with huge posters that declared, "Yes, Black is a Colour." For most of us, black is just black. But in some cultures what matters is its degree of shine.
Traditionally, Germans had two words for black. One is drab and matte and, says historian Michele Pastoureau, author of Black: The History Of A Colour, was seen as "always disturbing, often deathly". Its name was swart.
Then there's the other black, so shiny it is luminous. It's inspiration came from bird wings. Think of how black feathers have a shine so rich that they shimmer in sunlight. Germans of yore looked at the flashy gleam of crows' wings and saw it as something grand and wonderful. They called it blaek.
The cleverness of crows made them truly awesome in the eyes of early Germanic tribes - "divine, warlike and omniscient", according to Pastoureau.
No wonder their armies painted images of the crow with outspread wings on sword scabbards and helmets.
Even further north, ancient Scandinavian warriors were similarly crow-crazy. They apparently used a spine-chilling version of the crow's call as their war cry. And the boats they sailed in had the blackest bird of all painted on their sails and their prows.
One of this summer's top movies has been Mr Turner, starring Timothy Spall. He plays genius English artist J.M.W. Turner, the 19th-century painter who got into all sorts of trouble as he tried to change the art world - and his use of black gave critics plenty to grumble about.
Derided for the sooty look he gave to sails on a ship in one of his dramatic oils, he grumbled, "If I could find anything blacker than black, I'd use it." It's all a long way from our addiction to black as a fashion must-have. Coco Chanel started the craze way back in 1926 when she invented the Little Black Dress - or LBD - prompting American Vogue to predict it would become the uniform "for all women of taste".
Tasteful or not, it found its way into millions of dresses and there can be few women without a haul of black items in their wardrobes.
Way back in 1991, the then French ambassador Jacques Le Blanc drew a barrage of criticism when he commented on Wellington women's penchant for black. They dressed like soldiers, he complained, with their backpacks and enormous walking shoes.
The elegant Colombian ambassador Lola D'la Cruz-Mattos was next, saying New Zealand women were afraid of colour and dressed as if they had been to a funeral. "In Colombia, we celebrate our femininity by being bold with colour." Karl du Fresne, a columnist for The Dominion Post, chimed in 20 years later with a similar view after returning from a visit to the United States: "How drab and sombre we all look. Killing time in Auckland airport, I watched a constant procession of people scurrying past clad in what appeared to be funereal garb - all blacks and dark greys."
But one person's drab is another's elegant. Veteran New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham is always out in the street capturing city life.
Just last December he shot hordes of New Yorkers in dark, chic clothing and raved on his video blog about observing a week of autumn style: "It's the black and white and black and grey that really seemed to have a statement and the women looked terrific. Maybe because it's a combination where they can't make mistakes. You can put anything together, you see." Black and white and silver have long been the staple palette for New Zealand sporting uniforms, a look not always meeting with approval.
A New Zealand journalist in England during the 1948 Olympics watched his countrymen march past King George VI in black uniforms trimmed with white, and reported that they looked like "scarecrows in magpie's colours".
Even then the black sporting uniform was historic. Most of us think it goes back to the Invincibles, the All Black touring rugby team of 1924. But even earlier, in 1920, our first female Olympian, swimmer Violet Walrond, wore a black swimming costume at the Antwerp Olympics, with a white fern emblazoned on her chest. The three men in the team (that was it, a grand total of four) were similarly kitted out in dark singlets and T-shirts.
Those last two stories come from the handsome book, Black: The History Of Black in Fashion, Society And Culture In New Zealand, curated by Doris de Pont and published by Penguin in 2012.
Former fashion designer and now curator of the New Zealand Fashion Museum, de Pont likes the simplicity of the black flag with white fern. She sees it as a "clear, stylised representation of nature" and also as a nod to our "avant-garde, non-conformist, we-can-do-anything" side.
Blogger, style watcher and broadcaster Wallace Chapman is not so keen on it as a national colour.
"One thing a summer in the Coromandel has taught me is that our azure blues of the sea and the pohutukawa reds need to be celebrated a lot more than black." As for black in fashion, he observes that "Wellingtonians wear a lot more of it than Aucklanders. If you want real black, step into a Rei Kawakubo or Givenchy store in Paris." The trend he's really noticed in the past few years is a lot more colour and vibrancy.
The trouble with black is that it's so connected with all things grim. The Isis flag is just the latest in a long line of horror motifs that include the Jolly Roger, the pirate flag that once struck terror into the hears of merchantmen.
Then there's the Grim Reaper, and - in former times - the black cap donned by judges when they handed down death sentences.
If we are black-hearted we are traitors. If we dabble in the black market we are lawbreakers. If we're blacklisted we're ostracised. If we're blackmailed we're threatened with disgrace, if we're black sheep we are a disgrace.
The very mention of blackness can bring up notions of shock and despair. The search for black boxes accompanies every air disaster. Black-swan events are dreaded in political and business circles because they're unforeseen.
But make black sleek and shiny and beautiful and we admire it to bits. Is there anything sexier than a black sports car? Or lacy black underwear?
Does anything reek of power and money more effectively than a black government limousine (such as President Obama's car, nicknamed The Beast)?
And is there anything as striking in the airline world as Air New Zealand's new black livery? When a friend of mine posted a photo of a slick, black 777 plane on Facebook before stepping on board, someone commented, "So cool that our airline has such gangsta-looking planes."
When the All Blacks run out for their first World Cup game later this year, taut-muscled under their gleaming kit, then we'll love black all over again.
But on a new national flag? We shall see ...