Chic. Timeless. Elegant. Goes with everything. These have been the de facto explanations for our sartorial love affair with the colour black. A favourite of a number of prolific designers, from Yohji Yamamoto and Ann Demeulemeester to the late Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld, the dark hue is the widely acknowledged, perennial height of style. And it shows no signs of waning: there are currently 3.1 million #allblackeverything hashtags on Instagram and counting.
It’s not just the fashion crowd. People in “design” favour it too. Many creatives, intellectuals and urbanites revere black as their uniform. The streets of London, Paris and New York teem with big-city folks in leathery dark ensembles. Back in 2014, philosopher and The School of Life founder Alain de Botton created a plain black sweater with designer Bella Freud, marketing it as “the ideal suit of armour to contain you while allowing you to free your thoughts.”
As a fashion psychologist, I’ve come to the conclusion that we wear what we wear for an item’s psychological pay-off. In that sense, I thought there was much more to black’s fiercely enduring appeal beyond the function of easy matching. And in realising what this ‘more’ was, I was led to one of my central theories around fashion psychology: the colour black is, indeed, a form of armour.
That realisation came after I forged true bonds with fashion industry friends, who all loved wearing black with a subtly avant-garde aesthetic — lots of Rick Owens. I acted as a therapist to these very same people who, mostly, were in the throes of some kind of dysfunctional relationship. An unanswered Whatsapp message could easily lead them into bouts of anxiety, stress, and worry. There was, as psychologists would say, a lot of neuroticism.
This personality trait relates to one’s degree of negative emotions. People who score high on neuroticism, although highly creative, often experience emotional instability, are prone to anger, melancholy, and negative emotions generally, such as anxiety, and find it difficult to stay in a good mood. They are self-conscious and often worry about what others think of them. Being fairly neurotic myself, with a penchant for dark shades and fierce boots, I increasingly recognised the correlation between wearing black and proneness to negative emotions.
It should come as no surprise then, that colour psychology — the study of hues as a determinant of human behaviour — tells us that black has emotionally protective qualities. Black represents authority, power, and discipline, and wearing it is a way to communicate an authoritative image. The dark hue creates a barrier between itself and the outside world, keeping people away while providing comfort, protecting emotions, and hiding vulnerabilities, insecurities, and a lack of self-confidence. It functions as a shield for those who need it.
To test this theory in my fashion psychology pilot study, I sampled 300 women in a survey and included several questions on colour preferences. Those who identified as black wearers were nearly three times more likely to also say that they experience anxiety frequently. Respondents who identified as “worriers” and “melancholic” were also twice as likely to say that they typically wear black as their uniform. While those who preferred bright colours and prints, as well as straightforward non-directional designs, did not score high for neuroticism, answering yes to questions such as ‘I find it easy to stay in a good mood’ and no to ‘I am prone to anxiety’.
It seems that to the non-neurotics, fashion isn’t armour. Instead of the neurotic’s gritty outfits, these chill individuals lean heavily into prints, bright colours and easy, uncomplicated designs. To them, clothes are either functional or a means of joyful expression.
Many are divided on whether black is severe and gloomy, or chic and sophisticated. Dark ensembles always get mixed reviews — bringing down the house among some crowds, yet labelled as depressing among others, who urge the working-in of colours or cheerful prints. Though for individuals with a neurotic bone in their bodies, one would tend to feel better when dressed in black, especially to get through the bad days.
Black can be effective in these ways; otherwise, people wouldn’t wear it as much as they do. But it does beg the question: is using black as armour the optimal way to dress for good mental health? Should you dress how you feel, or dress how you want to feel?
It depends. As with everything else, dealing with negative emotions requires an all-round 360 approach. Wearing black might help one feel better, but so might music, a self-help book, a good bit of introspection, a talk with a therapist, or even anti-depressant medication. Relying too heavily on merely one thing won’t induce long-term improvements. One needs to work on both the internal and external worlds of oneself, as they symbiotically feed off each other.
Working on the problem areas within one’s life, and not just creating the perfect dark suit of armour, can decrease the dependency on black. Recently, I spoke with one of my black-clad former colleagues recently, who left London for the English countryside and had a baby. Living in a serene ecosystem of positivity, she told me she hardly ever feels the desire to wear black anymore.
Although personality traits are stable, and I will be a proud neurotic for life, as I’ve gotten older and more settled in life, fighting less personal and professional battles, I am feeling a lot more comfortable in colours.
So for those in the throes of it, consider inching towards a bit of lightness as you work on countering the neurotic aspect of your personality in other ways. Black shouldn’t be a crutch.
Anabel Maldonado is a London-based fashion journalist, psychologist and founder of The Psychology of Fashion.
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