Back in black – Dying and dyeing

Doris de PontBlack in fashion with Doris de Pont was a wonderful session, illustrated with a show of images from the book she curated.

Doris is a well-known designer and founder of the New Zealand Fashion Museum.

Journalist Josie McNaught chaired the session.

The big problem with black is it’s an ambiguous colour.

Doris talked about post-Treaty New Zealand, Queen Victoria in mourning, and the “interplay between dying and dyeing”. She showed an image of Victoria and her young family, six of the nine children dressed in black. But Prince Albert is in the photo too, so this puts paid to the idea that Victorian black was all about mourning her lost husband.

The Dyeing story is a fascinating one. When dyes were natural, a good dark black was difficult to achieve – and very expensive. Black was a “colour only affordable for the well-to-do”. It indicated status and wealth. Mauve was the first colour achieved with the new artificial dyes – it was years later that a good black was achieved.

CoverDoris had great historical images to illustrate her point that black was “the colour of loss, also the colour of gain”. This applied to Maori as well as Pakeha. She showed how the traditional funeral practice of wearing garlands of leaves met the practice of wearing black.

Airini Tonore (Donnelly) was used as an example – Doris showed a photo of her in stunning, highly decorative black clothing.

In the 20th century, black was also seen as sensible or daring. It was a popular choice for the flappers of the 1920s, but also for hard working housewives.

After the late 40s and 50s though, it virtually disappeared. Hollywood and Elizabeth II both promoted a more optimistic colour palette. Easy care synthetic fabrics and washing machines helped too. Black retained its role as a colour of formal occasions and uniform. Doris pointed out how it is the colour of both traditional authority and its antithesis:

law, church, politics, business, beatnik, biker, rocker, punk, gang, the school uniform …

Doris looked at the black singlet as “shorthand for Kiwi blokeness” – Fred Dagg – but also the colour of our villains – Bruno Lawrence in Wild Horses, Jake the Muss, fetish wear in Angel Mine.

And the All Blacks? Doris says the New Zealand Natives rugby team who went on tour in 1888-9 were the first to wear black.

In the fashion arena, commentators on NZ designers have touted: “New Zealanders have a darker outlook, less showy offy and more intellectual”, and “edgy gothic sartorial wit”.

The session finished with a 2011 design by Shona Taiwhiao that brings together so many elements of black – loss, status, authority, haute couture, a sense of belonging, the fashionable and the sensible.

Some image of black in fashion from the Christchurch City Libraries collection:

Photo  Photo