Black symposium report

On May 12th, little less than hundred people gathered at the FotoMuseum for the ‘Black’ symposium: a day of talks, discussions, exciting discoveries and ruminations on the colour black and the exhibition Masters of Black in Fashion & Costume at the MoMu.

Although one speaker’s lecture was cancelled, the programme was filled to the brim with informative and thought-provoking  talks.  The day started off  with the Technology of Black Dyeing in Antwerp and the Southern Netherlands (1500-1900), the PHD subject of Natalie Ortega Saez, who teaches at the Textile Restoration Department of  the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. She introduced the audience to the characteristics of different plants (such as woad and indigo) and dye processes, the dyers’ guilds of Antwerp, dyer’s recipes and their misconduct.

Indigo (indigofera tinctoria) and wede (isatis tinctoria)

Because black was such an expensive color to dye (red and blue dyes, in many different phases) in the 16th and 17th century, dyers often disobeyed the guild’s recipes.  They sometimes used forbidden iron salts, which is why a lot of the clothes from that period have become oxidized and cannot be displayed any longer. Therefore, in the BLACK exhibition, paintings were chosen to represent the ‘perfect’ deep black and the nobility of the colour in the 16th and 17th century.

If you want to learn about dye processes, we’re pleased to announce that Natalie Ortega Saez will give two master classes on black dyeing  on June 28 and 29, please contact leen.borgmans@momu.be for more info and registrations.

A Parisian Widow in crêpe for her first stage of mourning (1912)After this intro to the technical background to different shades of black, MoMu conservator Frieda Sorber, in her talk ‘Mourning or fashion?’ demonstrated how keeping a household diary is a treasure for researchers of the future: she analysed the expenses  for clothes and  mourning  rituals of Anna Maria De Neuf, wife to the noble and rich Balthasar III Moretus of the Antwerp Plantin Moretus family, who owned the famous printing press. These household journals were kept in the last quarter of the 17th century and already show that black was worn for official events and other activities not related to mourning. They also give us a better insight into the different levels of mourning dress (dependent on the importance of the person who had died) and  into the life of these ‘women entrepreneurs’ after their husband had died. The discussion afterwards took an interesting turn when Prof. Lou Taylor stated that mourning and widowhood meant the end of someone’s place in society, of someone’s public life, whereas Frieda Sorber finds that many women took over the business of their deceased husband, or finally got a chance to start on their own. History may show us that the truth always lies a little in between…

During the second part of the morning, professor Bruno Blondé brought a new perspective to the table, discussing the use of the colour black in Antwerp household interiors in the 17th and 18th centuries: although sources are very scarce, a 10% description of which colours were being used,  showed  a very large presence (25%) of black objects in households, and 150 years later, a much larger differentiation of colour use.

Professor Blondé linked this evolution to changing consumer patterns (from slow to ‘fast’ consumerism of clothes and household goods)  in the 18th century. Wim Mertens commented that most garments and textiles of the time  were still very luxurious and built to last rather than frivolous and ‘fast fashion’. As with a lot of new research, a lot of gaps and contradictions still exist but it makes the subject of all the more fascinating.

To round up the morning, Wim Mertens  presented new materials which shook up some of the preconceptions about mourning and fashion in the 19th century: Wim did some research into a recent donation to  MoMu, of French magazines of the start of the 19th century (‘Journal de la Mode’).  These magazines report of princesses wearing black, and even typical mourning clothes in crêpe, for official nights out. This raised the discussion about whether black was already fashionable at the start of the 19th century or whether this sort of dress was truly exceptional, like the magazine described it. Some illustrations of the magazines reveal that in the early nineteenth century, men and women wore black as a fashionable colour.

To say the least, the different codes and meanings  (mourning, frivolity, fashion, nobility) attributed to black at the start of the nineteenth century were already hard to disentangle: black could be worn for different reasons throughout the nineteenth century.

Fashionable redingote jacket in 1809 and black in fashion around 1838

After lunch,  other themes from the catalogue’s texts, as well as new issues, came to the fore: professor Lou Taylor, with her talk ‘Black for Mourning’ (1850-1939)  engulfed us with layers of crêpe and veiled widows, showing examples of the clothes worn for different stages of mourning. Prof Taylor explained how widowhood was a major negative turning point in most women’s lives and how the dull, sheenless crêpe, symbolized their loss of a place in society.  Not everyone fully agreed on this, as some people in the audience saw crêpe as a rather precious, beautiful and even sexy material…

Lou’s talk was followed  by Emmanuelle Dirix, fellow countrywoman and past pupil of Lou, to unravel the myth of the little black dress as ‘invented by Gabrielle Chanel’, confronting us with our appetite for good stories.  Her account of how black was  already a fashionable colour before 1926 was supported by Wim Mertens’ morning talk: Coco Chanel’s little black dress wasn’t “the first” little black dress.  Nevertheless, Emmanuelle’s talk proved how the little black dress has an everlasting appeal and how the mythical figure of Gabrielle Chanel turned this into a nearly abstract concept: in today’s fashion magazines, a little black dress can be blue, black, short, long, sexy, classic or experimental. The central idea behind it is more important than its execution: a little black dress is elegant, modern and ‘black’.

The last two speakers of the day, MoMu curator Karen Van Godtsenhoven and designer Helena Lumelsky, took the theme of black to more recent evolutions: Karen  showed how black incorporates both rebellious and romantic aspects in youth subcultures. From the 1950s onwards, black dress has been used by youngsters, intellectuals (existentialists and Beat poets), Mods, rockers, punkers, Goths, metalheads and others to symbolize their countercultural  position, or their melancholy or nostalgia for the past.  On the catwalk, black has become the colour of the avant-garde since the 1980s, when Rei Kawakubo started to design monochrome black collections, ‘to strip away all obsolete details, to focus on form’. Belgians like Ann Demeulemeester and Olivier Theyskens are also famous for the use of black in their collections, and they all attribute different meanings to the colour.

Punkers in the 70s / Comme des Garçons

A short overview of black as a countercultural and avant-garde colour (1950-2000) shows  the very wide symbolical spectrum of the colour: it is both ‘classic’ and ‘rebellious’, it’s the colour for evening and businesswear as well as the favourite colour of the punk and fetish scene, it is a colour that can be used for bold statements as well as a discrete one. Karen added that although black has come to symbolize many different things in the last 60 years, it never lost its other meanings: nobility, sobriety, mourning and ‘fashion’ can all still be associated with black. The remarkable feat of the colour is its ability to amass meanings, without losing its previous associations.

For designer Helena Lumelsky, whose ‘Dark’ collection was executed in black,  the use of the colour has a lot of cultural (film noir, Modernism) , artistic (its graphic qualities) and personal (femininity, underground, fetish echoes) reasons. She gave a very personal account of both the good and the bad sides of the colour, its associations (safety and the slimming-effect were two new ones), and her inspirations (the strong and sexual femme fatales from the film noir genre, as well as the use of shadows and hands in the same genre). The audience was fascinated by Helena’s story, which was a great conclusion to this day of Black talks.