Black is the New Black: How the Resistance to Colorful Dress Mirrors Societal, Behavioural, and Political Resistance

While visions of picketers, rallies and rioting might have some synonymous association with term resistance, the word itself is can be applied far more liberally within many facets of culture and society. A resistance is any kind of action in which the intended response is to oppose an expected culturally reinforced norm, and allow a repressed notion of what is societal acceptability to enter, and perhaps aggravate, that social consciousness. Therefore, choosing to display a certain type of garment which counters the societal expectancy of dress, such as the tendency of various social groups who choose to wear all black, than can itself be a form of resistance. Clothing oneself in all black can serve as social marker, indicating some sort of difference and thus resistance from the mainstream of society, on varying subcultural, behavioral, or political levels.

Although clothing is often trivialized for a perceived level of frivolity, the ways in which dress is chosen, worn, and interacted with can speak volumes about culture and society as a whole. As said by Elizabeth Wilson in her work Adorned in Dreams, dress “links the biological body to the social being, and public to private” (Wilson 2). Human bodies are more than just biological bodies, and as they allow us to connect and interact with the social world, they become cultural entities within themselves. As cultural entities, humans are all effected by the culture within society. The clothing serves as a cultural artifact for everyone within society to instill or infer a sharable yet changeable set of meanings. To be in a society is to attach and infer meanings to clothing, however potentially different contextually the meanings may be.

Certain clothing can signify what has been ascertained in the cultural conscious as normal, good, or worthy of status. However, if there are certain clothing which indicate achievable worthiness, certain clothing must binaurally serve as an indication of what society wants to distance itself from. Dress which contradicts what is reinforced by the cultural conscious may indicate the non-ideals which have been repressed from the cultural conscious and as a result, by society. Wearing clothing not culturally signified as normal opposes the underlying doctrine, enforcing what is good or worthy for society, therefore resisting societal standards through non-participation. All black dress is noticeable change in normative dress and by wearing all black it brings attention to some form of distance or resistance from a societal notion. Wearing all black serves almost the same purpose as a team jersey, visually indicating who is for the cultural conscious and those whose ideals have been repressed and are therefore resisting. As Wilson said, the function of fashion “is to resolve formally, at the imaginary level, social contradictions that cannot be solved”(Wilson 9). Through wearing all black, those repressed by cultural norms are able to combat societal ideals through choosing resistance and manifesting some level of social control, even if this control is only on “imaginary” or aesthetic grounds.

All black dress can act as a resistance towards many aspects of the main culture within society, including perhaps the most obvious, political resistance. It is easy to see why anarchists, following a social philosophy built upon the ideal of a society non-regulated by a publicly enforced government, would favor dress resistant to those of the cultural ideals. Anarchists have for a long time been associated with all black dress, partially a symbolic referent to “the color scheme of a flag used by anarcho-syndicalists in early twentieth-century Europe” (Portwood-Stacer 55). As Laura Stacer-Portwood describes in I’m Not Joining Your World’: Performing Political Dissent through Spectacular Self-Presentation:

In fact, all bodies are “spectacular” in this sense— the ways that humans present themselves are always culturally shaped and are thus communicative of social meaning. What makes anarchist style an illustrative case is that it is often spectacular in both this technical sense and in a more colloquial sense: by styling themselves in non-mainstream ways, some anarchists make a spectacle of themselves.

The anarchist way of dress stylistically illustrated a cultural different in aesthetic than that in the mainstream. By challenging the dress of the mainstream, the anarchist became more visible for disrupting the cultural norms of aesthetics, and highlighted their distance mainstream, mirroring and further exaggerating their politically views which were outside the societal mainstream.

The mainstream cultural norms can also be challenged and resisted when a subcultural group decides to wear all black. Anarchists’ dress not only conveyed a political message but allowed them to practice what they preached. Wearing all black was an easy, cheap, and dirt hiding dress to maintain, allowing them to resist the consumerist practices of washing and treating clothing. As discussed by Laura Stacer-Portwood, this could “serve as valuable proof of one’s ideological commitment. Often, the tastes coded as most valuable within anarchist subcultures are in direct contradiction to mainstream norms” (Stacer-Portwood 60). Other subcultures, such as the Goths (of the fashion variety) wear all black to signify a perceived displacement they feel amongst main culture, and in this case, a reliability to what is dark and morbid. As Hebdige points out, some subcultures create viewable spectacle in their dress and are thus spectacular, “express[ing] forbidden contents (consciousness of class, consciousness of difference) in forbidden forms” (Hebdige 91). Goths feel different from the mainstream and mark themselves visibly through an all black spectacle of dress towards the forbidden and the different. This allows their personal inclination towards a socially oppressed non-norm to be viewed by all, highlighting their difference and resisting to suppress their cultural distinctions.

City dwellers who wear all black are a unique situation that they are the social group whom generally create the social norms embedded in the social consciousness. Trends are taken from the city and distilled to the masses, coming both a part of the conscious and out of trend. Wearing all black however, is perceived as subcultural, resistant, and strange to the mainstream, the only trend untainted by the normal and ‘good’ cultural conscious. When city dwellers wear a cloak of all black, they create a visible barrier of separation between the “chic,” black-dressed city-self and the normally, colorfully-dressed suburban others. Through wearing black, city elite can invoke ideals of class, modernity and chicness, created through the context of metropolitan life and a distance from the suburban.

Dressing in all black can also be resistant from the mainstream social behaviors and emotions. Historically in western culture, a phase of mourning following the death of a loved one is usually represented through all black dress. While today, all black dress is usually expected only during the funeral service of the deceased, years ago it was not uncommon for the family to dress in black clothing during a full period of mourning. Those whom are in mourning and wearing all black, indicate through their dress they are not emotionally able to practice normal tasks, attend celebratory functions, or convey normative emotional responses. All black dress in the instance of mourning demonstrates a resistance from normally acceptable behaviors and emotions in the public sphere.

The complexity of dress is partially due to the limitless signifiable meanings encoded in each and every garment. Although possible meanings of dress are limitless, their appears to be a culturally reinforced idea of which codes convey meanings suitable to fit in with the mainstream societal consciousness. When dress, such as wearing all black, opposes the socially acceptable norms, a forbidden notion of what acceptable enters the public sphere, disrupts the culturally expected and creates a resistance through difference.

Works Cited:

Hebdige, Dick . Subculture: The Meaning of Style. . Reprint. England : Routledge, 1779. Print.

Portwood-Stacer, Laura. “I’m Not Joining Your World’: Performing Political Dissent through Spectacular Self-Presentation.” Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism Bloomsbury: 51-73. Print.

Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. 1-154. ed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003. Print.

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