Black Always Was and Will Be the New Yorker’s New Black

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(Almost) everyone got the memo: we're wearing black today everyday! A crowd of commuters at Grand Central / via
(Almost) everyone got the memo:
we’re wearing black today everyday!
A crowd of commuters at Grand Central / via

New Yorkers have been celebrated as well as mocked about wearing black for so many years now that it’s anything but news to point out the fashion choice. Like everyone else who ever looked around New York City, in public or private, I’ve been aware of the trend. No, “trend” is a word that can’t be applied to something this long-lasting.

Let’s just say I’ve been aware of the condition seemingly forever, but it was never brought home to me so irrevocably as it was one winter night eight or ten years back. I was standing in a crowd waiting for the doors to open on a Tribeca venue where a site-specific play was about to take place.

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While chatting with the friend who’d accompanied me, I was glancing around casually the way you often do in a conversation. Suddenly, a dime dropped resoundingly. I realized that everyone surrounding me was wearing black. I’d estimate there were about 80 ticket holders milling, most in their twenties, thirties or forties.

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From where I stood, I could only see two people who weren’t black-clad: my buddy and me. I was bobbing in an entirely different Black Sea.

Ever since then, I’ve thought about New Yorkers and their black apparel even more often and wondered why the emphasis. As someone, then, on the lookout for New York City black, I can say I see a lot. I can also say I see a lot of other colors, too. But we’re assuming here that black is a color. It certainly is at the Gap, where the slogan “Black is a color” is regularly sighted high on walls.

Businessmen and politicians almost never wear black suits. Neither do they wear brown—Manhattan is generally brown-averse. They wear blue or grey. (Curiously, businesswomen and female politicians may at times wear black). Policemen wear blue, unless they’re under cover and then may wear black to fit in. Crossing guards may wear black but only underneath loud vests. From television we know that for prison inmates, orange is the dominant color.

Nevertheless, while black in New York City is prevalent, virtually none of the Fashion Week runways showed much of the color.

Yet, black rules if you judge by the coffee shop/bagelry where I read the morning papers. Today, one of the tallest women I’ve ever seen was there in a black lace blouse, and a black-and-red plaid skirt. A young girl came in wearing black tights with a gray skit and grey jacket. The young woman at the table next to me looked like the Audrey Hepburn of Funny Face in all black. Black on men, especially outerwear, may be even more common, and that’s not even counting leather queens. And where else across the land do handholding couples—hetero- or homosexual—stroll the street and avenues in all black?

Others commentators have expounded on the phenomenon, although, near as I can figure, no one definitively. For women, did it begin with, and then grow from, the little black dress that Coco Chanel promoted in the 1920s? In Real Simple, Maura Fritz remarks under the headline “A Short History of the Little Black Dress,” “[P]erhaps more than any other designer, Coco Chanel was the one who made it ubiquitous. She did not invent the concept, of course.” The LBD, as it’s familiarly called, was ballyhooed as able to go anywhere. So why not black in any form of apparel?

Just a theory. Others think differently about New York City’s romance with, or resignation to, black. When Yahoo Answers asked “Why do New Yorkers wear a lot of black clothing?” a respondent identifying herself as Cydney wrote, “They wear dark clothing so they don’t attract alot [sic] of attention and look like a tourist. If you dress like a tourist, often times you will get robbed. Also it’s very cold there, and dark colors keep you warm.”

Not everyone sees it that way, but many certainly spread the word. Go to Wikihow, and in a list of tips tagged “How to be a New Yorker,” tip No. 10 reads in part, “Dress appropriately…Your safest bet is to wear black, dark blue or some shade of grey.” Notice that although alternatives are offered, black is first.

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On Jan. 24, 2014, ABC News blog included a photograph taken the previous day of the ground-level Grand Central Station concourse (the photographer is Twitter user @andrewleray). The accompanying story begins, “The stereotype is true: Everyone in New York really does wear black.” So, additional recent affirmation.

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On Alexandra Stylist, however, Liat Kornowski, picking up hints from Alexandra Suzanne Greenawalt, author of Secrets of a Fashion Stylist, passes on this advice, “Do not wear black contrary to popular belief. For years and years people tried to sell us that an all-black ensemble is standard issue New York uniform…That’s long gone though, and sticking to it will make you look outdated and more importantly, boring.”

In an issue of Lucky, Maura Braunigan comes down in the middle when chatting in a column headed “How to Dress Like a New Yorker: The Uptown Vs. Downtown Girl.” She has it, “Caricatures offered in movies like Sweet Home Alabama and The Devil Wears Prada often portray this city as one teeming with all-black, slightly outrageous outfits—and don’t get me wrong that element is certainly present in closets across the city. But, as I quickly learned, there’s much more to it than that.”

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As suggested far above, Braunigan is right, but the more pressing question is, How did this come to be, the Jazz Age notwithstanding? The place to go for further digging is Anthropology in Practice, where the story “Reflections of Gotham: Why Do New Yorkers Wear So Much Black?” appears.

In the text, queries that the story poses towards the outset start with “What is the basis behind this tendency to don darker clothing—or at least outerwear? Why is it that in New York City, despite whatever the color trend for the season may be, black is always the ‘new’ black?”

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Then the Anthropology in Practice concern becomes—get this!—a history of dyes, with the explanation that black cloth was easier to produce in the centuries when dyes were developed with increasing sophistication. Black dye lent itself more readily to cold weather apparel. Therefore, it’s conjectured here that “A remnant from our colonial ancestry and historical development, darker clothing worn by natives today serves to bind New Yorkers together.”

In other words and despite Liat Kornowski and Alexandra Suzanne Greenawalt, my conclusion is that black remains a New York City uniform, if not the New York City uniform. And for me? Yes, this New York-based columnist has plenty of black in his wardrobe. I’ll even admit that for occasions when doubt about what to put on nags, black is often (usually?) the solution. Of course.