#911 The black debate

Image /Zambesi

I recently re-read Undressed by Stacy Gregg – to my knowledge the only book ever written specifically about New Zealand fashion and the designers who create it. Published in 2003, it’s slightly outdated now (a few of the designers have dropped off – Nicholas Blanchet and Marilyn Sainty – and current big name designers who weren’t around back then obviously aren’t mentioned), but it still gives a fairly holistic overview of our little industry. Most interesting for me, was the section on Zambesi, Nom*D, WORLD and Karen Walker’s show at London Fashion Week in 1999, dubbed the ‘New Zealand Four’.

“At London Fashion Week, the international press, always on the lookout for the Next Big Thing, instantly latched on to New Zealand’s talents. In their enthusiasm for our designers they labelled us the ‘New Belgians’ and ‘dark and intellectual’.”

Which got me thinking. We’re a country known for wearing black. Lots and lots of black. Dark – yes, intellectual – maybe, moody – definitely, but always black. Why?

So I had a look through the last few collections of our most prominent designers. Zambesi and Nom*D were the first to come to mind – both are well known for their dark, intellectual, gothic, moody designs. Guess what – both had plenty of colour in their previous two seasons. Karen Walker and Kate Sylvester – both had much more colour than black. I could go on and on. So why then, do we see everybody in black?

I have two friends who only wear black. It’s like a uniform. One tells me that he sometimes tries to wear colours then always changes before he leaves the house because he feels uncomfortable if he’s not in black. The other made me laugh the other day when he responded to my question, ‘Why don’t you have any colour in your wardrobe?’ with, ‘What do you mean, no colour? I have some white shirts’. Same goes for most New Zealand businessmen. Always black. Go to just about any other country in the world and black suits are reserved for weddings, funerals and the courtroom. Here in New Zealand, it’s always the first suit guys seem to buy.

Besides three black tee shirts I sometimes wear to bed (and a black suit I sometimes wear to weddings or funerals), I don’t own a single black item of clothing. You could say I’m anti it as a shade. Not out of principle, but more because I don’t think I look very good in it. I’d much rather wear navy blue – in my opinion, a far more interesting and flattering colour.

So my questions are:

Do you predominantly wear black? If so, why?

What’s your beef with colour?

What is it about New Zealanders that makes them gravitate towards black?

Do you think black is an easier colour to wear?

Is black really more flattering than other colours? (As far as I’m aware navy blue is a much more forgiving colour to wear if you’re of a paler complexion.)

Gentlemen – why wear black suits instead of navy or grey?

Is it lazy to wear head to toe black?


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  1. juliet says

    I hate wearing all black, it makes me feel so boring, and also like I’m wearing a unitard because no one can see where my dress/top/jumper ends and where my tights/pants/whatever starts. Also I hate two different shades of black worn together, but I also hate being super-matchy so its a lose-lose situation!

    Some people look good in all black but I think to wear all black it needs to be textural (velvet, leather, fur, sheer chiffon) and interesting shapes.

  2. k says

    Re: The suit comment, I think it’s the fact that a good suit costs a bit of money and unless you wear them often, they’re usually reserved for Weddings and Funerals, and maybe Interviews. You’re always going to need a black suit for a Funeral or Black Tie event so I think that’s why it’s the first choice for most guys?

    I like black.

  3. Anonymous says

    black is the best non-colour ever! better than white. that’s not to say i wear it head to toe though, and i hardly do wear black, actually. it’s chic and a good canvas, need i say more.

    i’d love to LOVE colour and prints though, but always fall back on muted tones. it’s not just a kiwi thing.

  4. says

    Hey I am no longer accepting comments with swear words so the guy who wrote the comment about Macs is more than free to resubmit it without the swear word.



  5. Anonymous says

    New Zealands affiliation with the colour black is not just restrited to our choice of clothing. Look at the colours used to represent our national sports teams and the paintings from our most famous artists (McCahon, Hotere).It is usually seen as a response to NZ’s isolated position at the bottom of the world and as a reflection of the sparse terrain. It is also connected to the idea of ruggedness that NZ is so often associated with, read a book like Man Alone and you begin to understand.

  6. Alex says

    I don’t like to wear black because it makes my skin look more pale than it already is! I much prefer colours like blue, green, white, red, purple!! It just suits me better.

  7. Anonymous says

    I wear a lot of black because I’m clumsy as hell and no one can tell that I’ve spilt half of my lunch down my front if I meet them later on in the day.

  8. says

    I think the reason that we, as a collective, wear so much black is because it is the easiest colour to coordinate. EVERY colour goes with black, so it therefore serves as the perfect base palette to build an outfit around. And unfortunately, the majority of us are too lazy to dress up for running errands or going to uni, black is the quickest way to get dressed in the morning 😛 That being said, no matter how lazy I am on some days, I hardly ever wear black on black-far too emo.

  9. greg says

    I personally think navy blue goes well with a heck of a lot more colours than black does. I can never understand why everyone always says black goes with all colours, as I really do not think it does. What do you think Isaac?

  10. Leonie says

    I think a lot of people don’t understand how colour affects their skin tone, so they ‘re a little scared of making a mistake. Black does make your skin look pale, but then again, I love pale skin.

  11. oldgirl says

    down here in dunedin it just is a given we wear black.I have a fashion store and I do put a little colour in but it ends up in sale .the customers say they want colour but always go for the the black over and over again. As a old shop girl I always wear black it makes life easy. Being in dunedin we also have the great Nom*D which we all buy and love it,even though it is not in my store it is still what I wear. So as long it is not black polofleece sleeveless jackets with black 3/4 pants I O.K with it.

  12. Anonymous says

    I have a wardrobe full of colour but most days still wear black. I think I should make more of an effort, but am so often in a rush and can’t be bothered thinking too much, so black ….or increasingly charcoal as it is not as hard on the complexion – win out.

  13. Anonymous says

    Every one knows that black is the coolest, elegant, most stunning shade and johnny cash always wore black, another point people who wear black lead interesting lives its mysterious, strong and those who don’ t agree have no taste BACK IN BLACK GO NZ

  14. Anonymous says

    Ummm shop girls at Prada 10:27 and Mac 7:21 maybe you forgot to read the staff memo, perhaps you wear black because its in your contract!!!!

  15. Anonymous says

    How about the idea that wearing black is a post WW2 hangover? opposed to our relationship with the landscape (wakkety but romantic concept Anon 9:44)

    Black, navy, grey and brown were all utilitarian colours and probably what most people would of been wearing.

    Post war, as a small nation dealing with deaths of loved ones and getting the country operable again may not of been the right timing for a splash of hot pink?

    Nz is at the bottom of the world, trends took longer to get here (on the slow boat from Europe), Black and the darker neutral colours would of been an obvious choice, easy to mend and will go with everything.

  16. anna says

    maybe it has to do with wanting to be taken so seriously, theres something about black that seems polished, or together. Or maybe its a lack of knowledge about pairing colours (which often itsn’t matchy matchy); it’s a skill that some people just have and others seem to have no idea. an aye for balance perhaps?
    p.s. yet to meet someone who doesnt look great in navy…

  17. oldgirl says

    I was thinking, we all wore school unforms in dark colours , and black makes us feel still part of a group. I look at my staff from 18 to old me all in black but all wear it our own way, we look smart,and interesting.I will have the old black pants and jacket going on and the 18 year old will be in a short black tutu and great t.shirt both look o.k

  18. says

    “There is something so pervasive about the use of black in New Zealand that it must surely reflect an aspect of national identity… What lies behind New Zealand’s passion for black? Why do artists eschew strong and vibrant colour in favour of a restrained palette? Why has black become such a significant colour in New Zealand painting? Can it be that our passion for black, which is so intimately associated with our national identity, is reflective of a lingering Puritanism, an emotional reticence in our national psyche?”

    ‘Think Colour: Art is Never Just Black & White’
    Helen Kedgley
    Pataka Porirua Museum of Arts & Culture

    “Colour is crass. New Zealanders know this. That’s why black is our national colour. The colour black first appeared in McCahon’s work as a black singlet. Finally, it took over the whole canvas. Gordon Walters kept it going. Tony Fomison added nuance. Hotere vamped it up. Let’s face it, black offers a no nonsense approach to cultural identity.”

    ‘The New Black’
    Jacquie Clark
    Listener, July 2002


    Not a topic to be discussed lightly…

  19. says

    I distinctly remember thinking, when I was about ten, that when I was an adult I would always wear black. It was a black fitted jersey with silver rose motif and black loon-type pants of my mother’s that inspired me.

    It wasn’t till I was in my 30s that I remembered this, and lo, it had come to pass. I have hardly anything that isn’t black. Though I do like a coloured shoe.

    My school uniform was red.

  20. Carbunkle says

    I think black was an important part of New Zealand identity when the formation of our fashion look and style was being showcased on a world stage. The New Zealand Four showing at London Fashion Week in 1999 is the key example. With Karen Walker and Nom D presenting dark and layered clothing with an almost heavy but pared-back Victorian feel, they established New Zealand as being dark, introverted and a little bit bleak despite the glossy 100% pure ad campaigns. Black is also interesting because it has come to symbolise resistance and a disavowal of the established norms and tropes of fashion e.g. colour, pattern. I think black was key to New Zealand identity because it showed that we were not simply jumping on a trend bandwagon and that we were dark and subversive and not ever going to be “on trend”.

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