Black power – men’s clothing

Martin E. Marty

Look at paintings from centuries past. Until the 19th century the men, at least the secular ones, wear colorful clothes. But in photos from the two most recent centuries they wear black, whether for business, dancing, funerals or formal occasions. Why? John Harvey ponders this in Men in Black (University of Chicago Press), in which illustrations abound. I hurried to his sections on religion.

Hans Holbein was exceptional for once painting the risen Jesus in a black gown. Christians themselves have regularly advanced the basic-black cause. Think of medieval monks. Then there is Cranach’s Luther, preaching in a black Augustinian habit, a habit linked to “a melancholy personal to Luther” and tied to the Reformer’s “thought on human depravity.” This is “the black of the inner human sinfulness, of depravity, worn without in honest contrition … as the avowal of a personal grim inwardness with human failing.” Don’t invite such a Luther to your party. Forget his reputation for boisterousness and ribaldry.

Calvin? He wore black because he was trained in law. The Puritans? Of course. Black was becoming the Protestant shade, always because of Protestants’ “conviction of depravity.” The mouth of a young Lutheran painted by Wolfgang Heimbach shows “more displeasure,” is “more downturned” than Agnolo Bronzino’s young Catholic, painted 100 years earlier. Harvey tells us that “black was humble–the color of humility and self-effacement.”

This is a 20th-century academic book, so it has to address the issue of power. We learn that now, despite some backlashing against black, “the man in black is the agent of a serious power; and of a power claimed over women and the feminine.”

As my tailor James Cash Penney can tell you, all my suits and coats are black. My choice of black has one rationale–or so I thought until I read Harvey. Since most shirts, ties and accessories go with black, I do not have to waste a second, minute or hour determining what to wear on any morning or for any occasion.

Practical reason alone explains my choice, I thought. But Harvey prompts a hermeneutics of suspicion. I must deconstruct the signs in my blah wardrobe. Here I am now on the couch, wearing black, staring at the ceiling while the analyst probes my past and my inward zones. What is there? Melancholy? Depravity? Sinfulness? Humility? Contrition? Grim inwardness? Displeasure? Downturning? Self-effacement? Or, today, the reverse: “serious power”?

The old pictures in my album show me in motley garb, back when I was an associate pastor, associate professor, associate editor, associate dean. Then I put on black and became, mo mentarily, until they caught on to me, president of four different agencies. Serious power manifest. Did the change in garb issue in change of status? Or did the change in status force on me the serious power choice to wear black?

Harvey doesn’t help me, and I may not want to know. I only know this: If the men who read this column have to choose what color to wear on any day, they’ll be left behind. They’ll see my back and see themselves reflected in the vinyl finish that, my sons tell me, this fashion-plate father allows to develop on suits worn too long. If I get a minute, I might buy a very dark flannel charcoal suit. Might? That suggests choice. A waste of time. Hand me my coat. The black one, of course.

COPYRIGHT 1995 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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