The Real Reason We’re Wearing All-Black During The Pandemic

Photos courtesy of @brittanybathgate, @alexiaforeman and @basicstouch.
Brittany Bathgate, Alexis Foreman & Aïda
Lately I’ve found that my weekly outfits are made up of a rotating chorus line of all-black items. If I’m honest, it’s a miracle I’m getting dressed at all but as someone who, pre-pandemic, played around with pastel hues and florals, puff-sleeve blouses with larger than life collars and all manner of vintage prints, this move to the dark side is startling. 
Lockdown dressing has divided us in more ways than one. You might remain committed to comfort via loungewear – or perhaps you've started dressing with some semblance of structure in order to bolster your mood each morning – but there’s further proof that we’re all approaching pandemic dressing differently. Some of us have embraced serotonin-boosting colours and playful prints in a move to lift the spirits and find small joys in this perpetual Groundhog Day; meanwhile others, like me, are increasingly gravitating towards all-black everything.
Molly, 28, a communications director at a gallery in New York, moved from London to the States three years ago. "Though all-black is de rigueur in the New York art world, I have stubbornly clung to my beloved English patterns of William Morris-style florals, houndstooth and gingham," she tells me. Around six months into the pandemic, however, she found herself reaching for black and navy each morning. "I used to love playing with clothing but in the last year its function has changed," she explains. "It became a way to bolster myself for the day. It took me a while to adapt to the idea that my style has changed for the foreseeable future." 
Photo by Burberry via Getty Images
Burberry SS21
Wearing black is a sign of the season, I hear you cry – it is winter after all. But for Jess, 34, Refinery29’s lifestyle director, the sun-soaked days of 2020 were filled with black, too. "I wore a lot of black before the pandemic, it was a staple along with blue, white and grey, but I noticed I was wearing more [of it] in lockdown last year," she says. "I usually branch out a bit in the summer but this time I just...didn’t." Just as colour loyalists like myself were enticed by black on even the sunniest of days, designers at SS21 fashion month were drawn to a darker palette. Molly Goddard and Christopher John Rogers may have galvanised customers with cheerful brights and jubilant prints but the likes of Burberry, Balenciaga, Altuzarra and Loewe held an obsidian outlook for the season. Trend forecaster WGSN reported that, at 29%, black held the largest share of the colour mix on the catwalks – no mean feat for a season supposedly readying us for the breezy days and balmy nights of summer. Net-A-Porter has seen double-digit sales growth for black items from brands like Alaïa, Bottega Veneta and Alexander McQueen, while shopping platform Lyst reports that global search for black pieces has grown 23% year on year. 
Photo by Estrop/Getty Images
Balenciaga AW20
Black’s bewitching place in fashion history is longstanding, its symbolism powerful, varied and enduring. Yes, it illustrates grief and mourning – a global custom dating back to the Roman Empire – but it represents power, too: around the 14th century, black became popular with the upper classes, who imbued the hue with sophistication and wealth. By the end of the 18th century, men had turned away from the frills and fancies of passing trends, leaving feminine details and colour to women in what 20th century psychoanalyst John Flügel called the Great Male Renunciation. Black business suits became uniform across professions – from lawyers to businessmen, clerics to estate agents – and while women expressed themselves via new silhouettes, materials, print and colour, as the centuries unfolded, men rarely strayed from their sober two-pieces. In the last few decades, though, with the help of designers like Paul Smith and Ozwald Boateng, men have begun to loosen up and incorporate colour and flare into their suiting. Meanwhile many have subverted the potency of a black suit, from Marlene Dietrich and Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking to Bianca Jagger and, more recently, Ashley Biden at this year’s presidential inauguration.
Coco Chanel, creator of the Little Black Dress, played with the 'absolutes' of black and white, while Cristóbal Balenciaga’s sweeping black sculptural silhouettes toyed with the notion of negative space. Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo and the 'poet of black' Yohji Yamamoto spearheaded an avant-garde movement of Japanese design which elevated black from a colour to a concept. In a widely circulated (and very Instagrammable) quote from September 2000, Yamamoto told fashion critic Suzy Menkes: "Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy – but mysterious ... But above all black says this: 'I don't bother you – don't bother me'." 
Photo courtesy of AMQ.
Photo courtesy of AMQ.
In a bid to focus eyes on their work, not their wardrobe, designers like Mary Katrantzou, Rick Owens and Jil Sander have veiled themselves in black – a uniform adopted by architects, too. From beatniks, punks and New Romantics to emos and health goths, subcultures have been drawn to the rebellion, mystery and poetry of black. It’s at once unassuming and bold, subtle and all-encompassing, nostalgic and ultra modern, inviting yet aloof.     
This time around, the pendulum’s swing to the dark side comes hot on the heels of a cacophony of colour, popularised over the past few years by Scandi brands and their legion of pastel-loving street stylers, and the picnic of prints of the prairie and cottagecore trends. After almost 12 months spent in and out of lockdown, what does this shift say about our collective mood? It would be glib to draw direct parallels between black, grief and the global pandemic or to suggest that wearing black is a sartorial expression of our mourning for the events of the past year. Perhaps, instead, it speaks more to our growing desire for simplification. 
With nowhere to go and no one to see, many of us have reassessed our emotionally charged relationship with clothes, fuelled by fast fashion’s carousel of trends and social media’s targeted ads and culture of comparison. In the shadow of a growing sustainability movement, we’ve been given time to sit with the sheer amount of clothing we own, which, after a year of being confined to the same four walls, no longer serves a viable purpose. Many of us have opted to sell, recycle and donate pieces which no longer speak to us, while online search for capsule wardrobes has risen in the past 12 months. A recent report by WGSN noted that "uniform dressing in the form of head-to-toe black is emerging via social media" as consumers are "embracing concepts of dematerialisation and limitarianism". 
"I have a whole rack of clothes in various colours I can’t ever imagine myself wearing again," Jess explains. "I have staples now – I’ve never had staples – and several more expensive items that are good quality which I revolve throughout the week and feel good in every day." Beyond our desire to tap out of the whiplash caused by constant trends, black is a safe bet in the face of the pandemic’s financial uncertainty. "People are focused on buying for longevity," Joanne Thomas, head of colour at Coloro, tells Refinery29. "Black reflects that as it transcends seasons and trends. With consumers buying less but better, it is reflected in their colour choices – they want it to last the test of time."
Photo courtesy of Altuzarra.
Altuzarra SS21
It’s too simplistic to assume this sartorial blackout is a symptom of mourning but it certainly offers us a level of security. "It is thought that people who wear all-black are often trying to protect themselves from feelings outside their control," Thomas says. "Monochromatic colours allow us a camouflage, a protection, a safety, it can shield us from certain emotions or anxieties, something that we are all seeking in these turbulent and emotional trying times." Colours can date quite quickly – think of millennial pink or Gen Z yellow – but black endures: it’s robust, inoffensive and protective, and it bolsters us for what lies ahead. "I think there is something about feeling 'safe' when everything’s a bit scary outside," Jess notes. "You go to your 'safe' place and mine is black clothing." 
On an elementary level, presented with a smorgasbord of problems, from family members falling ill and fractured friendships to poor mental health, unkind landlords and redundancies, the last thing we want to have to consider is our daily outfit. Black eliminates decision-making when getting dressed in the morning, creating just a little more space in our minds for the things that really matter right now. "When your daily reality is grappling with global tragedy, it's hard to be enthused about coordinating a fun outfit," Molly says. "It feels less important to 'peacock' in a frilly top or special trousers, or to experiment with stuff when you’re seeing less people," Jess agrees. "Perhaps this will change as the world opens up but for now I like the situation I’ve got going on." 
Far from uninspiring, wearing black can be a playful experiment in texture and silhouette – even while working from home. Both Jess and Molly cited creative director and self-proclaimed goth Lydia Pang as a doyenne of darkness, while Aïda of @basicstouch and Anna of @theannaedit are loved for their easy contemporary capsule wardrobes. Alexis Foreman and Brittany Bathgate are fantastic follows for tailored minimalism and you can look to Monikh Dale for smart but comfortable WFH get-ups. Black makes a great backdrop for silver and gold jewellery, notes Natalie Kingham, global fashion officer at Matches Fashion, but it elevates pretty much any outfit for any occasion. "From jumping on a work call [to] a quick lunchtime jog round the park or dashing to the local supermarket, black is easy, inoffensive, subtle yet undeniably powerful," Thomas muses. "It works in all materials, silhouettes and styles, from sportswear to loungewear to evening wear to workwear to lingerie; black’s versatility means it will always reign supreme."

More from Fashion

R29 Original Series