Burgundian black power

Men in Black
November 10, 1995

I began reading this somewhat overwritten account of clothes as power and symbol with a measure of scepticism and was then taken to lunch at the Northern Counties Club. With the exception of my host, another academic, everyone present was dressed in black suits, though a degree of individuality was expressed in the shirts and ties of a few: the shirt of the Bank of England agent was a particularly striking shade of blue. Collectively they appeared as respectable, professional and sober, while the two academics, despite wearing the regulation jacket and tie, were, in contrast, clearly raffish.

Returning to John Harvey's book with fresh interest, I was again impressed by his range, ambition, eye for visual detail and literary allusion, and ability to trace a theme back over two millennia. There are many fascinating ideas in the work and the issue of the use of colour offers an original way to approach a series of events, movements, texts and individuals.

There is, for example, a close reading of the use of black in Hamlet and Othello; consideration of numerous paintings, effectively reproduced in black and white, from Degas' The Cotton Market, New Orleans to Francis Bacon's Study for a Portrait of John Edwards; and a lengthy discussion of the role of black in Dickens's fiction.

Harvey presents the later novels through the prism of oppression, oppression in the townscape, within individuals and in their relationships. He suggests that Dickens presents this situation as a product of struggle with the frustrated aspirations and energies of individuals, and thus that the black clothes that were worn so generally indicate not only a certain coherence in society and acceptance of the bonds of authority, but also the product of a will to maintain them.

Thus, as frequently in the work, black is presented as "the insignia also of misgiving and anxiety, the uniform of an effort and assertion of discipline". Black is seen as the only colour that could be chosen for a morality based on fear and Harvey treats the resurgent Calvinism of 19th-century England in that light. Dickens, like Bront , is seen as registering key aspects of the spiritual politics of the time. Clothing is seen in such novels as articulating a political and moral will, black dress as involving a form of black preaching.

This essentially literary account of why men "wanted to dress in a smart kind of mourning" so that "the 19th century looked like a funeral", is less successful as Harvey ranges more widely. He has an uncritical acceptance of the "black legend" of Philip II, and black is of course seen as emblematic of the "harshness. . . zeal. . . mistrust. . . dominating and lifelong anxiety" of the king and his reign. Philip's slaughter of "very many" and wearing of black is introduced into the discussion of Hamlet in a rather fanciful fashion.

Harvey is more successful in his account of the multiple associations of black during the French Revolution. Black is presented as a signal of political conviction on both sides, though, confusingly, it was also worn by those sitting on the fence. Furthermore, as Harvey notes, there was no standard dress at the trial of Louis XVI. The king wore an olive silk suit, Barr re, the president of the court, a scarlet waistcoat and Robespierre black. In addition, as Harvey points out, "the main tendency of the Revolution was to colour", its dominant motif the tricolour. This was a period of colour in dress, and colour was the theme of the new designs for Republican dress, prepared in the mid-1790s, and also of the luxurious clothes of the Directors.

At times, Harvey's desire to fit everything in leads to a jumble: "Soldiers themselves deal in real death; they have hardly needed to wear black, and often have been far from doing so. When, in the ancient world, soldiers fought hand to hand, there was little purpose in being camouflaged; and perhaps some advantage, for heroes at all events, in being dauntingly splendid and gorgeous. So Caesar had been pleased to lead an army of dandies. And at all times colour is courage, it makes a brave show, and furthermore it identifies your side - and also, of course, deserters. . . The colour red may suggest courage and heart, the roused blood keen to act. It may also, like black, play on fear: your own blood is vulnerable to a man made of blood. But soldiers, too, might wear black."

Again, for the 19th century: "If the French adopted the black fashion, knowing it to be the English fashion, it might have been, in France, a degree more at variance with the disposition of the wearer. (So one might argue that Michel Foucault's reading of the 19th century's professed asceticism as an oblique index of the middle class's adjustment to its bodily and sexual well-being, though accurate for Catholic France, still understates the deeper-damaging ascetic strains in Protestant England.) At the same time, it was not an English critic, or a commentator with a Weberian axe to grind, who then read the black fashion most emphatically in terms of (to quote Chenoune) 'renunciation, impoverishment, and loss' - it was Baudelaire."

Much of the book is better written. There are more measured, interesting and clearer sections - particularly when Harvey discusses paintings, for example, the use of Geertgen tot Sint Jans's Adoration of the Magi as an opportunity to discuss "fine-looking Africans", and whether Burgundian black is beautiful. By its very nature, however, the theme of the book calls for a degree of boldness and a richness of reference that will be both exhilarating and complex to the point of confusion. Harvey's skill in etching connections and offering an overall interpretation runs ahead of his ability to express himself clearly and to grasp the nature of some episodes.

Yet, it would be inappropriate to end on a critical note. This is an interesting and thoughtful work, appropriately illustrated, and one that closes with a fascinating discussion of the theme in the present century: Fascist Black Shirts in Italy, the SS, Mosley, black leather-jackets, bikers, pornography, youth-cultures, Punk City black, death, Pynchon, Dracula, Japanese black and Francis Bacon. Whether this truly justifies such claims in the last paragraph as "we live now in the aftertow of the black wave's latest rise and breaking" and "black may be a shadow fallen on the feminine part of man", is open to question, but Harvey has certainly written a lively book.

Jeremy Black has recently been appointed professor of history, University of Exeter.

Men in Black

Author - John Harvey
ISBN - 0948462 73 6
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £19.95
Pages - 280

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