The DEPARTURES Ode to Black
The enduring chic of the New York uniform.
Among the collection of historical time stamps at the Museum of the City of New York is a photograph of women boarding the elevated train in 1903. Within the 14-inch square frame, the print shows a dozen or so women, bundled up to combat winter, crowding the platform at Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street. As Manhattan women tend to be in the winter, they are dressed in layers. Hats, gloves, scarves, sturdy bags, heeled boots, slim winter coats. The tailoring is pristine—shoulders structured, hems full, lapels sharp, waists attended to. The only thing missing? Color. Every woman in the frame is dressed in head-to-toe black.
At the time, Times Square was called Longacre Square, and the Williamsburg Bridge had only just been completed. Bergdorf Goodman and Macy’s had just opened, and the Flatiron Building was the city’s new skyscraper. New York style would soon be New York Style, thanks in large part to an increase in millionaires in the city after the industrial revolution, which begat the first generation of New York high society. While the notion of “street fashion” wouldn’t be discussed (or Instagrammed) for a century, the idea that New Yorkers dress in all black—“All black everything,” as Brooklyn native Jay-Z would rap in 2009—was already taking hold.
Until the end of the 19th century, dressing in black was for mourners only. Governments regulated the codes of bereavement, mostly reserved for Europe’s upper class, as the deep pigment and dyes were costly. But the emerging moneyed class in America—still keen on revolution but not above knocking off their aristocratic antecedents across the Atlantic—ditched the sumptuary laws and dressed to grieve.
Twentieth-century black was the new black. Coco Chanel’s little black dress (Vogue compared the radical look to Henry Ford’s Model T) came in 1926. Audrey Hepburn’s morning-after all-black Givenchy look defined understated glamour in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Donna Karan’s “seven easy pieces” collection of interchangeable black separates in 1985 was salvation for women dressing for success. In the mid-’90s, a paparazzi-evading Carolyn Bessette Kennedy suited up in the minimalist armor of black-for-day Calvin Klein. All moments that furthered the mythology of how a New York woman dresses—and who she is.
“Dressing in New York is all about what story you want to tell—whether it’s true or not,” says the stylist Paul Cavaco, who cofounded the fashion PR company KCD in 1983 and perhaps created a cliché when he required his team to dress in all black at fashion shows. “We didn’t want them distracting from the clothes on the runway or in the showroom. There was a whole Japanese thing happening at the time in New York, with Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons. Dressing in black signaled which tribe you belonged to.”
Throughout history, many tribes in New York, most in downtown Manhattan, adopted black almost as a costume—beatniks (black tees, black berets), punks (black leather, black jeans), goths (black velvet, black nails), and gallerists (black suits, black sneakers). But for the New York fashion tribe, it became a uniform, Cavaco says. “When you wear black, you don’t cast any shadow.”
At Carolina Herrera’s Spring 2018 fashion show, presented on a September night in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, look after look came down the runway in a palette of vivid brights— cerise, lavender, goldenrod, fuchsia. When Herrera, a designer and Manhattan society stalwart who’s helped define New York dressing through both her runways and her personal style since 1980, took her bow, she was dressed head to toe in black. Does everyone in New York City wear black? No. Do New Yorkers wear black? Yes.
Styled by Melissa Ventosa Martin