HAVING INVESTIGATED THE PRACTICAL and symbolic relevance of white clothing to various religions or religious movements, this next instalment explores just some of the religious cultures that employ white’s opposite: black meaningfully in their dress. A colour that is just as avidly used by the religiously devout, black communicates an altogether distinct message. Whereas white is about purity, spirituality and hierarchies of piety, black stands for modesty and simplicity. The natural result of the absence of light, its monochromatic use in clothing can elicit an understated humility which downplays the physical, in favour of the spiritual.
Those who have visited Williamsburg in New York City, Stamford Hill in London or any other neighbourhood populated by Hasidic Jews, will more than likely have been visually overwhelmed by the number of men in head-to-toe black. The characteristic colour of male Hasidic Jews since the 15th century, the height of Jewish life in Eastern Europe; not only has black remained standard since, but so have the specific garments. Some historians believe that the preference for black originates from a decree made by rabbis in the 18th century stipulating that colourful shiny kaftans, which were once the standard of dress amongst Eastern European Jewry, should be replaced by subdued black garments to avoid resentment and violence from non-Jews. For the Hasidic community of today, black has adopted additional purposes and meanings, representing tradition, modesty and a serious life committed to God.
Within Eastern Orthodox Christianity, clergy typically elect to wear black cassocks during non-religious functions. Liturgical garments, on the other hand, are colourful and ornate. There is a consensus within not just the Eastern Orthodox Church, but other Christian religious bodies as well, that it is preferential for clergy to wear black or dark colours in public secular settings in order to reflect a state of modesty.
The chador and niqab are two items of clothing that belong to the Muslim commandment of hijab, which instructs females beyond the age of puberty to cover their bodies in the presence of adult males beyond their immediate family. The chador is a full body, cloak-like garment typically worn by Iranian women, while the niqab is a cloth that covers the face, and is worn in Arab counties and other areas with substantial Muslim populations. Because this particular Quranic requirement is linked directly to modesty, chadors and niqabs are typically black, or other dark colours.
Dalia Vann is a writer and stylist. She has an MA in History and Culture of Fashion.