5 October 2011

Opposing Elements

Fall/Winter 2011

A basic opposition - black versus white.  It sounds simple, and yet everything is contained within that opposition.  Life is about opposing forces, not simply in terms of life and death or hot and cold, but in every choice and instance.  Everything and everyone is subject to forces pushing and pulling in different directions, and it is how we react to those forces that define us.  We may not have a choice in some cases of the outcome of those forces acting upon us, but it is the way we adapt in our own ways that make us unique.  By choosing to go in one direction one necessarily chooses (whether consciously or not at the time) not to go in another.  But it is never simply an option between one or another, life is far more intricate than that, and that makes things both more complex, but also more worthwhile.

The opposition of black and white may at first seem a simple opposition between two colours (or indeed non-colours), however that is only if one considers them in abstract.  Colour has no inherent fixed meaning, and as such context is everything.  Being at either end of the spectrum - the pureness of white, and the totality of black - makes them a fascinating case study for the exploration of oppositions.  They are in essence the purest of visual contrasts one can make, and yet their inherent complexity of socially embedded meanings makes their juxtaposition all the more engaging.  I suppose in a way both are liminal colours, for they are at the very boundary of non-meaning and meaning.  Colour is never perceived on a purely visual level, for we all ascribe our own meanings and memories to a colour, which in turn imbues the use of any colour with a greater complexity.

White embodies emptiness, black embodies totality.  White is curious in that is the absence of all colour, made starkly apparent when it is placed alongside even the slightest hint of colour.  Design is about controlling differences, placing one thing aside another and finding a balance.  In finding that balance, white is the beginning, the silence before the chaos of life - the whiteness of bone, the whiteness of eggs, the whiteness of milk, the whiteness of paper.  But it is also used as a contrast, to highlight the vibrancy of another colour, for when any colour is placed alongside white it becomes even stronger.  White is able to do so through its stark purity, which is in essence its emptiness.  Emptiness is distinctly different to nothingness, for whilst nothingness defines lack in its rawest sense, emptiness encompasses the potential for any possibility.  Emptiness is alluring precisely because it is a blank canvas waiting to be filled, and in doing so, one comes to appreciate more the beauty and potential of emptiness.

If colours become more vibrant, and their vivacity all the more apparent when placed besides the emptiness of white, imagine what would happen if it were placed besides the authority of black.  Black would seem to be the very opposite of white.  Black has been invested with many powerful, often opposing, meanings throughout history - the dignity and power of black in the Spanish court, the piety and austerity of the priest, the sadness and tragedy of those in mourning, the elegance and luxury of the fashionable lady.  It would seem to be full of meanings, all jostling to emerge.  Paradoxically designers talk of their preference for black because it is devoid of meaning, allowing one to focus on line and texture, and thus the very essence of the garment.  But I would argue that it becomes devoid of meaning exactly because it has such a brilliant multitude of meanings.  Thus one who is able to wield it effectively can pick and choose from an array of culturally embedded meanings to suggest all manner of significance.

In such a way perhaps black is closer to white than one would initially perceive.  By being so full of meaning that it effectively cancels out, so that black in its totality comes to signify everything, and thus nothing.  White is symbolically devoid of meaning, allowing one to apply it as one sees fit - an emptiness awaiting fulfilment.  Black and white would seem to converge in their potential to be utilized to express a whole array of meanings, and in their visual pureness they are able to express that meaning all the more powerfully.  However context is everything here, for the way in which either non-colour is used will suggest the final intended meaning of the garment.  This is obviously built upon or changed by the wearer who will then place the garment within a new and unique context.

That final meaning is only ever suggested, for there is no fixed meaning for any colour or piece of clothing.  It is that undefinable quality that lends it such potential and makes fashion so intriguing.  I can wear something with a certain intention, however it may not necessarily be read in that way.  Barthes wrote that 'everything is meaning, nothing receives it', and yet with fashion the original state is often seen as without meaning, or indeed as he puts it, existing in a state of inertia.  The garment is fact, whilst fashion is a social construct, and in such a way whilst what we see may be a black skirt, it is in actuality anything but.  Even if the applied meaning is entirely arbitrary, whilst that meaning exists, even if only briefly, the garment thus becomes something more.  Even if that only ever be realistically so for the wearer.

If black is seen as devoid of meaning due to its infinite multiplicity of meaning, and white is seen to be devoid of meaning due to its symbolic purity and emptiness, than what could be more fascinating than to juxtapose the two?  The opposing forces of black and white create the strongest contrast in terms of colour, shade and tone.  However it not simply a contrast on a visual level, for the two can be employed to construct a meaning that fully compliments the intentions of the designer in pushing the meaning of the garment.  By choosing two colours that are ostensibly pure, the focus is therefore placed upon the garment.  Colours and prints may draw the eye away from imperfections, but they can never make up for those imperfections.  Black and white force the designer and wearer to consider the cut and look of the garment at its fullest.  It is about the essence of the garment itself.  



  1. All I know..black makes me look thinner. Really, loved the post.

  2. I've been saving this post to eat with my ramen for lunch and my god you fed me more then ramen or any food ever could. I am so glad I took the time to really read this and absorb a very thoughtful look at black and white. Did you end up buying that book "White" because I still have yet to take the plunge on it and kind of want to know how worthwile it is even though I'm pretty much sure it's an investment needing to happen. Actually I've been reading Wabi Sabi for designers, artists and philosophers if you haven't read it yet go get it. Pretty much what I've felt about aesthetics but also philosophically for a long time.

    Thank you Syed for being so thoughtful and being one the few people to take the time to publish this online. I shall be forwarding this on to many friends who I know will love it.

  3. So much to think about. Love the pics.

  4. This was definitely a DEEP post. Great writing.