Madame X or Portrait of Madame X is the informal title of a portrait painting by John Singer Sargent of a young socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, wife of Pierre Gautreau.
The model was an American expatriate who married a French banker, and became notorious in Parisian high society for her beauty, her narrow waist, and rumored infidelities. [The painting] provoked a firestorm of outrage and was regarded as scandalous.—Wikipedia
Today the little black dress is all about reliability, the safe but shapely and dependable dress that will always looks right for an occasion. When I was young and weighed considerably less than I do now and wore what today would be a size 0, but was then labeled a size 6 or 8, I thought I was too fat and too white for black. I wore short tent dresses in sherbet shades of pink and orange and worried about my hairy arms and whether I had shaved under them recently enough. I could, in those days, fit into vintage dresses from the 1920s and 30s, beautiful narrow gowns in pleated silk with a pattern of black on rust and ruby velvet with black jet beads. I had a pair of black kid leather boots from the previous century, but when I wore a slender black wool crêpe, my mother declared it “too old” for me and I worried it made my skin look like the underside of a fish. My white skin carries an olive undertone that was unfashionable without a tan. My friends lay for hours in the sun. I hid in shadows.
A few decades pass and today most of my wardrobe is black. Looking down the line of my closet there are rare slices of deep coral and olive green, brown and purple and gray. Mostly, though, there is black hanging in my closet. Black jeans are my favorites. Black t-shirts and tank tops hang beside black cardigans in wool and linen. I have patterned leggings purchased one fall in the spirit of fun with turquoise zigzags and red hearts, but more often I wore the four black pairs. Black socks fill one drawer and black underwear another, two pair of black boots and black shoes line the floor. I had a red pair, but wore them out and failed to replace them. Hanging on the taller side of the closet that mostly belongs to my husband, there are four long black dresses. I save the smokey purple velvet one for winter weddings, but my best dress, the long lean, black jersey dress is good for occasions in any season. It is a petite large, mid-calf sleeveless, rayon jersey Eileen Fisher basic—not a little black dress but one that fulfills that function. When I have lost weight I belt it, and when I have gained I wear it loose with a light cardigan to conceal my waist. I do not worry that the dark color makes me look too pale, I hope it makes me look thinner. Like many women in America, I worry about my weight but do nothing about it other than casting illusions with my wardrobe. None of my black dresses is little. Though I wore little dresses that rode my thighs in many shades other than black when I was young, in my sixties the dresses in my closet hang well past my knees. A dark disguise.
Black is hard to see. Black is the lack of seeing, the absence of light reflected from a surface—when we see black, in fact, we are seeing nothing, the absence of light. Black clarifies the outline of objects in silhouette, but obscures what comes between its edges. The object is perceived as smaller than it is—hence the mystique of the little black dress.
I first became aware of this shrinking invisibility in real life rather than theory at a dog show. I had driven north and slightly east of Seattle in order to look at Afghan Hounds at the Puyallup Kennel Club show held indoors in a fairground stadium. The lighting was poor, and the black dogs being shown appeared nearly invisible, obscure blobs moving around the ring. When I later went looking for a dog, I knew I wanted one that looked like Barberryhill Dolly, a red Afghan in a photo from the 1930s. In a reversal of Henry Ford, I did not care what color so long as the color was not black. I flew to Arizona and came home with Oranje Anisette, a year old black bitch named for the anise-flavored liquor. She had white chest locket the size of a quarter that rarely showed, a good outline, and I finished her championship in Canada, but I would return to that fairground three years later to win a major with her distant cousin, who was red.
Anisette was one of our sweetest dogs. Licorice can be sweet or salty, red or black. I took mine black and sweet, but black as a color has other associations in the west: funerals, witchy hats, cats crossing our path. Black is the color of funerals and ill fortune, evil hearts and cruel magic events. The type on our page is black, but the page itself is innocently white. In the West black is the color of mourning, but some eastern cultures have a wiser approach to sorrow. They mourn loss by wearing white, the absence of color, not the absence of its reflection.
Applied to objects in dyes and inks, black is a supersaturation of pigment, so much pigment that the fabric or signature appears black until time, sunlight, or bleach fade it to purple or rust. This can be used to advantage. During my practicum, at the time I was student teaching in a middle school, Lynn Gray found black corduroy pieces from several bolts to make a group project. Students did reverse tie dye—discharge—tying cut squares with string and rubber bands and twine, dipping briefing in a bleach solution and then in baths to neutralize the bleach and rinse it clear. We expected a pattern of white on the original black, but none of the squares bleached to gray, instead some showed smokey blue, others rust or green. We came to greet this variation with enthusiasm.
Black itself varies, fades, shows bleaching from the sun. water on black ink may float in waves of colors. We may choose to write in black or blue or any dark color at all, but legal documents generally require dark ink, blue-black or black. The blue-black ink in my father’s fountain pen was a throw-back to early European times when the gall-ink black was transparent when first applied and a blue dye was added to ensure the writing was visible. Over time the gall ink turned dark and black.
The earliest India inks were from China and colored with carbon from sources such as burnt bone and oil. The Romans also wrote in black ink made from soot, but a recipe for black tattoo ink includes iron sulfate, bronze ground with vinegar, pine bark, and gall from insect egg deposits. Europeans made black ink colored with black iron gall—iron salts and tannic acids, often from oak—beginning in the twelfth century, but this acidic pigment is destructive of cellulose paper. The ink of Bach’s original eighteenth century scores have faded to brown and threaten to destroy the paper on which they were written so that conservators wrestle with how to preserve them. The signatures on my undergraduate diplomas, from not forty years ago, have mostly faded to illegibility.
Newspapers today are printed with carbon pigment suspended in oils, which results in ink coming off on the hands of readers. In Wodehouse’s stories, the impeccable butler Jeeves irons the Times so that the ink will not rub off on Bertie Wooster’s hands. My regional newspaper, The Oregonian, began using “rub-free” ink in the 1980s, but no one reads print newspaper much anymore.
The word black itself is derived from Old English dark and earlier words meaning to burn, gleam, shine, or flash. That might refer to the night sky, which in the days before streetlights would indeed and gleamed and shone, bright with stars no city-dweller can see today. The earliest know art, such as the caves at Lascaux, were painted in the dark with ground charcoal and manganese—mostly black on the stone. The marks are guessed to be wishful thinking of hunts and plenty.
The Egyptians regarded black as fortunate in their rich black soil but also through Anubis, god of the underworld and protector of innocence. The Greeks created a more complicated relationship with black, using black in ornament and cosmetics, decorating red pottery with black and later red drawn on a black ground. Black was darkness and death in the afterworld, darkest for those deserving punishment. But the Romans reserved colors for those of rank and black became the clothing of commoners. Death itself was named the Black House. In the north, there was the goddess of the night, but soon enough the prejudice of black as evil robed the devil in black. This would change in the West as black became fashionable and associated with the rich and powerful. Colors such as scarlet and blue and purple were still reserved for the wealthy and those with standing in the church, but black became the color of government officials and later the emblematic color of the Reformation, a somber and serious morally upright color, a hue of humility before God.
Thus use of black often carries a moral message, from black cats and witches’ hats to religious austerity in cleric’s cassock and nun’s habit, from the ostentatious display of sable furs and silk magistrates’ robe to the wretched industrial revolution’s soiled cities, black tie to tail coats, butlers and the governess’s modest dress to the Grim Reaper.
Queen Victoria made a life-long ceremony of wearing black in mourning for her husband from 1861 until her own death forty years later. Conventional British mourning of her day required plain black to be worn for a year and a day after the death of a family member. Gradually black was relieved by touches of white and then a shift to muted colors such as gray and mauve over the next years. Not everyone could afford to wear their grief but others played it to their advantage. Lily Langtry, the Jersey Lily who became one of the Prince of Wales’ mistresses and internationally famous beauty—Langry, Texas is named for her—entered society wearing a plain black silk mourning dress, which she secretly restyled each day for daytime and then evening wear. Without the money for jewelry or fashionable changes of clothing, her unadorned appearance ran against the highly decorative style of the day, and captured the public’s imagination.
In the midst of all this Victorian mourning, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of a notorious financier’s wife in a tight, low cut black dress, reveals Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau’s precious skin glowing like opal against the darkness. The painting that became known as “Portrait of Madame X” suggested a new and delightfully wicked association for the color in clothing.
The Little Black Dress dates back to designers Coco Chanel and Jean Patou in the 1920s who were looking for understated chic. This sexy thing is available from every department store today—Nordstrom offers over seven hundred versions. Think of Audrey Hepburn with her long cigarette holder, her long black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Black shows the cat’s hair, but is a workhorse in the wardrobe, going everywhere and with everything. The use of black today conveys a message of elegant choice rather than judgement, punishment, or come-hither titillation. I only wear black in order to seem more slender than I am. A tiny visual lie. Surely not so scandalous a failing.