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Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown
Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown

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Chasing the Holy Grail of Hues: True Black

Why are we so obsessed with an unattainable color?

Dress in black to slim, to conform, to mourn. To protest, seduce, oppress, disappear. Black is a wellspring of identity and difference, the dye of royalty, fascists, waiters, sadomasochists.

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It's fashion's most robust renewable resource, an iconic stain: Victorian mourning veil, thigh-riding cocktail dress, torn Goth stockings. A black patch —€” Black Flag? —€” stitched to the back of a black leather jacket, loping down St. Mark's Place, year after year after year.

This year, a German designer named Phoebe Heess created a fabric that is purportedly 40 percent darker than the existing blackest black. Heess has named this color Viperblack, after the Gaboon viper, itself superlative: It is the world's heaviest viper, with the longest fangs and the most venomous bite. The Viperblack fabric is made of cotton, crowd-funded on Kickstarter, and contains Kevlar, which cannot be cut with a knife. In an interview with Dazed, Heess's creative partner, Gabriel Platt, cites as inspiration for Viperblack a Tumblr meme of Wednesday Addams that reads, "I will stop wearing black when they invent a darker color."

While Heess and Platt aren't the first to explicitly chase a blackest black, they are the first to develop it exclusively for fashion. They are preceded by researchers at Surrey NanoSystems, who have worked to achieve a black with 99.96 percent absorption, using carbon nanotubes. Called Vantablack (from Vertically Aligned NanoTube Arrays), it renders three-dimensional objects flat. This material isn't fit for clothing yet, but is used in infrared cameras, and has already been sent into outer space.

The destination is a depth of black so inconceivable to those who desire it, that the color can only be fabricated.

The originality of Vantablack, in turn, has been contested by the Belgian artist Frederik De Wilde, who also uses carbon nanotubes in his work. "I'm focusing on developing the blackest black material in the world," he said in a 2012 TED Talent Search talk. "I'm trying to create a void space, something that you totally disappear in." Heess's own inspiration is another artist, 95-year-old Pierre Soulages, whom the New York Times dubbed the "Master of Black" last year, and whose painting career has focused on the pursuit of outrenoir, translated into English as "beyond-black." Soulages's own interest was sparked by prehistoric cave art at Lascaux and Chauvet, drawn in charcoal in unaugmented darkness.

This quality of darkness is the destination: a depth of black so natural, yet so inconceivable to those who desire it, that the color can only be fabricated.

Before nanotubes and aspirational TED Talks, the pursuit of a pure black was more humble, if no less ardent. In Black: The History of a Color, the historian Michel Pastoureau chronicles the difficulties, both logistical and spiritual, of achieving black dye. He begins in 14th-century Europe, where the strongest black emerged from the oak apple, which was arduous to obtain, and expensive to import. Dyers created odd combinations of vegetable pigment, vinegar, and iron filings; the seedier among them employed charcoal or soot. The resultant colors were impermanent and often abrasive to the skin —€” but they were black.

A more provincial option was dye created from the bark of walnut trees. While more accessible, this method presented a conundrum: In the Middle Ages, walnut was thought to house evil spirits, and therefore considered toxic to livestock and vegetation. To nap under a walnut tree was to court the sinister.

The evasiveness of black dye was such that black garments were reserved for only the very wealthy, or the royal: counts and lords, dukes and princes. The popularity of black was top-down; cost was no rival for social trends, for a hunger fueled by rarity. Lawyers and judges staidly wore their black robes long; later, wealthier citizens outfitted themselves in black wools and silks, endeavoring to rival the onyx furs that draped their princes. "Social and ideological demand preceded advances in materials and technology," Pastoureau writes. "As is often, or always, the case, symbolism preceded chemistry."

Black is no longer an economic marker; the color's symbolism has turned over and over, recreating itself in countless directions. Black has been the chosen public uniform of witches, bank robbers, school shooters, Beat poets, Johnny Cash, Coco Chanel, Ice Cube, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It has been eschewed by Anna Wintour and Abercrombie & Fitch, and adopted by anarchists, the Black Panthers, Skrillex, and the Schutzstaffel. In the Smiths song "Unloveable," Morrissey sings with detached self-effacement, "I wear black on the outside, because black is how I feel on the inside." (This line, like the Wednesday Addams meme, is also popular amongst the angst-core set on Tumblr and Twitter.)

In 14th-century Europe, the strongest black emerged from the oak apple, which was arduous to obtain, and expensive to import.

Any other daily monochromatic impulse —€” a commitment to eggplant, say, or lemon yellow —€” would be considered an eccentricity, a pathology, thirst-dressing for Bill Cunningham. Why then, is black different? What does it mean to wear it, and in turn, to wear the blackest possible black?

Black is achromatic, a colorless color that gulps down the light. It takes everything and reflects nothing back. In the absence of color, the eye turns to details: texture, geometry, silhouette. When it's worn as a reaction to the world, as with other colors, it's an outward attempt to convey feeling. But the pursuit of purity in this particular color —€” we harp on the blackest black, not the reddest red — also suggests an existential goal: singularity of feeling and expression, the dial turned up on lust or rage or grief. Linked to both death and sex, two things that refer to, but don't negate, one another, black is a reminder of its own poles, a matrix of associations. In the form of clothing, it can signal tradition or rebellion: convent chastity, but kink, too. Standing in front of the mirror in a black sheath dress, the line between grief and fuckability is a matter of angles or inches.

At first the idea of a black beyond itself appeared to me as a mere conceit, the relentless search for it guided by marketing, not aesthetics. But then I begin to see it everywhere. One meandering afternoon, I'm caught in a flash downpour. The train station connects underground to the mall, a place I always enter with the silent demand, Fix me.

The woman at the makeup counter points out two eyeliners at my request. "This one is true black," she says, shaking the pencil like a disciplinarian. "Black-black."

"And the other?" I ask.

"That one is more black, a blacker black." She holds out her hand and graciously colors two thick lines against her own fist. She must do this all day, but her hand is so clean. I buy both liners and try them on at night, side by side. In the morning, I wake up to two black eyes.

A blacker black is something of an ouroboros: a color tunneling deeper into itself. When the color black as we know it is no longer enough, when there is a pressing demand that black become more like itself than itself, we enter the realm of the hyperreal. The hyperreal is "more real than real": It's the steroidal version of lived experience. It's Disneyland, HDTV, pornography, Oculus Rift. The framework stimulates infinite stoner insights.

We are supposed to want a 'true black' hue because it's desirable. But it's only desirable because we want it.

In his essay "Travels in Hyperreality," the writer Umberto Eco suggests that the hyperreal is created from desire: a wish for authentic and true experience, followed by the fabrication of a consumable imaginary in its place. The hyperreal is built as a shrine to the real; it burns with nostalgia, loss, and the pursuit of unknown satisfaction. Similarly, Viperblack exists in a void: The only quality ascribed to it is its desirability. We are supposed to want it because it's desirable; but it's only desirable because we want it. Rather than proximity to authenticity, we're just left holding its replacement.

The Kickstarter page for Viperblack claims that the color is "the holy grail of fashion," a callback to medieval times. What was old is new again. The Holy Grail has been used for centuries to refer to objects with power and promise, artifacts that yield youth, happiness, and pure pleasure. But if a hyperreal black is fashion's holy grail, then it is an aesthetic pleasure so pure it negates all that have preceded it. Such a black purports to be ahistorical, sloughing off associations, leaving it all behind. Funnily, the trailblazing piece in this new hue is fashion's most uncreative staple, a universal article of clothing so generic it is nearly invisible: a T-shirt.

It's oddly fitting, really. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Pastoureau writes, "Black has increasingly become the emblematic color of modernity." It's no coincidence that it's the chosen color of technology gurus: fueled by innovation, perpetually forward-looking, suggesting a triumph of genius over vanity, as if the two were ever in conflict. Shingy, the "tech prophet" employed by AOL, dresses like an inky solar panel. The classic black turtleneck designed by Issey Miyake (but with cousins in Gap stores worldwide) will forever be associated with Steve Jobs, whose daily uniform streamlined his time and attention.

But no longer luxurious or rare, black's most significant trait now is its ubiquity. "Is it possible that black has finally become an average color?" Pastoureau asks. "A neutral color? A color like all the others?" These hypothetical questions, of course, answer themselves.

After all, fashion during late capitalism is a shell game: not every outfit, let alone garment, carries an identity. The same black blouse from H&M —€” back zipper exposed, in a nod to black's punk phase —€” is just as likely to find its way into the closet of a teenaged Gothic Lolita as that of a C-level executive. Black has infinite referents: all specific, none replicable. The pursuit of a hyperreal black is in this way nostalgic, for all that black has meant and will never mean again.

Anna Wiener is a San Francisco-based writer.

Correction: This piece initially misidentified the creator of Vantablack. It is Surrey NanoSystems, not Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This error has been corrected.


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