Why Do We Wear Black?

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July, 1993

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1993 by William A. Henkin

<Q> Why is black the color of choice for the SM community?

<A> While black certainly is the color primarily associated with SM these days, it wasn't always so, and it still isn't universal even within the community. For example, in "Dr. Kinsey Takes a Peek at SM," an article published in Mark Thompson's Leatherfolk (Boston: Alyson, 1991), Samuel Stewart describes his first glimpse of the top the famous sex researcher arranged for him to meet in 1949:

Lounging with legs stretched out and with his back against the trunk of an apple tree was a handsome brute with crew-cut black hair and a somewhat tough bulldog face. He wore a shirt open to his navel, showing a fan of curly black hair. On his lower half were beige jodhpur trousers above brown English boots with lacings at the instep... for black had not yet become the imperative color for sadists.

Or masochists either, apparently, since Stewart does not describe his own clothing as dark. In any event Stewart found the top to be pretty proficient, the color of his drag notwithstanding.

It was some time after 1950, then, that black came to be the color of choice for the leather community. It would be easy to assume that gay leathermen – who pretty much were whatever leather community existed at that time – adopted black in part because Western civilization has long associated black with power, secrets, and whatever is shadowy or ominous. But in his essay, " 'Old Guard': Its Orgins, Traditions, Mystique and Rules," first published in Drummer and recently reprinted in his collection of columns, Ties That Bind (Los Angeles: Daedalus Publishing Co., 1993) Guy Baldwin notes that even as late as 1970 black was not the exclusive color of choice: by that year proper leatherman's attire included "boots, butch ones, and preferably black," (emphasis added), and they were advised to "Never mix brown leather with black leather."

Now, though black is not a primary color in technical terms – those are red, blue, and yellow – it is certainly one of the three colors of primacy: every culture known to have ever devised any color scheme at all began with black and white, followed by red. While we humans seem to imbue all three colors with primal power and meaning, it is not surprising that in a society as sexually repressed as America was 40 years ago (the first issue of Playboy, published in 1953, caused a scandal because it showed bare female breasts), a sexuality specifically concerned with primal power would gravitate toward the one of these colors most readily associated with the night. Of course, black has had many meanings in many cultures, some of them quite different from what it means to ours: sometimes it has been the color of royalty, sometimes of slavery; here and there it has stood for wisdom, the absolute, sleep, and the peace of the womb, as well as for death, despair, ignorance, and hatred.

Even in the world of moderately naughty vanilla sex, black has a position of some prominence. When I paw through catalogues from Frederick's of Hollywood and other purveyors of erotic wear, black, white, and red stand out as the colors of choice both for men and women, followed by predatory animal prints (tigers, leopards); pink and then blue run far behind, and other colors are exceedingly rare.

My personal suspicion is that while there seems to be some primal feeling associated with black, as there is also is with white and red, we got it from the gay leathermen who picked it up when they formed their own motorcycle clubs based on the image of badass biker gangs promulgated by the 1954 Marlon Brando vehicle, The Wild Ones. After all, smiling Ike was President and raving Joe McCarthy was the Jesse Helms of his day; a few years later a popular song eulogized a biker who wore "a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back." The image of the tough outlaw has been celebrated in the United States at least since dime novels turned petty psychopathic killers into romantic heroes; with or without the Brando character's heart of gold, the image's modern incarnation, straddling a few thousand pounds of throbbing steel, has remained one of mid-century's most enduring icons of rebel power – and isn't that image part of SM's more formal charm?

In any case I know one top who won't use anything but brown for her collars and gear because she likes the natural look, and I, myself, favor a lot of white for the sense of innocence and vulnerability it conjures up – virginal bride, as someone said to me recently. My experience with white, incidentally, suggests one more reason black is a good choice for a community whose activities involve a lot of heat and moisture: it doesn't show stains very quickly.

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