MEN IN BLACK by John Harvey


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Harvey (English/Cambridge Univ.) unravels the meanings behind black as a fashion statement from the medieval to the modern, concentrating on funereal Victorian England as viewed through Dickens's novels. Dress and fashion have always had their rules and social functions. By examining historical figures as well as artistic and literary portrayals of men in black, Harvey looks at the color's migrating popularity in European clothing and interprets it as an expression of smartness, formality, authority, severity, mourning, self. negation, and death. If black as a grim uniform had early adoptions by the ascetic Dominicans, Ivan the Terrible's cruel Oprichniki troops, and the officials of the Spanish Inquisition, Harvey argues, it also had individual appeal as a somber but august style among medieval nobility, such as Philip the Good of Burgundy and Charles V of Spain (and even Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet). In Harvey's thesis both religious and noble fashions transmuted and trickled down to the dandy Beau Brummel and the agents of the Industrial Revolution. Although Harvey's skimming of historical fashions is a decent synthesis, his weak interpretative ability hampers his discussion of the Victorian period. Shadowing Max Weber, Harvey posits a Protestant work ethic requiring dress in black as part of Britain's Calvinist legacy, with the likes of Dickens and Ruskin critiquing its paradoxical aspects of repression and self-assertion. This Victorian social history unfortunately gets badly diverted into some unilluminating literary criticism, particularly of Dickens's dark side, and by the time Harvey reaches modernity, his thesis has lost most of its momentum. This patchwork of social theory, literary criticism, and art history has an initially eye-catching thesis, but it ends up fading and clashing with itself.

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 1995
ISBN: 0226318834
Page count: 276pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago