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Seeing things in Black and White

Black and white, the two most basic colours that make up our universe are also those imbued with the most symbolism to humanity.

Let there be light

Diametric opposites, the contrast between black and white has fascinated us from our earliest moments. In almost all creation myths throughout human history, gods have separated the light from the dark, the white and the black, a division that has come to represent all the dichotomies that continue to fascinate us to this day – light and darkness, day and night, order and chaos, life and death.

Even in their composition, the two could not be more different. Black is formed by either a complete absence or total absorption of all visible light, while white is composed of all visible wavelengths of light. For many centuries it was actually believed that white was the basic building block of all colours but in 1666 Isaac Newton demonstrated that in fact, the reverse is true.

  • Isaac Newton, Isaac Newton proved that white light was a composite of other wavelengths by separating it with a prism
    Isaac Newton proved that white light was a composite of other wavelengths by separating it with a prism

Not so blæc and hwīt

Etymologically, both black and white come from Old English sources, the former being derivative of blæc while white has developed from hwīt. Like most words for colours in the English language, this means that the origin of these words is Germanic as opposed to Latin as is the case with Romance languages.

While English and European languages have only one word to describe black and white, several non-European languages such as Japanese and Inuit have multiple words that can describe different hues of white. Sanskrit actually has different words for specific types of white such as the white of teeth, the white of sandalwood, and the white of cow’s milk.

Black and white all over

You would think that a black and white colouration wouldn't make much sense for animals but it's more common than you think and can help for a number of reasons.

Animals that live in snowy regions such as the Arctic or high mountains almost exclusively sport white fur as a means of blending in with their surroundings which is useful for both predator and prey. You are far less likely to come across an animal that is purely black in colouration and the most famous example, the black panther, is actually a genetic mutation of leopards and panthers. An excess of melanin leads to a darker coat which has its own advantages when it comes to stalking prey explaining the continued existence of these offshoots.

  • Black Panther, Leopards can't change their spots but panthers can hide them, Pixabay CC0
    Leopards can't change their spots but panthers can hide them, Pixabay CC0

Animals that sport a combination of black and white are some of the most well known and include pandas, zebras, and penguins. It is often asked why these animals have evolved to have such an unusual combination of colours, especially as you think it would make them stand out.

Scientists still aren't totally sure what the answer is. In some cases, it might be to help them blend with their surroundings regardless of the weather, or it may even be to help other animals identify them. Badgers, for example, may sport white stripes so that even in the darkness of a burrow, predators will recognise them and be deterred from picking a fight they may not win.

Black is the new black

Although these days it is increasingly common to wear black and white clothes casually, for generations black and white have been used to mark special occasions or to show importance.

An austere black is something we have grown accustomed to seeing sported by figures of authority since the medieval period. Judges across the world often sport black gowns, and politicians are also commonly dressed in black, suggesting to us a seriousness, solemnity, humility, and clarity is at play in their thinking. From the 14th century onwards, it even became increasingly common for monarchs in Europe to favour black garments over more ostentatious colours that had previously been favoured.

Around the world though, white is typically the colour of a bride's dress during a wedding although this only became a trend Europe and the Americas following Queen Victoria's decision to wear a white gown during her own wedding. Prior to this, brides would often simply wear their best clothing regardless of colour, now though white is ubiquitous with weddings. The reserved nature of black has also made it the colour of mourning in the Western world since the Roman period, although in Africa and Asia it is more common that white is worn when attending funerals. 

  • Queen Victoria, Although her wedding dress popularised white gowns Queen Victoria is most recognisable for the black outfits she wore during her long period of mourning for Prince Albert
    Although her wedding dress popularised white gowns Queen Victoria is most recognisable for the black outfits she wore during her long period of mourning for Prince Albert

In the 19th and 20th century, black became an increasingly fashionable choice when it came to clothing. No longer simply suggesting melancholy or seriousness, black began to be viewed as a sign of elegance and sophistication. Men's formal attire for parties or ceremonies was and remains black and white, but with the creation of her "Little Black Dress" in 1926, Coco Channel made a black dress indispensable for women's wardrobes, famously saying, "A woman needs just three things; a black dress, a black sweater, and, on her arm, a man she loves."

Throwing up the white flag

In the realm of politics, black and white are not colours that are often adopted by the mainstream. The colour black and a black flag have been the traditional symbols of anarchism since the 1880s. In the middle of the 20th century, black was also adopted by a number of fascist political parties and both the paramilitary wings of the Italian National Fascist Party and British Union of Fascists were known as the “Blackshirts”.

During the political tumult of the 19th and 20th centuries white was often associated with the cause of monarchism due to the white background of the House of Bourbon of France. The White Army which was primarily composed of monarchists and liberals opposed the socialist Red Army during the Russian Civil War.

White though is most famously associated with the cause of pacifism and peaceful resistance. White flags have been used as a symbol of surrender on the battlefield since the Roman period in Europe and the Eastern Han Dynasty in China. These connections, have seen it become the colour adopted by pacifists the world over, for example, the White Rose group, a non-violent resistance group of students who opposed the crimes of Nazi Germany.

  • anarchy-8265_1920, The austere and visible nature of black and white make them a popular choice in political movements, Pixabay CC0
    The austere and visible nature of black and white make them a popular choice in political movements, Pixabay CC0