Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Little Black Uniform

The little black dress never goes out of style. Women have known this for years. Black defies fashion crazes and sets a background against which the wearer evokes strength and confidence without flash. It slims and enables elegant line and clarity in the person. For the elite, black never goes out of style.

Maybe this explains the trend of last several years of black to supersede traditional school colors as teams dress in black regalia regardless of  traditional colors. It certainly helps slim down football players. In the last two weeks I watched Oregon football play (yellow and green) wearing black uniforms with "carbon" feathers and "carbon" matte helmets so they looked just like a SWAT team with feathers. I watched Stanford women's volleyball (cardinal and white) wearing black volleyball uniforms with cardinal trim. I watched the UW football (purple and gold)  team finally get longed for black uniforms for a "black out" night on ESPN TV. They wore formidably all black uniforms with purple numbers.

Recruits, men and women, love black uniforms, and having them is now a major draw for coaches selling programs. Granted that Oregon can offer football players 128 different combinations, its the ultra cool black/carbon combination that rules. Even when a school wears its traditional colors, the warm ups are now often black. Why black?

I will ignore the obvious and cynical answer that Nike and Underarmour make millions creating new uniforms and marketing paraphernalia.

Well, why do ninjas wear black? Why did the original assassins wear black? Why do SEALS and SWAT wear black? Why is the black knight an archetype of medieval legend?

Black conveys power. It projects danger and ferocity. Wearing black. warriors can act with stealth and secrecy. Darkness enables surprise, and the unrelenting nature of the black intimidates. In culture across culture, the darkness connotes that aspect of the human soul that roils with ferocity and anger and violence. What better way to tap into that aquifer of ferociousness than align the uniform with the emotions. As one Stanford player said, "when you wear black you have a different attitude."

If an athlete wants to feel powerful and relentless, colors like red and white or blue and white or orange or green and gold  just don't do it. These colors express tradition and link to the people in the stands and fans and graduates. School colors like pinions of the medieval warriors express color and symbol to rally around, and their livery enable troops of one side to identity each other. If everyone dressed in black in the field of battle, things could get awfully confusing. At the core, of course, it does not matter. One Washington player pointed out, "we were  hyped for the uniforms, but I'd play in polka dots as long as I can play."

Old school colors carry great weight for teams and players and coaches. They build on tradition and marketing, but the desire to feel and be powerful and to stamp their own identity on their team marks modern college players. In the dominant sports, the vast majority of athletes come from different backgrounds, darker hued backgrounds where black exists not just as a color of clothes and style but as an identity. The emergence of the little black uniform not only reflects the long tradition of black with warrior ethos, but the cultural stamp of a generation upon the traditions they now carry.

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