LADY IN BLACK Tolstoy, Anna, and the Unveiling Power of the Color Black

Seductively fateful: A short read of Ana Karenina explains with great simplicity the quintessential notion of true style. Fashion, particularly the color black, plays the main role in this revelation.

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Deutsche Version

Let’s close our eyes and imagine we see directly into the nineteenth century Russia. A grand feast is about to begin. The fine society of Saint Petersburg is about to display its most luxurious glamour. Kitty, a young beauty of the time, has made herself specially pretty for this night, but she is almost one minute too late. She runs into the ballroom, arriving just in time for the first dance. In this moment she encounters Anna Karenina, dressed in black, a somewhat older married lady, whom she already knows well, but begins to see now in a new light:

„Kitty had been seeing Anna every day; she adored her, and had pictured her invariably in lilac. But now seeing her in black, she felt that she had not fully seen her charm. She saw her now as someone quite new and surprising to her. Now she understood that Anna could not have been in lilac, and that her charm was just that she always stood out against her attire, that her dress could never be noticeable on her. And her black dress, with its sumptuous lace, was not noticeable on her; it was only the frame, and all that was seen was she—simple, natural, elegant, and at the same time gay and eager.”

This episode from Anna Karenina, the masterpiece of world literature written by Leo Tolstoy in the eighteen seventies, could not be more actual today. It reveals us a timeless component that remains inseparable from style then and now.

Colors, fashions, external beauty can pass by and even remain unattended, but an individual and truly interesting personality will always leave an unforgettable impact. True style is born from character and requires merely a frame to deploy its freshness with grandeur. The color black offered Anna exactly this simple frame, and Tolstoy knew how to dignify this particular moment in the life of this figure.

The night of the ball represents a decisive episode in the novel. This is a night, in which all ladies wore their most luxurious and colorful gowns in the most elaborated styling. Each of them wanted to look more spectacular than the other, but the one who caught the attention not at first, but at the second sight -until she left-, was Anna. Her gorgeous black dress set her apart with an elegant simplicity.

Wearing black, she displayed her natural charms to the fullest. She literally “stepped out of her dress”. The black gown just framed her whole appearance in a way, that her “essence”, the deepest characteristic of her personality, became visible: Unostentatious, natural, cheerful, vivacious. She looked beautiful and graceful, because she was inwardly beautiful and graceful as well. These qualities of her just became more clear, thanks to the unveiling character of her fine black dress.

Nowadays, it is quite popular to believe that black is a color that suits everyone. It is being said, that the “little black dress” should be never missed in a lady’s wardrobe, because of its immediate concealing and glamourizing qualities. Tolstoy’s short description of Anna Karenina in this fateful ball night is, though, the clearest evidence of the contrary: Black suits well, if the personality of the carrier allows it, because it is rather revealing than concealing. Anna Karenina’s delicate fine lace black gown actually “unveiled” her passionate character thoroughly.  

The color black has pretty revealing qualities considering the personality of the woman who wears it: It has the power to show off her truly natural style or her absolute lack of it. Anna Karenina, the respectable wife and mother, humble and submissive, is being virtually exposed by her black dress.  Her restrained sensuality and her cheerful, recondite and mysterious beauty are gorgeously highlighted by the black frame her gown made out of her figure. This is the reason why Kitty, the young debutant, had the impression to see her in a completely new and surprising way.

Anna’s persistent sober-mindedness and modesty, bluntly expressed in the night of the ball by her preference of the discreet color black in such a glamorous feast, did not protect her from temptation. It rather gave her the perfect stage for displaying her destructive, deepest power of attraction in an encounter with consequences: One of the most dramatic outcomes in a master piece of world literature.

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