Sexy, elegant, aggressive... machine-washable? Is there no end to black's versatility? Harriet Walker reports on an exhibition that traces the meaning of fashion's most recurrent colour

How can one shade conjure both the femme fatale and the wimpled nun? How can it encapsulate in one nonchalant, fashionable shrug both sex and death?

Fashion's love affair with black is a complex and torrid relationship that changes with every "ism", every hitch in skirt length and change in silhouette. From iconic to iconoclastic – as illustrated by Viktor & Rolf's autumn/winter 2001 collection, in which models were painted black, and funereal to flirty, as seen in Dolce & Gabbana's signature Italian widow lace – black is part of a confusing but seductive fashion heritage: there are few other tropes of dressing that contain such diverse and bewildering connotations, that can sum up so much – or indeed, so little – all at once.

"We have this whole history with the colour," says Kaat Debo, artistic director at the ModeMuseum in Antwerp and curator of its current exhibition, Masters of Black. "It has accumulated so many associations – I think that's why it's so popular; you probably have less of that with red."

From Chanel's earliest incarnations of the Little Black Dress in the 1920s to Gareth Pugh's future-goth neoprene suiting for autumn/winter 2010, black is as timeless as it is versatile. It doesn't show its age or the dirt; you can blend in or you can stand out; it's the sort of elixir of life that fashion alchemists dream of creating or discovering anew.

At the end of the 1980s, designer Rei Kawakubo declared that red was the "new black" and, in doing so, summed up the perennial obsession with fashion's most complex colour. She spent almost 10 years of experimenting every which way with black – of fading it, distressing it, romanticising it and destroying it. Her collections for Comme des Garçons are sweeping odes to black, socio-political hymns on the subject. Her use of the colour in the 1980s was in stark contrast to the bird-of-paradise hues and brash power-dressing of the era, and she sent pale models down her catwalk, with no make-up but for livid purple bruises, swathed and swagged in bundles of black material. Japanese women who bought into her monochrome aesthetic were known as "the crows" and heckled in the street, but Kawakubo's dark aesthetic became an international hit when she began showing in Paris in 1981.

"Comme des Garçons and similar designers were misunderstood in the 1980s," says Debo. "Journalists interpreted Kawakubo's collections as the trauma of the Second World War, and it was not. It was a reaction to what she saw around her in the 1980s, the colours and the prints – she wanted to make something pure and work with shape rather than colour."

Black seems to hold an affinity for the creative mind and many designers work solely in black because of its graphic but simplifying effect. "When I design, I think in black," says Gareth Pugh, who is known for his romantic-with-a-hint-of-S&M look. "It's more about silhouette, shape, proportion than it is about the colour of something. Adding colour would complicate the collection and prove to be a distraction."

You don't need to wear it head-to-toe like some early 1990s architect, but the all-black look is set to be big for autumn. It has been creeping in from the sidelines for several seasons; after the minimal and slimline modern goth looks that incorporated black, grey and flashes of white, black is the perfect summation of fashion's current obsession with bold cuts and muted palettes. The Belgian designers Olivier Theyskens and Ann Demeulemeester have made their name in traditionally formal, black tailoring spun with a streetwear, near-grungy edge. Fashion has turned back to stealth wealth and, historically, black is its first port of call.

While the colour has acquired a somewhat anti-Establishment and rarefied reputation in recent years, after the blacks of Kawakubo and Martin Margiela, it wasn't always so. Black started out as a signifier of formality and prestige, as can be seen from 16th- century portraits by the likes of Rembrandt and van Dyck. "When you had your portrait painted, that was a serious thing," explains Debo. "And with the start of the industrial revolution, you saw the male wardrobe turning toward black." Sixteenth-century courtiers wore black to impress their overlords, partly because of the expensive combination of dye required to perfect the inky hue and partly because it was deemed "serious". Castiglione's court handbook Il Cortegiano, published in 1528, speaks of the importance of wearing black to create an aura of authenticity, trustworthiness and dignity, while Furetière's Dictionnaire Universel of 1690 states that women, when on official visits, would dress in black and reserve their brighter outfits for receiving guests at home.

The sense of solemnity isn't necessarily something pure or ascetic; rather, it's a fusion of black's roots in the severity of the Protestant tradition and the gilt and glitz of Catholicism. Riccardo Tisci's neo-gothic collections for Givenchy perfectly highlight the dichotomy in their sparse fluidity – spring/summer 2007's crinolined bustier dress worn with an austere ombré floor-length cape, shaped like the lapels of a formal suit at the top, and sweeping down into a backless yoke.

"Black defines the body in an amazing way," says the British designer Hannah Marshall, who works mainly in monochrome. "You can use it to cover up or to define. It draws the attention but it doesn't shout about it." Her sleek and armour-like body- conscious pieces mix materials and texture to create a silhouette that benefits from being made up of only one shade.

The designer herself is a lifelong devotee of black. "I've been wearing it every day for years," she says. "Wearing one colour allows you to play with the silhouette and cut. You have a sort of jigsaw of an outfit that goes together like a uniform. And it all goes in the wash together, too." Add practicality to black's long list of fashionable attributes.

"You can be formal in black," says Debo. "You can be sexy in black, you can be elegant, or you can be aggressive." Which only adds to its investment credentials: black might not seem a practical choice during a long, sticky summer, but experimenting with layering is key to this look, and means that the black section of your wardrobe is something you can dip into all year round.

The only proviso is to beware of fading – as part of a challenging and deliberate outfit, a little greying is fine (witness Comme des Garçons' deliberately weathered pieces), but those slightly shiny-bottomed suit trousers that everyone has are definitely not chic.

Similarly, an outfit that is too solid can look retrograde and smack of Camden Market, so use different textures to break things up. "I wear an oversize shirt with some python skin boots," says Marshall. "You can take more risks because you're not worrying about matching. I always wear my red lipstick to lift things a bit, too."

Try wearing a black jersey maxidress with soft black leather jacket, or a fine chiffon black dress with sensible black sandals. Sheer blacks can be romantic or streetwise depending on styling, while a gauzier fabric can add a bit of light relief. For the brave, black rollnecks and harem pants are very Yohji Yamamoto and intellectual. At least one thing in fashion remains a constant: if you need to scare people, be it in a churchyard or the boardroom, make sure you're wearing black.

"With black, it's black," says Pugh, "and it's an easy colour to get right."

Masters of Black is at ModeMuseum, Antwerp, until 8 August. For more information, visit