A costumer invented Johnny Cash’s ‘Man In Black’ image?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Few artists have ever sounded more real — more authentic — than The Man in Black. But were we just being manipulated by a well-choreographed showman? Somehow, I doubt that — though it does appear the story behind Johnny Cash’s iconic, “somber” image might have been manufactured.

First, let’s examine Cash’s explanation for his dress (at least, according to his 1971 protest song):

As the lyrics explain:

“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town, I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, But still is there because he’s a victim of the times.”

According to an Esquire interview with costumer and artist Manuel, however, the designer claims to have invented the image.

ESQ: Did you really make Johnny Cash “The Man In Black?”


Manuel: I did.  Johnny Cash was so surprised. He said, “Brother, how come you made me nine outfits, but they’re all black?” I started kidding with him. I said, “There was a special on black fabric, so I decided…” [Laughs.] I told him, “I think that you’re the man in black. You should wear this color. It’s your vibe, it’s your aura. Something tells me you should wear this color.” He said, “Alright, I’ll try it.” And I don’t know how many shows he had around the United States, but then he came back and said, “Manuel, I want to you make me outfits every week. The color is not in question any more.”

I know what you’re thinking. You are shocked — SHOCKED! — to discover that show business crept into Nashville. Next thing you’ll tell me he didn’t really “walk the line.”

It’s a long way from “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down” to “I wear it because Manuel said it has a good vibe.”

Of course, assuming Manuel is telling the truth, it’s entirely possible that Cash reverse engineered the story — that he agreed to wear black on the advice of Manuel (who liked the “vibe”) — but then later dedicated the look to the “poor and beaten down” (maybe this is written a memoir somewhere?)

I suppose that’s possible. But it also that sounds like something a politician would come up with, doesn’t it?

Matt K. Lewis