Gray Hair on the Kids

Kylie Jenner

Beauty commentators comme moi are always happy to see trends thoughtfully examined, but some fads prompt questions more readily than others. File gray hair—rather, young women with dyed-gray hair—in that category. It’s sorta odd, and sorta cool, but its association with the usual gray-haired set—that is, older women—signals that how it looks is almost secondary to what it means.

This style became a bona fide thing last season. Pink went gray, as did Rihanna, Kylie Jenner, Kelly Osbourne and Dascha Polanco, featured above; I’ve seen it on a hipster waiter, a sociology grad student, three freelance writers and a health-care worker—most of whom looked conservative enough otherwise, hardly the fashion vanguard. I’d love to agree with the idea that gray hair asserts an alliance with senior citizens, but the very fact that it’s a trend—which by definition is fleeting—contradicts that notion. This isn’t some shout-out to the Gray Panthers; it’s an experiment for some, a style for others, a commitment for few.

It’s also not an indicator of what’s actually in store for the fad’s adopters with age. When you strip your hair of color to dye it a lustrous, silvery gray, you get the indulgence of a stunning head of hair without the obstacles a 76-year-old faces: changing texture, potential thinning, susceptibility to damage. Or, for that matter, the obstacles faced by younger women going prematurely gray, as 20-something Marin Cogan points out about the trend: “Adorable, to be sure, but really nothing like what is going on with me.”

Carmen del Orefice
Carmen Dell’Orefice. Wow. (Photo: Everett)

You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a larger significance behind the look. At first glance, elder chic seems to be having a moment. Witness the popularity of Iris Apfel and Advanced Style, and the run of women over 70 modeling for major brands. We may be getting better about not writing off women as irrelevant once they hit 50, but campaigns like this are still rare, and they hardly herald a sea change in our views of aging. Joan Didion’s campaign for Céline got a lot of press, for example, but the company didn’t hire her because she has gray hair; it hired her because she’s Joan Didion, whose name has connoted a particular shade of accidental glamour for decades. Even the success of 80-something model Carmen Dell’Orefice reveals how little we genuinely relish aging: She’s famous because she’s the one silver-maned professional senior model on the high-fashion stage.

The mistaken pro-elder slant on the trend overlaps with its interpretation as feminist, that is, a declaration of gray hair on women as attractive. The theory here is that it bucks the sexism allowing a graying man of a certain age to be referred to as a “silver fox,” while his female counterpart would just be called old. Trouble is, this theory forgets what makes this a trend—that it’s young women doing it, women who are already in the realm of popular desirability. It’s an awkward construction of gray hair as political, not least because it proclaims that sexiness is a feminist win.

In fact, the largest feminist claim of the newly gray-haired legion may lie in its lack of sexiness. Conventional hair-dyeing advice proclaims that going lighter than your natural shade is a safer bet than going darker, which can make people look sallow. But much of the time, going lighter means going blonder; double that for women who are already fair-haired. Opting for gray is a way to have lighter hair without the sexualized connotations of becoming a blond (or blonder). You get the “Wow!” value of a platinum head without the va-va-voom quality.

It would be a mistake to think of dyeing one’s hair gray as carefree—as this tutorial shows, it’s high-maintenance and expensive—but there is a carefree attitude there, which grants a sense of playfulness. The hashtag #grayhairdontcare speaks to this blithe sensibility. Clearly, its wearers do care but not in the ways women have traditionally been instructed to care about their looks. Whimsical hair color isn’t new, but much of the spectrum has hewn to conventional ideas of desirability (think flame red) or to specific subcultures such as punk. Through its neutrality, gray hits a sweet spot.

But trends end, and indeed, this one is waning—gray is still around yet no longer the It shade. We may learn more about its significance through its replacement: the rich, shimmering aqua increasingly showing up on otherwise mainstream heads. “I wanted mermaid hair,” said one 20-something nine-to-fiver whose turquoise locks I recently complimented. In other words, she wanted fantasy hair. Older women are hardly creatures as fantastic as mermaids, but in the triangulated relationship between younger women, beauty trends and reality, they may as well be.

Photo: Courtesy of Instagram