It's a Grey Area

When it comes to hair I have a knack for being accidentally on trend. Losing my hair to chemotherapy was perfectly timed with the debut of the brave buzzcut à la Ruth Bell. Similarly, my initial dismay at it subsequently growing back grey (bearing in mind I'm 23) has been assuaged by the fact that grey, as everybody cheerfully reminds me, is very of the moment.

Yet the grey craze has actually been gathering momentum for some time; the colour was enjoying catwalk moments and celebrity endorsements as early as 2010. Pixie Geldof was a pioneer, and models at Jean Paul Gaultier's A/W 2011 show donned wigs as sculptural in their steely hues as their towering beehive forms.

46-year-old Kristen McMenamy featured in the Gaultier campaign, waist-length tresses spilling over her shoulders. But monochrome photography lent her true colour ambiguity; we could be forgiven for mistaking the ex-redhead’s mane of white for blonde. And despite the refreshing casting of a veteran model, new kids on the block predictably dominated the catwalk. The subversive look seemed largely about unexpected contrast: youthful women with symbolically “past-it” hair.

Has this young trend grown into just that: a trend for the young? Certainly, teenagers have embraced #grannyhair with enthusiasm, emboldened by the safe irony implicit in their use of that hashtag. But statement silver selfies are not exclusively reserved for women for whom the shade couldn’t possibly be presumed natural. Even if older trailblazers tend to be beautiful outliers like McMenamy.

Admittedly, we aren’t going to be seeing numbers of silver vixens presenting prime-time TV catch up with the foxes anytime soon (lack of grey representation on screen being as much about sexism as it is ageism). But brands are realising that older women want to see models their own age wearing the clothes that they are more likely than a younger demographic to actually be able to purchase. And as mature models Alex Bruni and Dulcie Andrews recently discussed on Woman's Hour, silver hair is advantageous in their expanding corner of the industry. Forget “has-been”: avant-garde grey is in demand as an emblem of older beauty.

For further evidence of this, look to Celine’s Spring 2015 ad and that instantly iconic image of Joan Didion at 80. Cool and inscrutable behind dramatic sunglasses, her grey bob screams sleek sophistication. Timeworn hair is aligned not only with beauty, but fierce intelligence. Because it isn't simply Didion's inherent chicness that Celine wants to associate with; it is her enviably minimal (apparently effortless) prose. Phoebe Philo's clothes aspire to similar reverence.

Unlike grey strands invading individual scalps, the materialisation of a grey streak in the fashion world, amongst young and old, is a welcome shift. It can be considered within an emerging movement seeking to celebrate difference – in relation to size, race, gender-fluidity and age. But societal attitudes won’t change overnight. Despite being triumphant, internet noise surrounding campaigns such as Dolce & Gabbana’s for S/S 2015, starring two silvery matriarchs, suggests we are far from casually recognising grey-haired beauty as a norm. But surely tokenism is preferable to invisibility?

Which brings us to another irony surrounding a trend playfully ironic from its inception: In contrast to women's fears that they will fade alongside their hair colour, mature silver style icons command attention. Like depigmented hairs on a brunette head they are easily plucked from the crowd. A more flattering simile might compare them to shimmering unicorns, rare and otherworldly in their confident ownership of the ageing process.

I know I'm not the first to cite unicorns with reference to Vogue's own Fashion Features Director, who can't go unmentioned here. Sarah Harris understandably prefers the precious metal’s connotations over drab “grey”, and silver is undoubtedly the more accurate descriptor for her hair’s lustre. Sarah’s silver strands first appeared aged sixteen; in her twenties she made the bold decision to own the colour. Ironically (yes, more irony), her hair looks too good to be true; by embracing naturalness she has become an icon for women going silver artificially.

I’m doubtful that my own salt-and-pepper crop will inspire anybody to go grey. Not only is my white unevenly distributed, but striped hairs suggest that even individual follicles can't decide whether to pack in producing pigment or not. However, I risk further follicle damage by reaching for the bottle prematurely, so there’s currently no choice but to pretend I'm on trend.

Yet I’m grateful that I will have choice, when I can eventually colour without concern. Don't get me wrong: I'm no more announcing that I won't ever dye it than I am advocating an 18th-century wigpowder revival. But it's comforting to know that grey is okay, even as I develop further signs of ageing. Whatever I choose, I'm looking forward to actively following trends, instead of trends following me.

by Emma McKinlay