Monday, August 23, 2010

The grey matter

My piece on the vogue for dyeing hair... grey - from the Indo's Weekend mag last Saturday.

Elizabeth Taylor, hair still blue-black into her 78th year, has not got the memo that grey is in vogue. Stars such as Helen Mirren, Jamie Lee Curtis, Diane Keaton and Emmylou Harris have been noticeably growing old grey-cefully in recent years and earning applause for it.

But the appearance of gunmetal and silver shades is no longer the preserve of the ageing. For some young hipsters, going grey is something to dye for. Pixie Geldof traded in her trademark peroxide crop for grey, saying: "I'd been blonde for three years and fancied a change." Kelly Osbourne looked lovely in mauve earlier this year, and pop star Pink has been tinting her platinum locks silver-grey.

As style fads go it's an interesting one, not least because fashion normally rejects anything that suggests ageing -- and because it doesn't seem to be going away.

The August edition of US 'Vogue' sported a photograph of a model with waist-length silver-grey hair, sleek as a cat in polo neck and pencil skirt, suggesting that grey will be good at least into autumn/winter 2010.

Supermodel Kristen McMenamy has just done a shoot for cutting-edge fashion and culture mag 'Dazed & Confused', long grey locks rolling over her shoulders.

The notoriously fickle world of high fashion has even been showing some consistency on the grey matter. Two years ago, silver-haired models began to appear on the Parisian catwalks for Givenchy. This year, Calvin Klein sent out a model with a slick salt-and-pepper ponytail to showcase its autumn/winter collection. Designers Giles Deacon and Gareth Pugh also turned their models' hair the colour of concrete for their 2010 shows.

As Meryl Streep's Anna Wintour-esque fashion mag editor explains in 'The Devil Wears Prada', trends work on a trickle-down basis. First they appear on the catwalk, then on the back of some wealthy haute-couture client, then get mass exposure from influential celebrities before finally winding their way down to the woman on the street.

The celebrity advocates have surely now reached tipping point. Two huge trendsetters on either side of the Atlantic have been at the toner bottle. In the US, Ashley Olsen reinvented the blue rinse by sporting blue-grey highlights in her tousled hair, while Kate Moss got skunk streaks to launch her collaboration with Longchamps.

As with her skinny-jeans-tucked-into-boots combo, are we next?

Sharon Rice, stylist with cutting-edge hair and beauty salon Brown Sugar in Dublin, says: "Things like that do catch on. It's different from when we've had people in the past who were going grey and coming into us looking to enhance it rather than hide it. Or someone who has short blonde hair, they might add tones of silver.

"We haven't seen younger people coming in yet actively looking to dye their hair grey, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happens and we would welcome it because we love doing adventurous stuff."

This slightly rebellious idea of turning one's hair grey when so many in the world spend a fortune on covering their natural greys is key to why the trend has taken off. Pixie Geldof, for example, was not worried that she'd be mistaken for her badger-headed dad Bob, saying of her grey 'do': "It was rad".

When younger people experiment with grey, they wear it with the confidence that it won't make them look prematurely old because they don't have the wrinkles to match. This was especially true of a fashion blogger called Tavi (her surname is Gevinson, but the 'biz' is so in awe of her that she's been given the first-name-only respect).

Tavi is remarkable for many reasons. She's only 13, but she always bags front-row seats at major catwalk shows because her blog is so influential. She also stood out when she turned up at New York Fashion Week sporting a short, grey hairdo. She dyed her hair a soft baby blue a few weeks earlier so that it would have faded to the correct tone of granny-chic grey by the time she appeared front row at the shows.

Sadly, the grey trend doesn't mean that the fashion and beauty industry is suddenly embracing the ageing process. Barack Obama was accused (falsely, of course) in the early days of his US Presidency of adding grey to his hair for extra gravitas. No one would ever accuse a woman of the same. Men get the 'Clooney' and 'distinguished' tags when they start to go silver at the temples; greying women are more likely to face insinuations that they have let themselves go.

Saying that, this wouldn't be the first time grey has had its go on the fashion merry-go-round. Men and women alike went crazy for dove-grey locks in the 1700s, sometimes wearing wigs to get the full halo effect. Otherwise, they powdered their hair white, oiling it to make the powder stick. It was messy, it was smelly and it ruined expensive clothing, but it was de rigueur for the fashionable set.

Marie Antoinette, the trendsetter of her time, loved wig powder to the point of losing her head over it. Her liberal use of the powder was condemned as another sign of her extravagant tastes as the rest of 18th-century France struggled with poverty. There was her country suffering through the Flour War of 1775, and there she was using enough flour in her hair each morning to feed a large family.

By the turn of the century, the English had laid a heavy tax on hair powder and the grey days of Marie Antoinette were over. One hundred years later, in 1907, L'Oréal founder Eugène Schueller had created the first synthetic dye. By this stage, the average life expectancy had increased from around 37 years in 1800 to 47 years in 1900. The appeal of going grey for fashion was considerably lessened by the fact that people were living long enough to see their hair fade naturally.

Now that home hair dye is readily and cheaply available -- it's a €3 billion industry in the EU alone -- perhaps going grey has a chance for a comeback as a fashion statement because it is a choice, not an inevitability. Rod Stanley, editor of 'Dazed & Confused', said it "remained to be seen" if grey was here to stay. "The trend for younger people dying their hair grey is a different thing in many ways but, of course, that could make people more receptive to naturally grey hair in images." Or as Kristen McMenamy puts it herself: "You can get older and still be rock'n'roll."

Here's hoping Pixie Geldof is still rocking a head of granite highlights in her 60s.


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