I thought I found my first gray hair yesterday, and I got so excited,” said 30-year-old Larkin Brown. Um, OK. When I confronted my own first grays a few years back, I was less “excited” and more “existentially panicked.” But attitudes toward gray are shifting. As a researcher and in-house stylist for the San Francisco visual-discovery engine Pinterest, Ms. Brown has recently been submerged in photos of women of all ages flaunting hair that is assertively and fashionably gray. Younger women are dyeing their locks in shades from slate to titanium, and those who are naturally fading are embracing their color.
On Pinterest—which reported an 879% jump in the use of the search term “going gray” from 2017 to 2018—you can find photos of platinum-haired women, including: one sporting gray and blue dreadlocks; brides with twisted silver updos; writer Joan Didion with a sterling bob in a 2015 Celine ad; and scores of stars who’ve made gray the latest outré status color, from Ariana Grande’s silken white strands to the steely cornrows on “The Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg. Lady Gaga, an early adopter, recently tinged her icy Golden Globes updo with lilac. At a yoga class this week, I contorted behind a woman with short ashy hair who could have been 17 or 71 from the back. The new gray hair is more intentional than accidental.
Humans have been dyeing hair since the Ancient Egyptian era, but natural dyes like henna and chemical goop like Clairol’s game-changing 1950s home formulas have mostly focused on covering up rather than accentuating hair that’s lost its pigment. The last time gray hair was this hot was probably the 1700s, when Marie Antoinette types would dust wigs with white powder scented with lavender or orange flower.
On-purpose gray has come a long way since 18th-century rice flour. “More and more companies including our own are offering formulas to achieve silver hair,” said Annie Hu, the marketing director for color and texture at hair care company Joico, which counts Titanium among its top-five best-selling dye shades. Going gray if your hair is, say, brown demands a major commitment, involving multiple bleachings. Even embracing your natural gray can entail a lot of salon time to phase out existing dye. “Hair is a science experiment,” cautioned 33-year-old New York stylist Brittan White, who colors her own hair dove gray and counts dozens of unnatural silver foxes and fox-ettes among her clients. And gray is particularly tricky to get right.
So when I explored dyeing my hair (which is normally reddish, boosted with highlights) fully gray for this story, pros quickly nixed the idea. They dissuaded me from spending multiple days at the salon submitting to arduous bleaching. Instead, New York editorial hair stylist Edward Lampley devised a temporary alternative: I’d spend one day with a grayish-violet powdered updo and another capped by a more extreme grayish-blonde wig. Not exactly Cruella de Vil, but enough for me to glean what it might feel like to be a 30-something gray-haired woman.
“Is this a Gaga thing?!” asked an esteemed colleague on Grayish-Violet Updo Day, near the (actual) water cooler. I was mortified that people might think I’d been enthusiastic enough about the singer’s recent Golden Globes look to spend two hours re-creating it for work. But, like Gaga’s, the dusty French twist was clearly artificial and, judging by the mostly encouraging feedback, striking. I’d absolutely recreate it for a special night out in the hopes of looking like a low-rent version of streaky-haired heiress Daphne Guinness.
Grayish-Blonde Wig Day was less successful. A sampling of reactions, from a day at the office and an after-work art opening: “It changes your look radically”; “Just…no”; “Not flattering”; “You don’t look healthy”; and, most worryingly, “Are you OK?”
That reception may have been tinged by the lumpy shape of the cheapo wig I wore. But the ashy color did wash out my complexion in a Crypt Keeper kind of way. Gray hair—fake or natural—must jive with your coloring to work. When it does, the results can be splendid: It was only after 60-year-old New York set designer Jocelyne Beaudoin stopped coloring her curly blondish-gray hair that she became a style icon, modeling for brands like Rachel Comey. Inspired by Meryl Streep’s fierce white-haired editor in “A Devil Wears Prada,” Ms. Beaudoin underwent a nearly-two-year process to transition from colored to natural hair, finding that it complemented her fair skin and blue eyes. “As you get older, for certain skin colors, it’s softer around your face. That’s more flattering.”
She did feel compelled to adjust her makeup and wardrobe when she went gray, swapping red lipstick for toned-down pinky reds, and switching out more starkly colored clothing for softer grays, camels and creams. While the exact palette adjustment depends on your natural coloring, most women agreed that gray hair requires…something. When I popped that platinum wig on, I immediately fled to the office bathroom to rim my eyes with navy eye liner. The hair stylist Ms. White said, “I feel like I definitely need a little bit of a blush, or some kind of a lip thing, even if it’s just a neutral color.”
But let’s get down to silver tacks: Is gray aging? Not necessarily on younger women, who benefit from the contrast between a fresh face and silvery hair, as evidenced by British editor and street-style star Sarah Harris, who is in her 30s. Rhiannon Gardier, 38, an Arizona stay-at-home mother who chronicles her natural “silver curl journey” on social media, said, “People think that it’s aging, and it’s not. Every time people give me a compliment, it’s always followed with, ‘You have such a young face—you look like you’re 20.’” As for those whose faces show their age, some of the over-50 women I spoke to enthused that they felt less “invisible” once they’d gone gray, and that their hair looked healthier.
Plus, looking young is not necessarily the point. “What nonsensical piece of logic in society says that women should always have hair that looks like they’re 26?” asked Wieden and Kennedy’s co-president Colleen DeCourcy, who stopped coloring her sleek bob three years ago at age 50. As the leader of an international ad agency, she hopes to set a positive example for the young women she encounters: “I didn’t want the first things I was trying to accomplish to be pretty or young. I wanted it to be: wise, don’t give a f—, authentic, empowered.”
Annie Hu of Joico connected the trend to a larger movement toward transparency in beauty: “We’re at a time when we are embracing so much individuality and authenticity.” For the young women painstakingly dyeing their hair gray at great cost, it’s more about the illusion of authenticity, which makes sense in the context of a style moment which emphasizes prominent eyeglasses and Eileen Fisher-inspired turtlenecks. Old is in.
But as with any outside-of-the-box trend, women in creative industries can experiment more freely than those in traditionally buttoned-up workplaces. New York-based finance wizard and Wall Street trailblazer Alexandra Lebenthal, 54, admitted, “It makes me sad to say it, but I cannot see a woman at a big corporation deciding to do that. You’re not really supposed to step out of the mold.” On the other hand, Ms. Beaudoin thinks that her set-design career was actually boosted by her gray ’do. “My business is such a business of youth that I’ve always been so concerned about how I was going to age out of my job,” she confessed. “But since I’m not trying to hide my age, and I’m embracing it, people respect that. Plus, it looks good. I work mostly in fashion, and you have to look good.”
When I tested grayish styles at our casual office, my colleagues seemed more concerned with how the shades worked with my outfits (and how long my wig wrap took) than whether it aged me. I did avoid wearing my glasses, though, nervous about looking more like Mrs. Claus than a fashion editor. I’d like to think that when my gray takes over, I’ll be as empowered to own it as Ms. DeCourcy—life goals!—but it’s hard to imagine losing the color that connects me to my mom, brothers and daughter, all redheads to some degree.
In a 2011 episode of “The Simpsons” called “The Blue and the Gray,” Marge is inspired by a sprightly platinum-haired woman to dye her naturally blue beehive gray. When she comes home her daughter Lisa says, “I know I use the word ‘empowering’ a lot, but this time it really is that!” When Marge returns to cobalt after mixed reactions, she wonders if she’s copping out, but Lisa reassures her, “As a feminist, virtually anything a woman does is empowering!” Matt Groening’s tiny philosopher is right: It’s not the color that’s liberating, it’s the option to choose whichever color you’d like.
Does He or Doesn’t He?
For men of steel, dyeing is a different game—all about leaving just enough gray that you look…plausible
Women think men have it nice ‘n’ easy when it comes to our hair’s eventual loss of pigment. According to a 2019 report by market-research firm Mintel, when women were asked if it’s more “acceptable” for a man to go gray than a woman, they were significantly more likely than guys to agree. Mintel’s findings suggest that men find conspicuous aging relatively treacherous, yet only four in 10 considered it socially acceptable to color their hair.
In my experience, men dread the prospect of being caught with fake, shoe-polish locks—known as “Dracula cap”—but aren’t nuts either about going entirely mad-scientist gray like the dotty Dr. Emmett Brown in “Back to the Future.” The desirable compromise? “Salt-and-pepper has a level of sophistication that can be mouthwatering,” stylist Mary Alice Stephenson told this paper in 2013.
Bizarrely, I desired this mouthwatering look when I was only 21, a strapping art student with a full head of lame mousey hair. I had grown up in the backwater of Edmonton, Canada, craving sophistication, the sort of 12-year-old who wrote pestering letters to Manhattan ad agencies for tips on “breaking into the business.” I convinced one of my art-college friends to attempt to dye my hair “salt-and-pepper” in his moldy bathroom.
It turned out mauve.
Twenty years later, fate got around to more accurately fulfilling my dreams. I had a passably glamorous publishing job in New York and drab hair that was naturally distinguished by a heavy sprinkling of gray at the temples. I fretted over this. I looked, to put it politely, like a sophisticated old fart.
I’ve since heard of younger Wall Street types or assistant district attorneys who ask their stylists to dust their hair with gray to command more respect at work or even to look sexier, but I’m pretty sure no one’s mouth was watering at the sight of my head.
The gray colonized more and more of my scalp. After unsatisfying dalliances with Clairol’s Natural Instincts home coloring kits (it’s natural! it’s instinctive!) whose artificial-looking tints washed out over time, I gave up. For years.
Then one day a stylist tempted me with Redken’s Color Camo process, promising it would blend in pigment but leave just enough gray to avoid Dracula cap. I would, she assured me, be a near-dead-ringer for George Clooney after she was done. Instead, my hair looked like a cheap faux fur, uniformly minkish in tone. “I think I left it in too long,” she murmured, almost to herself.
That plausible, salt-and-pepper Clooney effect has been the Holy Grail for graying men since Grecian Formula 16, the first notable coloring product for men, debuted in 1962. To reassure guys that “[getting] rid of some of the gray but not all of it” is a manly pursuit, its maker, Combe, cast its commercials with athletes like MLB all-star Pete Rose and Oakland Raider George Blanda (“no phony dye job for me”), claiming its pointedly colorless potion was “as easy to use as water.” Even at 21, I viewed this skeptically, and now that I’m almost entirely, resignedly gray, I find it far easier to stick to actual water.