- Edition 2, Chapter 2.1 -
by Alexander Brebner
Gray. It’s controversial, even its spelling: gray or grey?* Some who have it cover it; some who don’t ask colorists to create it, including women decades away from its natural occurrence. Does it make you look cool or aged? Is it a badge of honor or a stigma? A color or the lack of one?
It’s a personal subject for me. My mother started to whiten at eighteen, and I hoped I would too (no such luck). Now in my fifties, salt is overtaking pepper in defined streaks, and I wouldn’t dream of coloring it. But I’m a man, and as with most issues related to appearance, it’s far more complex for women, and so I spoke with several who have very diverse gray hair stories.
Art Director Kate Pelc started graying as a teen, as did her father, and she has been hiding it under color ever since. Now in her mid-thirties and weary of chemical addiction – both in terms of the high maintenance and the health of her scalp – she was ready to embrace her natural white. But, she laments, “When I tried to explain to hairdressers what I want to do, I encountered a lot of judgement and general confusion.” She came to Hairstory Studio “looking for an open-minded stylist to help me with the process of becoming a silver fox.”
So, Mila, Hairstory color assistant, used a strong oil-based bleach (twice) to remove the box-dyed brown (rarely a good idea) and neutralized the remaining warmth with a blue-violet toner. The intersection of the two was a happy accident – a soft, fawn tint – and the result offered the perfect transition from solid brown to pure white with one future haircut. Kate sent us a picture of herself with her Dad afterward and wrote, “We match now and I love it!”
More typically ambivalent is elementary school teacher Lina Makdisi from Berkeley, California who was raised “around natural everything, which had an effect on me. My mother and grandma never pierced their ears, never even tried nail polish.” Consequently, she never covered the gray that started to come in when she was barely 30. It’s the first thing friends who haven’t seen her in a while comment on: “Whoa! You’ve got a Susan Sontag thing going on!”
Some women in Lina’s life approve; others wonder why she wouldn’t color it. Men’s reactions are equally mixed, including her boyfriend who feels, “It would be so pretty if you dyed it!” Even though he’s into feminist theory, he has pretty traditional ideas of beauty and loves lipstick, nail polish, and long hair. “I imagine a partner who says things like, ‘You’re beautiful just the way you are.’ I’m not used to such honest disapproval,” Lina admits. A male friend’s backhanded compliment: “It’s so cool! From behind you look 60, but when you turn around you’re so young!”
“Accepting gray could be empowering; maybe it’s claiming my feminine self; maybe I like it because it’s natural,” Lina explained with an attempt at conviction. In the end, Roxie made the choice not to touch it. “I thought the cut was so strong that coloring would only distract from it. This is another example of less is more – it’s as important what you choose not to do as what you do.”
Design maven and curator of the online showcase Object Lesson, Carol Fertig has entrusted her hair to Roxie and Wes after many years as one of Michael’s select clients. Hers is an unusual case of adding gray strands where there are few. “I confess. I suffer from SHE: Silver Hair Envy. The first time I recognized it was when I was 18 years old and I saw Norma Shearer play Marie Antoinette; there is a particular scene where her intricate silver updo is studded with diamond stars. I pinpoint that moment to my preoccupation with the color that represented the ultimate chic to me; I figured it would come naturally by the time I turned 30 – I couldn't wait!” she writes.
But, Carol continues, “Sadly my locks remained brown… that would be a boring shade of Pantone 448 B-R-O-W-N. I became so frustrated that time was not helping me reach my goal of dramatic, sophisticated, and special. I longed to join the growing list of the silver haired beauties I was collecting (Polly Mellon, Joyce Bryant, Marie Seznec, Kristin McMenamy, Tavi Gevinson – who at 15 had managed to get exactly the color I longed for).”
Finally Michael suggested she consult Roxie, who now regularly creates tiny highlights alongside the silver, and sends Carol home with a bottle of New Wash custom tinted with violet to preserve the cool tones and counteract yellowing. “Everyone thinks my silver is natural. When I explain that without her genius I would just be another Pantone 448 with (finally) some strands of grey, they tend not to believe me. What? Do they think I got here on my own? Hardly!”
Seasoned event planner Susan Holland is similarly accepting of the gray hair that began appearing in her late thirties. “There are things much more debilitating about aging than hair getting gray, and unless I’m in some enormous denial, none of it has disarmed me. So I have, in that sense, embraced it.” In fact, when she was younger she wanted to appear older, “so that professionally I could be taken more seriously.”
And even though she was a purist for 20 or so years, she is no stranger to color – quite the opposite as she visits Roxie regularly for sublime tints from rose to blue, and her white hair is an ideal canvas. “One of the things that you do here a lot is give more depth to hair by coloring it, to make it more rich and interesting as opposed to masking something. Maybe that’s really the difference: it was never about masking. It was about enhancing. My husband was talking about the distinction between humans and animals: humans decorate themselves and animals don’t. So we add things, just because we can. So, that’s the way I’ve felt about coloring my hair. It’s ’cause we can.”
And while Susan has a consistent personal style, she enthusiastically embraces change. “I’m very comfortable with the notion. The crazy thing is when people cut or color their hair they think it’s going to stay that way. I love ice sculpture, and people say, ‘Well, isn’t it going to melt?’ Yes! Of course! It’s ice! It’s the same thing here – hair grows! There’s a problem with the idea of trying to stop something as opposed to engaging in an ongoing process. People tell me my hair has changed since the last time that they saw me. But of course it changes. That’s the fun part.”
Clearly, this issue isn’t black or white, as Lina’s young students describe it. Rather, gray areas belong to the realm of individual choice. The use of color can both slow the appearance of age and accelerate it, but we all agree that there’s something sad about denying silver into the so-called golden years in a misguided attempt to keep time from marching on.
The key seems to be – as for many things in life – refusing to measure oneself in comparison to others, and seeking a colorist willing to listen and consider all the modern possibilities. “I have always admired the experience that comes with earning silver hair,” says Roxie. “I also believe in the power of tastefully and appropriately creating silver for men and women – and the surging trend of young people doing it has made it more acceptable for people of all ages, which ultimately helps make the world a less judgemental place. And that makes me very, very happy. ”
*Americans spell it with ‘a’, whilst ‘e’ is the british preference.