Monday, January 24, 2011

Gray matters

Last October, my cousin was showing me around the Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer when we paused before this portrait of a Bavarian queen.

"I wonder about the fashion where women used to color their hair gray," Angela mused.

At the time, I admit I was too distracted by the 18th-century version of a bump-it to really consider the implications of gray fashion.

"How did they get their hair stacked so high?" I asked a museum guide. He informed me (in German) that they used some kind of net apparatus, like a birdnest, and combed their hair over it. (Angela translated.) He also said something about how when they had their hair done up that way, the women had trouble sleeping at night.

The fashionably gray queen made a comeback in my memory during a recent conversation with some women friends about gray hair, so I did a little research. It seems in the 18th century, women of the aristocracy powdered their real hair with starch, and the predominant color choice was, unaccountably, gray. (Eighteenth century men, on the other hand, wore white wigs, a fashion begun by Louis XIII in 1624 when he was going prematurely bald (from the Costumer's Manifesto.))

In the 21st century, gray hair stands in a whole different light.

"It depends on the person," one friend said. "Gray looks distinguished on some people, and terrible on others."

"I have a friend whose hair went white, and she started dyeing it. She said, 'if you have gray hair, you're just invisible'" said another.

"I've seen it happen," chimed in a third. "In some settings, especially among men, a woman with gray hair is treated like she doesn't exist."

In an Internet search, I clicked on two or three of the nearly 24 million hits yielded by the search terms "women and gray hair." "Gray hair is sexy" and "age erasers for women gray hair" jumped up on the first page.

In the 21st Century, who needs a Bavarian queen to dictate fashion? We love our celebrities, who lead the way: Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton and Jamie Lee Curtis to name a few (see Celebrity Gray Hairstyles).

From the looks of it, since gray hair of old age tends to be wiry and unmanageable, most of those celebrities are dyeing their hair gray. The whole thing is so, well, 18th century.