Granny chic is fashionable exploitation

Pixie Geldof'Grandma chic' has graced the fashion scene for some time now, still I was bemused to read that hip young things such as Pixie Geldof (pictured), Lady Gaga and Australian MTV darling Ruby Rose have let it go to their heads. Literally. On the pages of fashion magazines, and up and down runways and the red carpet, the message was clear — keep a lid on your hair dye. Grey is the new black.

For most women, the discovery of a strand (or strands) of grey is hardly cause for celebration, and the sheer range and availability of hair dyes are testament to the lengths, and expense, many go to cover it up.

The reason is obvious. Alongside crows feet and laugh lines, nothing signals the ageing process quite like the shock of a grey lock. As Philip Kingsley, a hair care specialist based in New York, told 'If you're going gray, I guarantee you're not happy about it. I have seen tens of thousands of people over the years, and none of them wants gray hair. It can really make people feel old before their time.'

So it's not surprising that when style icons the likes of model Kate Moss and 13-year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson are spotted around town with silver streaks in their hair, the paparazzi sit up and start snapping. While Hollywood celebrities continue to erase all signs of age, it's intriguing, not to mention perplexing, to uncover a group of young fashionistas thumbing their nose at it.

But is this really the case?

By its very definition, fashion is fickle, mercurial, superficial. In an industry where high expectations sit alongside haute couture, the point is to make a headline and a statement — in that order. Consider the recent use of 'bigger-sized' models on catwalks. Sure, names such as Karl Lagerfeld got in on the act, but the occasion was more about pushing the envelope than social boundaries.

Yet it's counterintuitive, and counterproductive, to blame our collective ageism on one industry regardless of how influential or insidious it may appear. While we look to fashion to tell us the latest trends, it merely reflects, rather than challenges, overriding attitudes.

And despite living in a rapidly ageing world (according to the United Nations the rate at which we are ageing worldwide is unprecedented) the overriding attitude towards growing older, in the west at least, remains undeniably negative.

It's no accident that anti-ageing creams and treatments, and books aimed at Baby Boomers, such as Christopher Hopkins' Staging Your Comeback: A Complete Beauty Revival for Women Over 45 and Charla Krupp's How Not to Look Old: Fast and Effortless Ways to Look 10 Years Younger, 10 Pounds Lighter, 10 Times Better, continue to rake in the dollars.

While I, too, have bought into the youthful beauty myth on more than one occasion (a bathroom cabinet full of moisturisers alone is testament to this), the eternal fight against ageing is anathema to me. As a child of migrant parents, I was taught from an early age to respect my elders. I was encouraged to listen to their stories (and not interrupt) and to view each wrinkle as the mark of hard-won wisdom.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that a full head of silvery hair was considered the ultimate badge of honour — something to wear with pride, not embarrassment.

And it got me thinking. How would someone in their twilight years feel about Gevinson, Gaga, Geldof et al. and their artfully arranged silver streaks?

Would they see these young women as the victims of a trend that gives some credence (however unintentional) to ageing? Or would they, more likely, consider the episode as yet another sad example of the way society treats its elderly citizens? Imitation may be the greatest form of flattery, but not when it's undercut by parody.

I'll stop short of saying mockery is at play here, but there's certainly more than a shade of hypocrisy. The sole reason granny chic is on the radar is because it's contrived; unreal. While we admire such actors as Helen Mirren and Jamie Lee Curtis and 43-year-old UK model Kristen McMenamy for their longevity as much as their talents, we're not about to laud them for their head of (natural) grey hair. That would be too brave by far.

So what message can we glean from this latest fashion faux pas? That it seems it's fine to appropriate old age so long as we don't celebrate it or treat it with the respect it deserves. It isn't enough that, along with wisdom and insight, ageing brings with it glaucoma, arthritis, osteoporosis and invisibility. Now it's ripe for exploitation, too.

And there's nothing chic about that.

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. 

Topic tags: jen vuk, granny chic, grey hair, Pixie Geldof, Lady Gaga, Ruby Rose



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Existing comments

An odd topic for serious discussion. Fashion trends are always exploitative. To whinge about any particular new fashion is not only a waste of time and intellectual energy, it in fact just buys in to the cheap desire to shock or be "new' that keeps this wasteful, vulgar and moron-exploiting system going.

Paul Tankard | 16 June 2010  

Not hair colour, but the cultivation of a childish voice, accompanied by a perpetual tight, wide grin sends me into a sort of contemptuous rage against the lack of respect many young women show for their own growth into adulthood. The rage turns to grief when they try to grin and sing simultaneously - no wonder the counter tenors are doing so well!

Od Shirl | 16 June 2010  

Philip Kinglsey's comments are not worth bothering about. By the nature of who he is, the only people he IS going to talk to are those who are concerned about having grey hair. The millions of others like myself who don't care are laughing at the sheer presumption of it.

Likewise, I doubt that we care what the "celebrities" are doing - what does it matter what colour is on the outside of a vacuum? We actually live in the real world. The sooner we stop gazing at "celebrities" as if they have something meaningful to contribute, the better the world will be.

Erik H | 16 June 2010  

In the eighteenth century, it was the fashion rage for both men and women of any age to wear white or grey wigs.

Sylvester | 16 June 2010  

A fascinating, well-presented article - thanks Jen! I think many of us do find it absorbing that the fashionistas and hair divas make so much money by perpetuating the illusion of youth (especially those of us past that state). I wonder if we are all conscious of the sexist/gender assumptions that underpin those industries (my maternal foremothers had a saying about women, mutton and lamb etc.). I had a good mate of mine who went prematurely grey in his 20s, who spent a decade or so dyeing his coiffeur; especially while he was single. I have to say he's a lot happier now he's flaunting the grey locks. Would he be as content is 'he' was a 'she'? Probably not.

Barry Gittins | 16 June 2010  

Lighten up Jen! I used "magic silver white" that turned your hair purple in my (long gone) non-celebrity youth. It enraged the Mother Rectress of SVH even though it toned well with my nursing uniform! No doubt she was jealous she couldn't dye her hair! It didn't stop me dying my hair, her small-mindedness only serving to lower my respct ... further.

Kerry Bergin | 16 June 2010  

I agree with Kerry Bergin. Being an older woman who enjoys a bit of hair dye, a bit of makeup and a bit of fashion, I do not feel at all mocked by young women, celebrities or not, who also like to paint and decorate, just as we (men and women) have done since we first rubbed a bit of ochre into our dreadlocks tens of millenia ago.

Anna | 17 June 2010  

I love my salt and pepper

It reminds me of the hard yards I have put in with children grandchildren and my career.

The return I have had for those efforts has been a joy and I hope lady Gaga and Pixie can say in their 70's "life has been a joy"

Consumerism (the reason for the grey trend is to sell product)is a blight on our society however it keeps the world's wheels rolling so I have no answer to the dilemma

GAJ | 22 June 2010  

So crazy a fad, as millions of ladies of a certain age fight and spend to hide any grey. At proudly 78 and proudly silver-haired, rather like the photo actually; hair, sadly, not skin. I feel about it as I do about the (always male) shop person who says "And how are you today young lady?" I am irritated and whenever it happens I tell them so, leaving a line of abashed men in my wake. This, also, is an irritation, a fad and no more...I give it six months!

caroline Storm | 22 June 2010  

A thoughtful, well written article - thanks Jen!

Anna McCormack | 22 June 2010  

I hate fashion. this granny thing has to be the stinkiest trend ever! If these young girls want my wrinkles and menopause,I'd be quite happy to swap places with them if that was possible.

Rachella | 25 June 2011  

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