Is grey finally having its fashion moment? An ode to the colour that defines the Western world’s history

Like Stonehenge or the Great Wall of China, grey has endured.

Manjima Bhattacharjya March 06, 2020 09:13:55 IST
Is grey finally having its fashion moment? An ode to the colour that defines the Western world’s history
  • Like Stonehenge or the Great Wall of China, grey has endured.

  • Maybe grey is what we need at this moment, a respite from the clutter. A return to plainness, a clean slate on which to attempt humanity afresh.

  • Grey has found a universal contemporary appeal perhaps because it is timeless. It adapts to the occasion, to people and their moods.

'Curious Fashion' is a monthly column by feminist researcher, writer and activist Manjima Bhattacharjya. Read more from the series here.

***

I love grey. And statistics say that makes me unique. A survey found that only one percent of the population said their favourite colour was grey, while 13 percent chose it as their least favourite colour. Somehow grey has always been associated with being neutral, conservative, discreet. All kinder ways of saying: boring.

Colours are often laden with cultural meanings in societies. Red for brides, white for widows, green for fertility, purple for royalty, yellow for purity in some communities. But in South Asia, grey has no such cultural association. Except perhaps, as the palette of the rakshasas. In fact I can’t even think of the Hindi word for grey (or its equivalent in any other Indian language).

In a way, grey is the most ‘Western’ of colours.

Is grey finally having its fashion moment An ode to the colour that defines the Western worlds history

Grey was the palette of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s grim landscapes. Seen here: Nocturne. Image via Wikimedia Commons

When I imagine a Bronte or Austen or Dickens novel, I see a lot of grey. The moor, the fog, the waistcoats, the gruel. Grey has existed in Western clothing for centuries, mainly because it was the colour of undyed wool, which made it a popular choice for the proletariat. It became fashionable in the 18th century for mid-level noblemen who appended their names with an Esquire, and was occasionally seen fashioned into women’s dresses.

Grey has also been somewhat a “Christian colour” — worn by monks and nuns, especially the followers of St. Francis de Assisi, Franciscan friars (like Little John, the not-so-little second-in-command of Robin Hood’s Merry Men) who were also known as Greyfriars because of their dress. It symbolises mourning, ashes and the month of Lent (six weeks of solemnity, prayer and fasting leading up to Easter Sunday) that started a few days ago on Ash Wednesday.

Is grey finally having its fashion moment An ode to the colour that defines the Western worlds history

(L) Illustration of 'the over-estimated grisette' in Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad; (R) La Grisette by Constantin Guys. Images via Wikimedia Commons

If world history had a colour, it would probably be grey. Industrialisation and war, the palette of Picasso’s Guernica and Whistler’s grim landscapes. It has also been the colour associated with worker bees of every economic phase. Whether it was the grisettes, factory girls dressed in grey in 19th century Paris; or the quintessential ‘man in a gray flannel suit’ from the 1950s America, slogging every day to get his family and the country out of the Great Depression; or one of the multitude of software fellas in grey t-shirts and tracks somewhere in the world — the colour grey has belonged to the worker that drives the economic engine of the moment.

Grey seems democratic. Everyone wears it, from Mark Zuckerberg to the lady janitor at an airport loo. But despite these intentions, we know things are not equal under the veneer. Mark Zuckerberg’s famous pigeon ‘gray’ T shirts that he wears every day as his uniform are allegedly custom ordered from a designer at over $300 each.

Is grey finally having its fashion moment An ode to the colour that defines the Western worlds history

Mark Zuckerberg in one of his numerous grey t-shirts. File Photo/Reuters

It had its moment in the spotlight with the notorious ‘grey sweatpants’ phenomenon on social media (look it up, it’s the male equivalent of the wet sari), but remained quite removed from the world of style, especially in the subcontinent. Poor grey. Always getting a bad rap — a little less than its sad cousin, brown — but perhaps finally and rightfully having its fashion moment.

We should have seen it coming with the inexplicable popularity of grey nail polish a few years ago, which became my gift of choice to many in 2017 (it’s Korean sheet masks in 2020). Everybody who I gave it to was in equal measure shocked at just the existence of grey nail polish, and pleasantly surprised at just how good it looked on their nails! Even when Apple products brought it back into fashion in the 2000s in its silvery chrome avatar and it became the colour of tech, grey remained an iffy fashion proposition. It was hard to imagine that someday in the future — at the 2020 Grammys actually — all the major stars would wear (surprise, surprise!) the colour grey! There is even such a thing now as a grey lehenga for the modern Indian bride, which, as we all know, is the true test of coming-of-age in Indian fashion.

Is grey finally having its fashion moment An ode to the colour that defines the Western worlds history

Ariana Grande in a grey Giambattista Valli design at the 2020 Grammys | File Photo/Getty Images

Why this resurgence? Grey has found a universal contemporary appeal perhaps because it is timeless. It adapts to the occasion, to people and their moods. It lends itself differently to different textures, versatile and transforming itself seamlessly. A grey mul skirt can feel floaty like a monsoon cloud, the same grey on silk gleams like steel. Wear a grey woolen pant and you’re a sharpened pencil lead. Grey satin will remind you of a stormy sea.

Stone, ash, lead, charcoal. Its shades are about fortitude, standing strong and weathering through. Like Stonehenge or the Great Wall of China, grey has endured.

From being the background colour for portraits by Rembrandt and El Greco (because it showed off the reds and greens perfectly), grey is now appreciated for itself. Maybe grey is what we need at this moment, a respite from the clutter. A return to plainness, a clean slate on which to attempt humanity afresh. In these anxious times, grey feels like an old friend, like timeworn walls or deep-rooted trees, watching the human race go crazy and be brilliant and self-combust all at the same time.

Manjima is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India's Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018)

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