At Topshop in London’s Oxford Circus, the outlook is misty. Faded varsity sweatshirts and charcoal leggings hang on the rails. Teenage girls weave in and out of the aisles dressed in grey-marl jogging bottoms. Outside, office workers charge down the pavements wearing tailored herringbone jackets over flinty cashmere jumpers, their nails lacquered in iridescent silver or understated greige.
Scroll through Pinterest, or browse the glossy pages of Elle Decoration, and the greywash continues. Living rooms are painted in delicate doves; sofas are upholstered in thick, tweedy cloth; front doors are covered in shades of slate and battleship. At the office, we work on silver Apple Macs and view documents against grey-coloured backgrounds. The most popular underwear colour of the season, according to a feature in the current Gentlewoman magazine? Grey. The top-selling book of the decade? Fifty Shades of Grey, a book whose ubiquitous jacket resolutely sports the colour.
There is a theory, in fashion, that the most significant trends of each decade become apparent at the midway point, so 2014 is a good time to make the call. Though the current decade may not even have a name (the twenty-tens? The twenty-teens?) it has a dominant hue. This year, sales of grey T-shirts rocketed by a third on Asos, while sales of grey paint, according to Dulux, have risen by 4.1% since 2012 – a significant shift in terms of the market size. No longer shorthand for drab and depressing, grey has become a fashion colour, signifying good taste.
It has been championed by labels that celebrate off-duty chic. It is central to the sportswear-influenced designs of Alexander Wang, seen on catwalks since 2007 (he will collaborate on a collection for HM this autumn), and the minimalist androgyny of Céline under Phoebe Philo. Grey is crucial to the louche aesthetic championed by Isabel Marant, worn by French Vogue editors and models away from the catwalk and disseminated widely in the age of style blogs and Instagram. It’s the perfect colour for slinking around outside fashion shows, never giving the impression that an unfashionable amount of effort has been made. It has become the look that designers wear themselves: though Stella McCartney‘s autumn/winter 2014 show was a riot of emerald, navy and claret, she took her own bow in head-to-toe heather and stone.
Perhaps the most fashionable shade is heather marl, as seen on McCartney and sold, by the bucketload, at Uniqlo, where heather grey has accounted for close to 50% of sales of sweatshirts and jogging bottoms in the past year. But grey is many things to many people. For Julia Sarr-Jamois, fashion editor of Wonderland magazine, it is often dark and neutral, a counterpoint to brights and neons. For Carine Roitfeld, grey is smart and tailored; French Vogue editor Emmanuelle Alt favours light, pebbly shades. For Rihanna, light grey marl – with its connotations of late-70s sportswear – is the sartorial holy grail.
If the style set sound like they take grey seriously, try visiting a Farrow Ball showroom, where well-heeled couples discuss colours called Cornforth White, Mouse’s Back and Pigeon in whispered, reverential tones. These are seriously aspirational paints, named after shades favoured by the Bloomsbury group (Charleston Gray) or described as “reminiscent of an elegant colour used in Sweden in the late 18th century under Gustav III” (Lamp Room Gray). Farrow Ball’s influence is such that every evocative name is trademarked or registered – and every interiors expert has their preferred colour. “My favourite right now is Blackened, which is a kind of pale blue yet warm grey,” says Michelle Ogundehin, editor-in-chief of Elle Decoration. Of the 132 Farrow Ball shades, at least 20 could be classified as greys – a 10% increase, according to the company, in the past seven years. Dulux, too, reports a marked rise in the sales of grey since 2012, which creative director Marianne Shillingford attributes to the phasing-out of incandescent lightbulbs in 2011, and the rise of LEDs, which give off much brighter, cleaner light. “People are becoming braver with gutsy neutrals,” she says.
Whatever the reason, many interior experts have now gone over to the smoky side. “I used to hate grey,” says Ogundehin. “I deemed it a bland non-colour. I recall it being used to characterise John Major. How things change! Certainly, today, grey connotes sophistication, allure and depth. It sits well alongside other colours, holding its own but not dominating. It represents a quiet confidence.” Interior designer Abigail Ahern – whose house has been featured in at least 60 interiors magazines since she painted it inky grey six years ago – believes she will never go back to white. “Anything set against grey looks more beautiful, more grand,” she says. “It cocoons you and turns the room into a space you really want to hunker down into. It feels intriguing and sophisticated and glamorous.”
The grey nail-varnish trend was born this decade, with Chanel’s top-selling Particulière, a taupey-grey shade, and Dior’s Gris Montaigne, a true mid-grey, both reaching the market early in 2010. In the past five years, too, the grey suit regained its dominant status in tailoring, after fashion outerwear flirted for much of the 1980s, 1990s and noughties with Italian-influenced black. Patrick Grant, the creative director of Savile Row tailors Norton Sons and E Tautz, says of the English revival: “Though Italians like black suits, on Savile Row we have always worked with navy blue and grey. Designers such as Tom Ford and Thom Browne were instrumental in the resurgence of that aesthetic. Grey is a much richer, more interesting and more textural colour in suiting than black. Gucci was quite black but Tom Ford [Ford’s own label, launched in 2006] is definitely grey.”
“Grey is a fascinating colour,” says Tony Glenville, creative director of the school of media and communication at London College of Fashion. “Until the 20th century it was not a fashion colour, or a court colour, at all.” In the early 20th century, he says, “the French expression grisette referred to working girls, women who wore drab grey, perhaps because they were meant to be invisible and blend into the background”. Grey was also associated with half-mourning, according to Oriole Cullen, acting senior curator of contemporary fashion at the VA. “If a close family member died, you wore black. But if a member of the royal family died, for example, you were expected to wear grey.”
Grey has had its moments in the spotlight since. After the second world war, Christian Dior famously proclaimed his adoration for the colour, painting the walls of his boutiques pearly grey and sending various “vaporous”, “strong”, “moth-like” and “uranium”-inspired hues down the runway. In menswear, grey became an symbol of postwar conformity – as in the 1956 Gregory Peck film The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and on Cary Grant’s advertising executive in North by Northwest. “Postwar, everyone was ready for anything new,” says Glenville. “Things had been tough for a long time. The sudden appearance of a colour that had not been used much was appealing.”
Grey, offset against the gaudiness of the 80s, was crucial to grunge and the minimalism of the 90s, as conceived by designers including Helmut Lang, Calvin Klein and Max Mara. Then, as now, says Glenville, “the interiors followed the trend – in the 1990s there was a lot of chrome, silver and black in homes“. Dennis Nothdruft, curator of the Fashion and Textile Museum, says: “In the 90s, the most popular colour for artists and their studios was grey.”
And yet black, not grey, became the neutral tone preferred by fashion insiders, the colour most closely associated with in-the-know chic. “Black turtlenecks became a kind of a uniform for arty types,” says Nothdruft. So widespread was this look, he says, that “I don’t think black has recovered yet from the last time it was fashionable”. Of course, the adage “grey is the new black” (often attributed to the Italian designer Gianfranco Ferré or Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons) have been floating around for aeons, representing a fleeting interest, for a season or two, in something other than the dominant aesthetic. The greywash of the present decade feels like a subtle but much more significant shift.
So why has it happened? For one thing, grey is the perfect shade to showcase truly luxurious fabrics. “Céline’s autumn/winter 2013 collection is a brilliant example of this,” says Cullen. “It all looked so covetable.” Creating clothes that cannot be replicated cheaply is crucial in the digital world, where high-street “homages” and counterfeit goods are rushed out so quickly they sometimes steal a march on designers’ own wares.
Grey works perfectly on the high street, particularly when compared with inexpensive blacks and whites, which tend to fade or look grubby after a few washes. Grey is hard-wearing and practical. It suits a range of skintones and complements a range of other colours, some of which – such as navy and pastels – can look odd with black. It also has outdoorsy connotations. “Marl grey is the original colour for sportswear and has always been the No 1 colour for traditional sweats and joggers,” says Jane Shepherdson, CEO of Whistles. “We find that we experiment with other colours, but always return to marl grey.” It is the shade that makes other colours sing. In interiors, it is the perfect backdrop to many current trends, from cool Scandanavian styles to mid-century vintage.
It makes sense that designers of Alexander Wang’s age would be drawn to grey: the 30-year-old grew up in San Francisco in an era of black-and-white Calvin Klein billboards and grey sportswear in films (it’s surely no coincidence that the soundtrack to his autumn/winter 2013 show was Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, the theme tune to Rocky III). Wang has also spoken of finding inspiration in that other very grey decade, the 1940s. Both the late 40s and the 90s, says Glenville, were “palate-cleansing” eras in fashion, after the second world war and the brash 1980s respectively. The current decade could be seen as palate-cleansing too, in the wake of the noughties’ economic boom and bust and its accompanying parade of X Factor contestants in brightly coloured bodycon dresses.
“From a psychological standpoint,” says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of colour analysts Pantone, “there is the idea that grey – the colour of granite, rock and stone – is very stable. In the 1990s, for example, greys were popular when the economy took a plunge in many countries – a time when many people were very practical and very sombre about what they were wearing.”
It has often been said that the internet age is a time beyond mass trends and big pop-cultural movements. “In the 1950s,” says Glenville, “if Vogue decreed that a colour was in, all the stores in England would buy it. Fashion doesn’t work that way any more.” Instead, in the digital era, little trends flare up, and each of us cherry-pick the things we like, but very little sticks and appeals to the masses. It is fitting, then, that the colour that has boomed this decade – which has proved appealing to so many people in so many ways – is a messy, muddy melting-pot of a colour; a colour that goes with anything, is available in multiple shades and helps bring other, more adventurous colours to life. Though it looks chic and cool, it is functional and flattering. Grey is only really fashionable in the most subtle, democratic and versatile of ways.
Key fashion shades of the 20th century
By Tony Glenville, London College of Fashion
1900s: Lilac; soft, feminine, misty colours such as wisteria, blush pink and eau de nil
10s: Brilliant green, elephant’s breath and Ballet Russes colours: coral, emerald, fuschia
20s: Taupe, black, silver, beige, oatmeal and soft sage green and metallics
30s: Pale blush pink, silver, pale lemon, pale blue, pale pink
40s: Light navy blue; sharp, dark brown; navy, military and businesslike colours
50s: Grey, deep violet, dark green; chic postwar shades, but not brights
60s: Black and white, op art
70s: Bright yellow, maroon; hippie Woodstock shades
80s: Dynasty electric blue, reds, greens and grey. Plus Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto black
90s: Black, with lots of grey
2000s: Colour gets confused – anything goes!