The Meaning of Grey – the Colour of Age and Wisdom

Jan 21 2013

“Regrets are the natural property of grey hairs.”  – Charles Dickens

“People think that everyone wears black in France; in fact they all wear grey.” – Jean Paul Gaultier

“I am black or white, I’ll never be grey in my life.”  – Diego Maradona

Grey is the intermediate of black and white, neutral and achromatic (without colour). It is the colour of the cloud-covered sky and cold and foggy days. It is the colour of rocks, volcanic ash and many metals including lead. In turn, misty weather is associated with sadness, melancholy and boredom, while grey clouds (and especially grey ash) are a sign of foreboding. Cinderella takes her name from cinders or ashes, to signify her modesty.

Sadly, it is taking over the colour of our cities too, many of which are becoming grey concrete jungles. Concrete is the building material of the twentieth (and perhaps twenty-first) century.

In Western cultures, grey is most often associated with old age, humility, reflection, boredom, dullness, uncertainty and indifference. It can also mean subtlety, lack of pretense, balance, neutrality, intelligence, futurism, modesty, technology, security, tranquility, coldness, inexpensive, sadness, dirty, decay and dreariness.

In ethics, grey can be used in a positive or pejorative sense to describe “grey areas” (where there is no clear moral value) or a balanced view (neither black or white).

Grey is a common colour for animals and birds in nature, as well as rocks and minerals.

Silver is the metallic colour tone of grey, representing polished silver and sharing many of grey’s meanings. In addition to these, silver can mean classic, valuable, sophisticated, expensive (the opposite of grey) and is strongly associated with technology. Silver is the most popular global colour for cars.

In contemporary culture, grey is associated with concrete, architecture, machines, technology, photography and pencils, and silver with currency, jewelry, medals, second place, sculpture and dental fillings. Dreams are often depicted in grey, signifying the unconscious, and grey does lie right in the middle of all the colours. In art, grey can be used to represent the unconscious and also a nightmare quality as in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

In previous ages, grey was the colour of undyed wool and was often worn by peasants and the poor (along with brown). It became the colour worn by Franciscan and Cistercian monks as a symbol of their vows of humility and poverty, and is the colour you will see Se Francis of Assisi wearing when not in brown. This is how the term ‘Greyfriars’ came into being (a popular place name in England and Scotland).

Francis of Assisi by El Greco

Grey is a Christian symbol of resurrection of the dead (Christ is depicted with a grey cloak at the last judgement in medieval art) and therefore the death of the body and the immortality of the soul. In Qabalism (Hebrew), grey signifies wisdom.

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz by El Greco

Grey became more important in fashion during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, when black was very popular with the nobility and white and grey were used to harmonise with black in South Europe. It was a good background colour in art too, and artists like Rembrandt van Rijn and El Greco made common use of relatively sombre palettes of colours (the colours were often made from charcoal and burnt animal bones, mixed with white). Grey is still associated with gloom, anonymity, uncertainty and meditation (the balance of black and white).

Self portrait by Rembrandt

One of grey’s virtues is said to be its ability to make other colours look better. However, on its own it can feel neutral and depressing, the colour of ashes, humility, penitence and even depression. This is why silver’s sparkle has many more positive associations with security, reliability, intelligence, modesty and maturity (as well as the connotations of old age, sadness and boredom). Silver is the colour of the moon too.

Self portrait by James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Grey became very fashionable in the 18th century, both for women (dresses) and men (waistcoats and coats). At this time, Paris was the centre of women’s fashion and London for men’s fashion. The clothing of women working in the factories and workshops of Paris at this time was grey, leading to the term ‘grisettes‘, and gris also meant drunk and the same name was given to prostitutes. At this time, grey also became a popular colour for military uniforms (less visibility) including the Confederate Army in the American Civil War and the Prussian Army during the Franco-German War of 1870. It is still a popular military colour today.

In the early twentieth century, grey came to symbolise industrialisation and war, and was the dominant colour of Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s iconic painting about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Later in the same century, the grey business suit became the metaphor for uniformity of thought, with the book The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit leading to a successful film. This culture is still seen in the series Mad Men today.

In Asia, grey often signifies that a product is cheap. For the Japanese, silver and grey signify maturity, conservatism and old age, and silver and grey metals are considered masculine, and are the colours associated with weaponry, tools and high technology (as in many Western countries like Germany with its car industry).

In the West, grey is generally unpopular as a colour, because of its links with gloom and depression and despite its associations with neutrality and restrained elegance. It does have strong associations with intelligence, as in the expression “grey matter” for brains and intellect. Finally, grey is often associated with secrecy and shadows, and an eminence grise is a politician who controls and manipulates power in sinister ways without public notice. The phrase was first used to describe Francois Leclerc du Tremblay, a French monk who advised Cardinal de Richelieu.

In summary, grey is neutral, balanced, shadowy and melancholy. Most of all, grey and silver are the colours of the wisdom of experience.

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