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Looking back, I should have realized it sooner, this problem that I have. The only excuse I can give is that introspection often takes time, and it’s only slowly that one recognizes an obsession, though signs of it may appear everywhere.
I had an important meeting to go to and needed to look professional — a rare occasion for me, since being a writer usually means wearing a uniform of whatever’s on the bedroom floor, under the assumption that no one will be looking anyway. Nothing makes me feel professional like buying clothes for the sole purpose of being professional, and so I went in search of a new collared shirt.
I wandered around Soho one weekday afternoon — another luxury of non-office life — when the cobblestone side streets are quiet save for shop-attendant smokers swanning on loading docks Instagramming themselves. Eventually, I walked into Club Monaco. Not the most aspirational brand, but it’s a store where I can always find something to take home without paying a percentage of my rent (the gap other guys seem to fill with J.Crew). In the store, I paced the shelves and pulled down various button-down shirts in subdued red, camel, green heather, and several shades of gray, then began trying them on.
I quickly threw out the non-gray shirts. For the next half-hour, I tried to divine which gray cloth set off by buttons of a slightly different gray would communicate the best version of myself. Some grays were too plummy, saturated with some hidden color. Others were too brittle and metallic, with no depth at all. I narrowed it down to two shirts and then, feeling ridiculous for my indecision — it was all the same color, more or less — picked one and paid for it.
When I got back home and unwrapped the shirt, I looked in my closet and discovered that I had already bought a shirt just like it, perhaps one shade of gray darker, for my last Serious Meeting. Laid next to each other, they looked like a colorblind rainbow; each gray echoed off the next in a monotone chorus. Despite the sameness, I didn’t even think to return my new shirt. It was perfect.
Over the past year, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to gray as a kind of security blanket. I wear gray T-shirts above gray jeans, and the aforementioned proliferating gray dress shirts. Sweaters made of mottled gray spun thread. Gray sneakers with gray rubber soles. Striated gray socks. Other colors, black and white included, I’ve pushed to the side. It’s more a compulsion than a conscious aesthetic choice. Putting on anything else seems like a risk — almost like wearing a target.
Those of us prone to anxiety have lately been spoiled for choice. There’s the presidency to worry over, with its constant threat to bring about one apocalypse or another. Before Trump, the crisis of police brutality hinted at a yawning gulf in American identity. Looming above it all, heat records are being broken monthly as evidence mounts that human life has rendered itself unsustainable. Clothing, at least, is something we can control. Wearing gray is a way of soothing the 21st-century chaos, like camouflage for or insulation from the modern world.
Its appeal is its ambiguity. As a color, gray is paradoxically defined by an absence thereof. Achromatic gray exists on a spectrum of pure white to black. The addition of a small proportion of another hue gives chromatic grays their tinge: the greenish gray of the sky just before a storm or the brownish gray of ceramic clay. Perhaps the most compelling thing about gray is that it’s not composed of absolutes — it exists between them. There might be a bluest blue and a reddest red and even a blackest black, but there is no one grayest gray.
In his short book Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color, the French philosopher Alain Badiou describes the two absolutes on either side of gray as “the fatal couple of black and white,” suggesting both the colors’ finitude and their closedness. We know what black and white mean, or think we do. In Western fashion, the pair is associated with formality and fraught social circumstance: the baptismal gown, the business suit, the wedding dress, lingerie. “Black is the sign of the offering of an object,” in this case, the body, Badiou writes. Perhaps gray, then, is the color not of being objectified, but of becoming like an object, a stone statue: obstinate and immune.
The history of gray clothing reinforces this sense of worldly remove. Gray is the color of undyed wool, a material of economic necessity. It’s the fabric of the robes of Franciscan monks, the austere order whose members took vows of extreme poverty when it was founded in the 13th century (a portrait of St. Francis from the time shows him in an unadorned dark-gray robe cinched by a rope belt). The color suggests having little, and thus little to lose.
It’s also a de facto color of uniforms, from those worn by the Confederate army to the outfits of janitors, sanitation workers, and low-risk prisoners. It has long been associated with undifferentiated groups and unglamorous jobs. In the 1950s, gray became the signifier of the conformist 9-to-5 office worker, and thus the target of the rebellious and colorful ’60s. Take, for instance, the novel and film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, in which a corporate drone dressed in the eponymous outfit ends up choosing family over worldly success, viewing his exhausted boss as a cautionary tale.
Sameness of color, whatever the color, creates solidarity; a collective identity within a group. It’s a strategy that recent political movements have successfully deployed. Television news has been awash with the aggressive red of Trump’s Make America Great Again merch, the pink of the Women’s March pussy hats, and the plain black of anti-fascist iconography spreading as a shibboleth through the left. At times it can seem like a war between colors as much as ideologies. As the color of coalitions, gray might provide a more unifying symbol for our time.
In a recent Uniqlo catalog, one spread features a male and a female model both in head-to-toe gray: sweaters layered over collared shirts and drapey skirts, each item in its own achromatic shade. Together, the pair resemble two felted tubes, twin scratching posts for cats.
“Combine subtle variations of the same color for a provocative understatement,” the catalog copy suggests. The language sets up contradictions: variations can’t be too subtle, or else they’re unnoticeable, and understatement is rarely provocative. Yet the outfits and the inscrutable philosophy behind them are suited to the current moment: Who wouldn’t want to hide in small differences or make big gestures quietly? (Uniqlo itself is a kind of basic uniform; it often seems like half of New York City is secretly wearing the brand at any one time, a condition that the Japanese describe with the derogatory yunibare.)
Gray has taken over consumer fashion well beyond the usual purveyors of basics like Uniqlo, Muji, and Everlane. Lou & Grey, Ann Taylor’s line of “comfortably confident” activewear, even includes the color in its faux-artisanal name. Walking into one of the brand’s stores is like being delivered by a mysterious wardrobe to a Narnia where everything is made of sweatpants. Common Projects, the $400 minimalist sneakers that have become sartorial shorthand for the successful urban creative, embrace monochrome to the point of absurdity — their particular all-over gray is a subtle marker of status.
What makes gray such an appealing choice for clothes in particular? It could be its inherent efficiency; the relief of removing a decision from your life and never having to worry about clashing colors. Mark Zuckerberg is perhaps the most prominent figure to embrace the gray lifestyle. In January 2016, he posted a photo of his closet, which looks kind of like mine, only even grayer — a rack half-filled with gray T-shirts, the other half with darker-gray hoodies. Or perhaps the color is compelling because we’re surrounded by so much imagery and information that it comes as a much-needed visual respite. It can just wash over you.
My personal favorite gray tee is from The Open Company, a tiny outfit based in San Francisco. Its founders sought to engineer the perfect shirt, arranging a small-scale supply chain across China and Japan. The gray is as close to the platonic ideal of the color as it’s possible to get: the diffuse light shade of an overcast sky or just-dry concrete. On the inside of the shirt’s hem is its only concession to color: a logo embroidered in yellow thread.
I like the shirt because it walks the line between functionalism and affectation. The gray is a generic mask for the decidedly un-generic nature of the object, as symbolized by the hidden logo. It’s the reverse of the blatant branding of Louis Vuitton or Supreme — in an anonymous-seeming gray T-shirt, no one has to know what you’re wearing.
Yet The Open Company’s shirt (which retailed for $9) is, if anything, more unique, more of a fetish, than its mass-manufactured competition. In keeping with other manifestations of minimalism, gray doesn’t hide the details of clothing so much as emphasize them. Without color or print, all that’s left to see is the quality of cut, hems, and stitching.
I asked Eric Meltzer, who founded The Open Company with his wife Shan Wang, why they decided to start with gray. “I like objects where the egoistic touch of a designer isn't obvious, objects that feel like the inevitable result of a set of constraints and desires,” Meltzer says. “Those objects don't ask anything of you.” Gray is “unburdened,” he continues. “In most of Asia, white is a funereal color, but gray is without strong traditional or religious association.”
Delve into gray long enough and it’s hard to avoid the paradox: There’s a perception that the color means nothing (despite its substantial sartorial history), but if we define gray by its blankness, doesn’t that mean blankness itself is the meaning that we’ve artificially imposed on it? Gray signals the consciously composed neutrality that has become a hallmark of good taste in our time, from pristine empty lofts to the calculated indifference of fashion brands like APC and Acne.
That quality has a precedent, too. “The Japanese have a word, iki, which describes a naive and effortless cool,” Meltzer says. Indeed, “colors that embody iki are those belonging to grays, browns, and blues,” wrote the Japanese philosopher Kuki Shuzo in his 1930 book The Structure of Iki, which has come to define the idea in the West. Traveling through Europe to continue his studies, Shuzo met and learned from western philosophers like Heidegger and Husserl. Ultimately, he doubted the idea of iki could really be understood by non-Japanese people, though the book was his attempt to give it concrete definition.
Like the Danish hygge, Spanish duende, or the also Japanese wabi-sabi, iki is an abstraction of cultural aesthetic value that’s next to impossible to put into words, but to me, it’s key to understanding the contemporary appeal of grayness. In a 2004 book on Kuki’s work, editor Hiroshi Nara translates iki as “detachment” in the book’s title, though it often appears as “coquetry” in Kuki’s text itself. Iki is the teasing dance of attraction and repulsion, a dynamic phenomenon that might be encoded within an interaction between genders, the checked cloth of a worn kimono, or the beckoning gesture of a hand. To be iki is “to come as near as possible, and at the same time making certain that nearness stops short of actual touch,” Kuki writes. “Protecting the possibility as a possibility.”
Iki is the 18th-century Tokyoite’s version of New Yorker blasé: an embrace of pleasure while it lasts, an acceptance of whatever fate might throw your direction, and an endless ability to adapt without sacrificing good taste. It represents a certain distance from, as well as an attachment to, the world. Its connection to gray can also be seen in the subversive capacity to be one thing and then another; to always be receding.
This flexibility can be political. A radical grayness showed up at Paris Men’s Fashion Week earlier this year. Virgil Abloh’s Off-White line (its apropos slogan is “defining the gray area between black and white”) presented riffs on workwear and dull uniforms, covering gray pieces with glitched black-and-white patterns.
Vetements founder Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga showing went even further, with oversized gray business suits, trench coats, and puffer jackets. The generic color played up the collection’s subversions: moon boots, models shirtless under their uniforms, scarves that resembled dazzle camouflage. One outfit featured the logo of Balenciaga’s parent company, Kering, in a straight-faced joke, as if the anonymous corporation were also something to fetishize. Beyond a critique of the traditional white-collar ensemble, the line can be seen as a satire of the sloppy suit fits favored by the Trump administration as well as a knowing reflection of the corporate structures and capitalist consumption habits that allow the fashion industry to exist.
If the coinage of “normcore” in 2014 identified the ascendant everyman style, then under the new administration, the look has been weaponized by designers. They have turned it into a virus meant to bring down the mainstream system from which the aesthetic derives. This strategy is reminiscent of Stone Island, an expensive Italian label whose minimalist design, functionalist fabrics, and discreet, removable logo became a uniform for British soccer hooligans in the 1990s, the better to pass by police and security guards unnoticed.
And yet in fashion today, gray remains an often-expensive aspirational symbol, the same way Kondo-ing your closet is more a sign of excess resources than a true desire for less. It’s why Zuckerberg has his gray shirts, and why I looked for gray clothes for my meeting. Choosing to be invisible, particularly while maintaining your own identity, is a privilege that not everyone can access. Designing your own uniform, after all, is more empowering than having one forced upon you.
At the core of my desire for gray clothing, I think, is the pursuit of a generic so generic that it becomes unique: meaningless to those who don’t grasp it, but a signal of belonging to those who do. It could be the perfect outfit for any circumstance. Gray is equally applicable at a date, protest, business meeting, or gallery opening.
Back then, I wore clothes that were generic in a negative sense: cargo shorts from Kohl’s, jeans from Kmart. It’s the same fashion now fetishized by avant-garde designers, but at the time it felt like nothing could be worse. I would have rather worn the ornate Americana of my peers, American Eagle or Abercrombie & Fitch, clothes that purported to secure their wearer a place in a community of the popular and attractive (at least in suburban Connecticut). In retrospect, though, they mostly accomplished the opposite.
The cost of the brand-name labels was prohibitive, as was my lack of fluency in fashion. My parents don’t speak the language, either; no one taught me clothing was something that you judged yourself or were judged by. But another factor was my teenage desire not to be seen in the first place. If my clothes couldn’t communicate belonging, better that they say nothing at all.
The one American Apparel T-shirt I’ve ever owned I bought in high school, too. I still hang on to it. It’s a plain, dark heather gray, now so threadbare as to be see-through. A million other people have the exact same one. This particular shirt means nothing to anyone but me, and that’s why I like it. The sense of nostalgia and continuity that it brings is mine alone. It reminds me of what I have defined myself against, the closed, ultimately kitschy preppiedom that I grew up with.
This anxiety of belonging also speaks to the false sense of the generic that growing up in a homogenous suburb can impart: in these spaces, white skin is the presumed neutral, and everything else is judged as a departure. You have to learn that it’s anything but neutral.
Whiteness is “the last vestige of something that has no future,” according to Badiou, one half of that “fatal couple.” The philosopher describes the color in reference to a white flag of surrender, but the idea is applicable in many contexts. I interpret the description to mean that absolutes and extremes are inherently untenable. “In reality, no color can be assigned to a given human being, not black, of course, but not white or yellow or any color identity whatsoever either,” Badiou writes.
Instead of a particular color, then, perhaps humanity is gray: We are endless shades of each other.
In recent months, I’ve noticed gray in visual art as well. I visited a gallery show of all-gray paintings by the Bauhaus master Josef Albers; in each painting, squares of complementary grays nest inside each other. I stopped by the studio of the late artist James Howell, who spent his career painting spectra of gray. He lived and worked in a palatial all-gray loft (canvases, walls, floors, furniture, appliances) in the West Village where his widow, Joy, still resides, in the company of a gray cat. The Guggenheim even hosted a retrospective of the minimalist painter Agnes Martin, who over the course of the 20th century plumbed the depths of gray with the utmost tenderness.
At the Guggenheim, Martin’s paintings formed another monochrome rainbow broken through by a few canvases in dusky golds, blues, and pinks. Square canvas plus stripes or grids plus white or gray — the formula repeated itself in infinite variation. Even before I saw the show in January, I had noticed that all my friends who visited expressed feelings of relief afterward, an art-induced relaxation palpable in their serene Instagrams of the museum. Martin’s hard-won, overwhelming peace pitted itself against the mounting political chaos in the headlines.
I asked Tiffany Bell, one of the curators of the retrospective, about the art’s contrast with its current context. “Coming in the political climate we have, I think that her ideas about serenity and happiness and goodness actually played in a different way than they might have at another time,” Bell says. “I think that did resonate with the public.” At the museum, the diaphanous veil of paintings spiraling up the ramp felt like an enormous exhalation, a sigh expelling all the frustrations of life.
Martin’s repetition and constant experiments in small differences were a way for her to reach the calm reserve of nature, the way waves or trees are always the same and yet never the same. No matter their surroundings, the paintings project hope for a new horizon, “protecting possibility as a possibility,” as Kuki Shuzo wrote. “She’s going for this point of nothingness, which may in fact be sublime,” Bell says. “When you get to the point where there’s nothing, you transcend the real world.”
In the final painting of the exhibition, completed in the early 2000s, two white stripes run through a luminous body of blue-tinged gray built up in wide brushstrokes of thin paint, making visible the process by which it was made. Within the canvas you can feel the search for a color that will fully reflect the beauty of the world back at itself, the one shade that will disappear and leave only infinite possibility in its wake.
Gray, as I see it, represents a livable position for a time when the sweep of global events seems to overwhelm the individual. The color is a coping strategy built on cultivated ambivalence; not the lack of a moral compass, but the flexibility to persist in challenging circumstances, to speak louder by choosing when and how to speak. Ultimately, it symbolizes a kind of freedom.
As fashion, gray is both functional and distinctive, blending into its context while, in its endless shades, always pointing toward a new alternative. Wearing it can be a small act of resistance to the outside world and yet, as Shuzo suggests, an implicit reminder that we are also attracted to its beauty.
Walking to the subway one night in Brooklyn weeks after visiting the Guggenheim, I noticed the way my gray jeans and gray shoes blended into the gray sidewalk, a sharp not-black shadow thrown by a streetlight overhead. I briefly savored the feeling of being disguised within the street and the city — just another passing figure, one of so many.
Kyle Chayka is a writer living in Brooklyn.
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