Smoky Lilac: a surprising journey of teen fashion trends, white supremacists, and class struggles

Among the Millennials and Generation Z, rebellion is a hot look. Nearly half have tattoos, whereas only a third of GenXers have them. Scarification and body piercings are also increasing among our youngest generations. It’s no surprise that dyed hair, too, is increasingly popular.

Except, of course, that dyed hair isn’t that rebellious anymore. Seventy percent of women and a large proportion of men color their hair each year, and even radical, unnatural colors like hot pink or electric green are fairly commonplace. In the 1970s and 1980s, such radical hair colors were considered anti-establishment and featured widely among the punk, grunge, and goth movements. Today, colored hair is part of the establishment. It’s been trendy since Katy Perry hit the music scene and probably well before. (Have an earlier example? Leave us a comment below.) The latest look for colored hair is romantic, easy, and versatile. It’s called smoky lilac and admittedly, it looks great.

This summer, smoky lilac exploded. Numerous celebrities adopted the color, and there are currently more than 20 different hair dye brands producing pastel purple colors for men and women. Smoky lilac is an extension (get it, extension?) of a hair dye trend that occurred in 2015. That’s when young men and women starting prematurely dying their hair gray, before the natural process of graying began. (You can track the fad by searching #grannyhair on Instagram.) Young people described the look as “crazy” and rebellious. Oddly, the trend was also sometimes described as empowering older people to accept their natural hair color…by having young people dye theirs an unnatural (or at least, premature) color. Either way, achieving artificial gray hair is a surprisingly expensive process and at $200 every four weeks,, artificial gray hair is a fashion reserved mostly for the wealthy.

Lilac hair is more forgiving. Because it’s not expected to look entirely natural, there’s more room for mistakes in blending, layering, and darkening the hair. It’s possible to maintain the look at home, without the need for frequent and expensive salon visits, although the process can be tedious. Several youtube videos are devoted to DIY methods for achieving smoky lilac hair, including one that involves a decapitated manikin with a wig made of real human hair. Awesome.


The popularity of lilac hair may be new, but the concept isn’t. A cursory glance at the literature pops a mention of “lilac hair” in 1939, by the racist British journalist Douglas Reed. (He happens to be a favorite author of David Duke.) In his book “Disgrace Abounding,” Reed recounts seeing a woman with dyed hair in London and imagines a horribly progressive world where women might dye their hair with increasingly unnatural colors. Here’s the passage:

“May 1938, in London. A mad and merry month, my masters. The buds were fighting their springtime battle against the coaldust-laden air. Everywhere the road-builder was at work; no avenues were being left unturned. Mr. Victor Gollancz had announced a Christian Book Club. As I wandered, seething, along the Edgware Road, a bareheaded woman with lilac hair and a long cigarette holder in her mouth passed in front of me, and by 1940 I expect they will be shaving their heads bald and painting them green with pink spots and chewing betel nut, and very decorative that ought to be, and very good for white prestige, and as long as we can keep it up the black man ought to be proud to carry the white man’s burden.”

Wow. There is a lot to discuss in this passage, but let’s just focus on the lilac hair bit. This is an era when colored hair was truly rebellious. Combined with smoking in public and not wearing a hat, this woman was clearly a dissident with some statements to make. I’ve no idea how the woman achieved lilac-colored hair without the super sophisticated hair dyes of today (if you know, please tell me), but bully for her. She must have gone out of her way to dye her hair that color. She put together a visual image that suggested she wasn’t tied to traditional expectations of women, or their hair colors.

Is lilac hair still rebellious today? I’m not sure. For one thing, it’s now become rather common. There’s no rarity to it anymore. For another, I think we have come to perceive purple as a natural part of the human color spectrum. We often describe people with grayish or bluish eyes as having “violet eyes.” This is just perception, because humans, like all mammals, do not actually produce any purple pigments in their skin, hair, or eyes. But if violet eyes are treated like a version of gray eyes, it’s possible we will learn to perceive lilac hair as a version of gray hair. If that happens, then lilac hair may present an unusual opportunity to bridge the gap between what we define as “natural” and “unnatural” hair colors. And that would be good, because there’s lots of workplace discrimination against men and women with unnaturally colored hair, including black women who dye their hair blonde. Lilac hair may be a great chance to “get over it” when it comes to unexpected hair colors. Surely it’s this kind of political empowerment that was on Justin Bieber and Taylor Lautner’s minds when they posed with their lilac locks:


Alright, fine. Maybe not.


1 in 1537. Our Radiotopia proposal

Memory and I launched The Body Modification Podcast over an evening of cocktails and conversation in February 2016. We had no idea that in two short months, we’d be launching the show on iTunes and performing live shows. We’re grateful for the support and excitement that you’ve given us, and we look forward to bringing you even more stories of the stunning, surprising beauty of the human body. In that spirit, we’re excited to share with you our latest enterprise.

On Sunday, we submitted an application to Radiotopia.

As many of you know, Radiotopia is a major podcasting network and a home for ferocious storytelling. They received a staggering 1537 applications for new shows this month, and we’re hoping to make it to the top 10. Can you help support us? Do you have an interest in talking about the human body, the ways we change it, the ways we use it to move through the world? We have stories of undertakers, historians, extremists, housewives, doctors, and survivors that we want to share with the world. You can get those stories out there!

How can you support us? It’s easy. Follow us on twitter (bodmodtweets) and like our Facebook page ( Tweet at us and hashtag #radiotopia so that they know you’re interested! Send us your own story, and we might select it for broadcast.

Whatever you chose to do, know that you have our thanks and undying love. We couldn’t (and we wouldn’t) do this without you. Stuck with us this long? We have a reward for you. Here’s the audio clip we sent to Radiotopia, introducing our ideas for The Body Modification Podcast.

Thanks, Kes

P.S. Like the art? It’s available for purchase here: