Why the pastel hair?

November 9, 2021 • 2:15 pm

All of a sudden on campus I’ve noticed two fashion changes, both mainly but not exclusively among women. The first are huge clunky boots like combat boots, black and with very thick soles. I think they’re unsightly, as they’re often worn with a nice outfit that isn’t at all complemented by these clunkers.

The other is pastel-colored hair. Now that’s been a “thing” for several years, but now a lot more students of both sexes are sporting purple, green, or blue hair. Like the clunker boots, I don’t find the look appealing, but then none of these fashions are meant to appeal to me.

The question is: what does this mean? Fashion, after all, often says something about what image you want to project. My theory, which is mine, is that the pastel colored hair is associated with being woke, and projects that image. The reason I suspect this is that I’ve never met anybody with this kind of dye job who wasn’t woke. It may be a form of the “green beard” syndrome, enabling you to recognize others in your tribe.

As for the boots, my first thought was Antifa garb. So my working hypothesis is that people who sport both of these items are saying they are woke and tough, while the colored hair alone denotes wokeness.

Now I could be completely wrong here, and these are just the kind of fashions that appeal simply because everybody else is wearing them. But I suspect there’s some grain of truth in my speculations.

98 thoughts on “Why the pastel hair?

  1. I can’t speak for the students but my guess is the boots are comfortable! And warm. I practically live in my hiking boots, even though I no longer hike. As for the hair, I use pink, blue, purple in mine. If I can’t wear face makeup (we have a mask mandate here, and masks and makeup don’t do well together) I ‘make up’ my hair for the fun of it. Purely for fun.

    1. Yes, I remember having almost this exact argument with a girlfriend in the ’90s…in which I was pretty well schooled.

      “Why did you buy such clunky shoes? I think they are ugly.”
      “I didn’t get them for you.”
      “Well who else would like them?”
      “Me. Because they’re comfortable.”

  2. I wonder if alot of these people consider themselves “nonbinary”, or one of myriad new sexual identities? But not Lesbian or gay, which have been largely erased.

    And my thought is, let’s say you are “nonbinary” or “two spirit”, How do you actually telegraph to the world these distinctions? My sense is that the unusual hair color and et alia is synecdoche for that sexual difference.

    But that is not enough: and that is where the ruthless patrolling of language comes in. These new sexual identities, including various variations of trans, exist largely as affective and ultimately discursive phenomena. And this is why language describing these individual is so hugely patrolled by themselves, Twitter, law, etc.

    1. I’m a boring straight cis white 52 year old dude and I dyed my hair purple last month. It had nothing at all to do with what I want to signify to the world.

        1. Maybe: I already have a boat, got rid of my convertible years ago, and married my ten years younger wife more than a decade ago, so there aren’t that many venues.

          Alternate explanations: we’re playing a piece called “Blue Shades” in a concert this weekend, I also play in the “Bluetone Big Band,” it was celebrating our return to the office, lockdown has driven me insane, or I’m just weird.

          It has been interesting no longer being essentially an anonymous white guy in public.

  3. I neglected to mention an additional item: the most conspicuous sign a change was coming first became evident, I think, through tattooing.

    Tattooing traveled from decoration to tribal marking and dominion over the body. When I first noticed all the tattooing, I thought it was a fad, and later realized it was far more than that.

    1. In the early ’90s The Guardian ran a piece with the headline “Tattoo: barcode for criminals” or some such that I teased my heavily tattooed friend about. However, it wasn’t long before he was in the majority and it’s now uninked people like myself who are seemingly the odd ones out. (Though John Richie’s shoulder tattoo of an eagle will always be remembered by myself as looking like a peeved budgerigar – something, to be fair, that he himself freely acknowledged.)

    2. I can only hope it will return to being a fad and eventually die down, especially when new generations take a look at their heavily tatooed parents and gradparents and decide to rebel…

  4. There’s something pathetic about that footwear – clearly, any footwear is designed for particular purpose. There is simply no reason for those “clunkers” at a university. The facilities guys probably wear Red Wings – and there would be other designs for field work – but not ostentatious black chic-combat boots. If anything, the students are demonstrating their poor decision making for winter footwear – a sort of notion that such a brutal looking thing should power through anything. But again, facilities probably have modest looking Red Wings with appropriate insulation and composite toe – and they probably feel super cozy!

    1. I well remember my high school and college years. In those days I’d have been as likely as not to wear combat boots to school simply to be contrary towards views like you express here.

      Who am I kidding. I’m pretty much the same in that respect even now.

      1. the students sit in class for hours, study for hours at a desk, maybe work in lab – where black soles can mark up the flooring – they are indoors mostly, and there are better winter weather boots than combat boots. I have learned this through experience making bad decisions on winter footwear and footwear in general.

      2. I wore the combat boots because they were tough and cheap. No rebellion. Just practical. $15 at the army-navy in Harvard square for low-wear second hand, and they lasted and lasted. Classes, teaching, and cleaning toilets. A can of black wax every few weeks and they looked presentable. I got a year or more from a pair.

        I really was sad when I moved away, got a real job, and had to pay real prices. But still, $75 for footwear that fits, is comfortable, protective, and lasts a year of often hard use? A bargain.

        (hard use: Job two- weld engineer- often involves some really nasty locations, like scrapyards, container ship bilges, gravel processing machinery, and the like, in conditions from expletive cold to 100% humid expletive hot– -30C to 40C or higher. Good, ugly boots rule)

        Can’t really say much about the hair. Back when I had it, I wore it down to my ass.

        1. Were they welt seamed?

          These new ones on that link appear maybe welt seamed but maybe not. Maybe the old design was. Most Timberlands appear welt seamed but are not – but the sole is shaped to appear that way. They have maybe one model that is welt seamed but it is something like $300-$500 IIRC.

          Welt seams allow for new sole swap outs.

          1. Looks like Timberland has welt seamed offerings between $100-$200 – I cannot find the one I suggested.

        2. Also I’d like to know if those old Army boots had puncture resistance … from re-reading, it seems you had genuine military boots – not Doc Martens or whatever the type is referred to in this post.


          Puncture resistant inserts can be found onlin, and Red Wing has PP offerings.

    2. Timberland made a name for itself – with help from rappers like Dr. Dre – with thick soles. This might be one factor that captured attention of clothing designers and marketers to attract the “clunkers” audience.

    3. I just found a pair of Doc Martens that seem ok for me, especially as the sole is *welt seamed*. That means the soft thick rubber sole can be replaced on this $150 pair of boots.

    1. Exactly my thought. And the hair is a case of better living through chemistry. Recent advances in hair color technology have made it safer, cheaper & more accessable.

    2. Pretty much what I was going to say; I’ve seen the boots with skirts for a very long time. Never cared for it myself, wrong generation.

    3. Yeah, that style’s been around for quite a while. I mean, I’ve slept with women who wore that style — and I’m old, and strictly adhere to the so-called “French Rule” (half one’s age plus seven years being the minimum acceptable age), and try to follow Nelson Algren’s three rules of life, including the third (“Never sleep with a woman whose problems are worse than your own”), albeit, as to the last, not always successfully. 🙂

      1. I wish I’d known about Rule 3 when I was 17…of course that would have made my 20’s as celibate as my teens.

        My own rule, comparable to the French rule was that they had to be closer to my own age than my son’s, as I was only 20 when he was born and I felt it would be creepy otherwise. Later I adopted the 5 years on either side of my own age rule, but by then women had universally adopted their own rule, which is that I were to be avoided and thus I am “terminally single”. Damn shame I’m an atheist. I’d make a fine monk.

  5. I think whether it looks nice heavily depends on the person (and hairstyle, and the rest of their outfit).

    But for what it’s worth, I know someone who dyes her hair “pastel colors” and isn’t woke.

    1. There’s a cute little (maybe 4’10) Scottish woman in my exercise class who colors her white hair various shades of pastel. She’s probably closer to 80 than to 70 and I doubt that she’s remotely “woke”. Like Lenora, I suspect she does it strictly for fun.

        1. I’ve seen pictures of a few bald men who had their bald head painted with designs, though it was just black color. I don’t think these were tattoos, just using their head as a canvas. Mostly swirls and geometric shapes. It’s not corporate, but for an “artist”, it had a certain flair. Definitely a look-at-me type of fashion choice.

  6. I think the gig economy plays a role as well. As fewer young people marry themselves to traditional white color jobs, they can style however they want. Boots you can hoof it around in, hair that is fun.

  7. Gen Z really buys into body modification to signal their “individuality.” Bright, unnaturally colored hair is an Instagram-friendly way to show everyone how cool and different you are. It’s also difficult and expensive to maintain, so it also signals your status, without being a lifelong commitment.

  8. I invite anyone to do a search for Susan Blackmore (author of “The Meme Machine”). That’s some hair!

  9. Geez. OK, boomer (just teasing — I’m a boomer too). Not everything is woke. I lived through the punk era. We were asked about the same things — our earrings and clothes, haircuts and dyed hair, makeup (on men!). “What does it mean?” Sometimes it doesn’t mean anything. It was a subculture. They all have their emblems. Why do Deadheads wear tiedye?

    1. There was definitely a hippie costume: tie-dye, beads, long hair, etc. It meant that you were a member of a tribe and had certain views about politics (Left), probably smoked dope, and were sexually liberal.

      I’m just trying to figure out what this subculture is.

      1. You forgot jeans as part of the hippie costume. The longer since it had been washed, the better. They were also long so that you walked on the seems and frayed them. Then there was the guitar.

      2. Yes and no. Compared to Teddy boys, punks, new romantics, mods, rockers, in fact any other subculture, the hippie costume was much more varied. In fact, individuality was valued. Sure, there were many things which many hippies liked, and they were more common, but the goal was to be oneself and not to conform to some group. And completely nude was OK as well. 🙂

        Another difference: check out, say, the people reading the evening news in the 1970s: wide collars, high heels (for men), longer hair, more facial hair, brighter colours: the hippie aesthetic had become mainstream. That never really happened with any other subculture.

        Typical hippie characteristics: as you say, left-wing politics, drugs, sexually liberal, long hair. But also: mysticism (eastern or American Indian), rock music, and environmentalism. However, there were people who embraced some but not all of those (for example, myself: sex and rock and roll (or rock music in general), sure, but no drugs; left-wing politics and environmentalism, but no mysticism; very long hair until chemotherapy thinned it out, but always and forever a beard) and they were still accepted as part of hippie culture. Think of Frank Zappa, for example, who was known for not allowing any drugs in his band. (His sarcastic take on “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll”, or, more biblically, “wine, women, and song” was “titties and beer”.)

        Also keep in mind that, while superficially similar, in the USA there was much more anti-establishment thinking: “turn on, tune in, drop out” and so on, whereas in England, which in the 1960s was just coming off war rationing, young people were glad to spend money and be consumers, just spend it on.and consume different things than the previous generations.

        But for many, probably most, it was also fashion, and they left it when fashioned changed. I had an aunt with 5 sons. In the early 1970s, each had his own chopper (remember those?), long hair, beard, psychedelic poster, and so on. Not much more than 10 years later they were all urban cowboys. And the nude-bathing scene in the Woodstock film where a woman has nothing better to do than shave demonstrates that for many it was just a superficial fad.

        1. You put a finger on it : music.

          What music associated with the specified combination of hair color and footwear?

          … if we go much further with this topic, we might need a representative photo or two – not exactly trivial.

          I add here because my browser is sort of stuck :

          I want to point out, in this context, a distinction between the number of clear functional aspects of footwear and the style of the footwear. Because I am pretty certain, functional design layers determine what the footwear will look like – such that at some point, the consumer has to pick one : cool looks or functionality. And there is in general a trade-off between the two. I offer an independent example : Ugg Boots. They appear functional, but AFAIK are mostly a fashion show.

          1. Hmm. I have blue hair and own Doc Martens, and play jazz and classical trombone. Probably not the best data point.

            1. I mean, of course, what music the *audience* is listening to.

              As for a *performer*, it makes complete sense to me that a performer would have an interest in looking interesting on the bandstand – as a part of the expressive power of performance – indeed, it is how The Sex Pistols made the world learn what Doc Martens are.

              1. It depends. Mick Jagger says that he wears yellow trousers so that people at the back can see him. On the other hand, as late as the mid-1970s, Roger Waters could walk around in the crowd before a concert, wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt, and not always be recognized.

                Or one can do both: be immediately recognizable but no-one knows what you look at. Lordi. Buckethead. Google them if you don’t know them.

              2. Sure, I got what you meant, but it’s also safe to assume that people like to listen to the type of music they also like to play…basically I just think people are trying to read WAY too much into it.

            1. Exactly – I am under the impression that performers including Mozart and Beethoven understood this factor very well and used it as necessary. It’s about _performance_ – and getting their music out there.

              … on that thought, the hair might be due to Billie Eilish – not the green – then there are the rap divas… dunno…

              1. Paganini and, to a lesser extent, Liszt and Wagner also had a rather flamboyant persona. Certainly in the case of Paganini it was conscious showmanship. Bach, on the other hand, had a more “everyman” persona, like Springsteen.

  10. This may be the last chance these students get to be a little crazy with their hair and dress. When they graduate, most will have to look more corporate and business-y to start their careers.

  11. My hypothesis is that it’s a post-pandemic effect—especially the hair. For people working or taking classes at home, it was easy to fall into a drab, boring hair and clothing routine. Now that people are getting out and about, they are kicking up their heels with fun colors (and hopefully not kicking anyone with their trendy clodhoppers).

  12. Big clunky boots with thick soles have been fashionable for some time – since at least the 1960s. I believe Dr. Martens may have been the first to become popular, particularly with skinheads starting in the UK. I own several pairs of Dr. Marten, or ‘Docs’ in the shoe style, and wear them regularly – and I am pushing 70! They fit my wide (and aging) feet well, and the thick soles provide plenty of cushioning when standing and lecturing on hard floors.

    1. Doubtless WEIT reader Dom will be along shortly to outline the recent demise of the Dr. Martens boot… (Unless I’m uniquely privileged as a recipient of that particular complaint!)

  13. I think both of these trends have been around a while. The pastel hair might have gotten a big boost when soccer star Megan Rapinoe came on the scene. She has light purple hair.

  14. These are very familiar fashion trats to me, as someone who was part of the indie and grunge scene in the UK in the 90s. The ‘Riot Grrl’ Aesthetic combined doc marten boots, summer dresses bought from thrift stores and artificially dyed hair, often with a shaved ‘undercut’ on the sides and long on top.

    I am guessing you weren’t part of, or very familiar with, this scene?


  15. I can’t say anything for fashion as I have never been in that club and the only time I was around a school campus was in the early 70s. But I wore the so-called combat boots while in the Air Force and there was nothing fashionable about them. They were mandatory so that would send the kids running. Ours had thick soft soles on them so you would not fall on your ass when climbing around on airplanes. I never wore them again after I got out.

  16. I don’t think you can assume that folks with pastel-colored hair are signaling that they are woke. More than likely they are signaling that they are *cool* or *edgy* rather than woke and there is a significant intersection between woke folks and cool/edgy folks. So, definitely cool and edgy but maybe work. Let that be your hypothesis.

  17. I am enjoying the praiseworthy efforts to exhaust the hypothesis space. I even saw a couple of proposals for hypothesis testing.. (“Why don’t you ask them?”)
    Very good, everyone.

  18. Surely, this is Jerry’s lawn, and if he wants to stand on it yelling at clouds(*), then that’s his business?

    (*) I happen to agree with him over this, but whether I do or don’t, doesn’t matter. Again, it’s his lawn.

  19. I have a niece who likes to sport colored hair (usually pink or fuscia, but other colors too). She colors it because she finds it fun – no ulterior motives. We also have a superb violinist in our local professional chamber orchestra who colors her hair with pink and/or powder blue streaking. I suspect she is challenging the typical staid, black aesthetic of classical orchestras, but she’s got the chops to back up the aesthetic, and she is instrumental in bringing in younger audiences who can relate to her.
    I would caution about stereotyping people. If you want to know why someone is doing something that is basically benign, have the courtesy to ask them. You might learn something.

    1. Courtesy? They may feel insulted and I’m too shy to do that.. I’m amazed that people are telling me what to do when I’m just spinning my wheels about what I see.

      Notice that I haven’t stereotyped anybody, though there can be truth in stereotypes, like with hippie dress (which I ENGAGED IN). I was simply looking for a hpothesis that explains a lot of the variance.

      Thanks for your caution, but I don’t need the patronizing tut-tutting.

      1. I think it’s a trend that’s been going on for quite a few years and maybe it just hit your threshold for noticing. I suspect that hair dyeing technology made a bit of a jump lately, making it easier and more accessible for a lot of people. Did mine last month, just to see what it would look like and what the experience would be.

        It’s definitely been an experience to be a middle aged guy with blue hair and a red beard – I’m sure as heck no longer socially anonymous the way typical white men are here. Does recognizing that make me woke? I’m not sure what your definition is, to be honest.

  20. I’m old enough to be these undergrads grandma. I own a pair of clunky black boots with thick soles. They are not sexy fer shur and do perhaps look incongruous with dresses and skirts in someone’s eyes. I love them. I enjoy seeing the multi-colored hair, and it’s great that men are doing it, too. I had a blue stripe in my hair 25 years ago. The technology for these unnatural colors has much improved since then. It is great fun, the bright orange is my current favorite.

    What does it mean? It means you don’t have to conform to conservative appearances because you are a student or you have a job in a creative or liberal-leaning field. You are going to see more of this among design students than finance students. We can also make fairly accurate generalizations about their political leanings, but that is a tertiary issue.

    1. I think in part it means that they are discovering my generation’s crap and adopting bits of it as their own much the way gen-xers like me stole from my hippie parents whatever spoke to us. Chunky boots (like Dr. Martins) dyed hair (koolaid was a favorite cheap method) and men with fingernail polish (I had metallic blue and purple)…it’s just the new recycling the a bit of the old as far as I can tell.

  21. Here is one other perspective: I did some life things in the opposite order as most. I had near a decade into a professional career before I went to college. When I did go, one of the most striking & enjoyable things for me was seeing how everyone seemed to “dress to express” – whereas in my business world it was more “dress to represent”. Work clothes were a uniform of sorts, and nothing about them said anything about me or my worldview. I love the creativity, effort and love that goes into some of these wild ensembles. Life will grind them down soon enough, I’m glad they are having fun while they can.

  22. I think your hypothesis is valid. I have always been fascinated by how our way of dressing may relay signs about our personality and beliefs. There is definitely a relationship there.

  23. Nasty Atheist Hemant Mehta is angry with again, Jerry. Apparently this article has distracted him from writing up the 17,281st update on Ark Encounter…

  24. I think of the hair as one of nature’s warning signs. Like brightly colored but dangerous insects, Aposematism, as Rich T pointed out.

    Of course, a lot of it is fashion. A uniform to showcase your uniqueness. I always felt that attending a military school, where you wear a uniform every day, was an advantage. Towards the end, we got to wear custom made riding boots and sometimes a sword. We had to keep it squared away, but I enjoyed it.

  25. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, Jerry. Sure, kids will wear what the other kids wear to be part of their tribe, but others might just do it because it looks like it’ll be a bit of fun and that’s all there is to it. As others have said here, they’re not doing it for you, they’re doing it for themselves. Open expression seems to me to be just as likely a choice now, and that in itself could denote a particular tribe or maybe just an iconoclastic or tribe-free mindset. What ridiculous crap did you wear as a kid at university? I went barefoot. It wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.

  26. I know I’m showing my age by automatically regarding bright blue hair and tattoos (oh, so many tattoos! We were taught in med school to do a syphilis test on any patient with a tattoo – seriously!) as aposematic warnings. But how pleasantly surprised I am when the individuals sporting these devices turn out to be just as nice as anyone.

    1. jbillie, mine’s grown long; I haven’t had it cut since prior to covid and now, at 64 years old it’s longer than it’s ever been. It’s funny to see some of the reactions I get; a lot of people tell me I seem more relaxed and less uptight, but I reject that slur–I’m still as uptight as I ever was and my inner Calvinist and inner Bohemian are still as locked in battle as they ever were, dammit!!!

      As for pastel hair and boots, I’d imagine that for most it just signifies following a contemporary trend and finding a place in their social world, but for some of the trend setters it holds more meaning. As to what that is, I’m not in touch enough with that sub-culture to speculate. I know that I’ve adopted some looks that later seemed silly to me and looking back, I don’t know what my motives were, other than to be vaguely “contemporary”.

  27. Whatever this (the “style” , for short) means, we _know_ a number of things :

    1. A male has not claimed authority over any of the individuals to impose the styles as a “choice”.

    2. The styles were not begun precisely at the age of 13.

    3. The styles are not required by anyone to be displayed for the remainder of their lives.

    4. While the style is undeniably expressive, it is not intended, designed, or contrived to evince one specific personal behavior quality from the individual bearing the style… e.g. “modesty”.

    5. The style is not an emblem of faith.

    I know I’m over-commenting, and I am restraining myself, but this one was worth it as it ties in to a recurring topic and major theme on the website. Unlike my other possibly grumpy comments.

  28. It’s interesting to see watered-down fashion that I wore and was mercilessly singled out for in high school now on trend . Yes, I was into riot grrrl music (though not on board with all the ideology, even as a teenager). I just hope these kids don’t get things thrown at them and called “freak” for wearing purple lipstick or having green hair.

    I still wear things like purple and black lipstick (before masks) and vintage/inspired clothing and when I get the inevitable stare from someone in my far northwestern Chicago suburb, it does feel like I’m in high school again. Not a great feeling, but it still feels better than wearing clothes that don’t suit me. I don’t have tattoos. Fashion/makeup is a way to express- and amuse- myself. I do get nice comments from people too, and sometimes a “I wish I could wear something like that” and I tell them DO IT.

    I get compliments from Gen Zers too, but they are the least intelligible.

    That pastel hair? Way too much time, energy, and expense to upkeep IMO.

  29. “Fashion is ephemeral. Art is eternal. Indeed what is a fashion really? A fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months.” — Oscar Wilde

  30. Through most of my 65th year on earth, I sported pink hair. Why? Because it made me happy. It had nothing at all to do with being “woke.” I was working from home, so nobody at work would see it anyway. When I went out to walk my dog, I got lots of compliments on my pink hair.

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