Where does silver fox come from?
While silver fox has been a name of a species of actual vulpines since the late 1700s, describing gray-haired men as silver foxes dates back to at least the 1920s, specifically to the career of MLB player Jessee Petty who was nicknamed the Silver Fox because of his prematurely white hair and lively personality. Many other early graying male celebrities took the moniker of silver fox after that, including country singer Charlie Rich.
In early usage, a silver fox was young, attractive, and prematurely gray. And, the term silver fox was specifically associated with attractiveness and confidence in an older man since at least since the 1980s, playing on fox as slang for an attractive person (said of women by the early 1960s, extended to men later that decade).
In contemporary usage, a silver fox doesn’t have to have gray hair, though he usually does. The age difference between the older man and the younger person attracted to him is what matters more.
Who uses silver fox?
News and entertainment outlets regularly publish lists of the top silver foxes of the moment. The men who end up on these lists are typically white and either models, actors, or TV personalities such as George Clooney, Anderson Cooper, and Steve Carell. Here, silver fox suggests the men have become sexier with age and exude a kind of old-school class and charm.
While silver fox is most often used to describe attractive, older men, it can also be used to refer to older women. Attractive older women, especially those who have refused to dye their naturally graying hair, are sometimes called silver vixen, such as Helen Mirren or Jamie Lee Curtis.
Silverfox is also the name of a Marvel Comics Universe character, a mutant from the X-Men series who can appear younger than she is and can hypnotize anyone she touches—both of which fit into the silver fox archetype.
Should the Silver Fox from @MakingAMurderer, Aaron Keller, be the next Bachelor? 😍 #TheBachelor @buckhollywood
@itsAdam, January, 2016
In terms of red-carpet dressing for men, the grey beard is a game-changer. Grey stubble signifies that distinguished silver-fox thing – ground which José Mourinho and George Clooney keep a tight grasp on.
Imogen Fox, The Guardian, May, 2015
It can be tempting to declare it as a feminist commentary. Men are considered distinguished and sophisticated with flecks of gray or a shield of silver. George Clooney, Anderson Cooper, and John Slattery stand atop a pedestal of graying beautifully, aging into the dashing gentleman, the “silver fox.” But women cannot attain silver foxdom (vixen-dom?) in quite the same way.
Tanya Basu, The Atlantic, December, 2014