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Do or dye: why women daren’t go grey (unless they’re very brave or very young)

Hillary Clinton was reported to have closed off part of the upmarket Manhattan department store Bergdorf Goodman last week so she could discreetly attend an appointment in the exclusive John Barrett hair salon, where a cut and blow-dry is a snip at $600 – a figure that’s doubled if you’re after colour treatment too. At a time when personal image is a crucial part of any political campaign, the 67-year-old Democratic US presidential hopeful is clearly prepared to invest heavily in her locks – and isn’t showing any of the expected signs of grey that many of her contemporaries display.

Yet a fortnight ago, in a social media Q&A session, she bemoaned the time and effort required to keep on top of her grooming. A “young professional woman” noted that she spent 30 minutes getting ready while her boyfriend zips out of the door, and asked Clinton how she handles it while “staying focused on the real work ahead”. Clinton replied: “Amen, sister – you’re preaching to the choir. It’s a daily challenge. I do the best I can – and as you may have noticed, some days are better than others!”

Over the decades she has been in the public eye she has certainly run the gamut of styles, from curly up-do to bouffant power bob. Let’s transport ourselves back to 2001 and Yale, one of the world’s pre-eminent universities. New York senator and former first lady Hillary Clinton has returned to her alma mater to deliver words of wisdom to graduating law students. She takes to the podium and begins: “The most important thing I have to say to you today is that hair matters. Your hair will send significant messages to those around you: what hopes and dreams you have for the world, but more, what hopes and dreams you have for your hair. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.”

It was a wise and prescient observation from a woman known for her sharp intellect and unashamed ambition, who has risen through Washington’s corridors of power to become a serious contender for the next presidency of the United States. Is this in spite of her hair or because of it?

In this era of supposed equality and respect for female achievement, some suggest that a woman of Clinton’s stature might be in a position to discard the shackles of societal expectation when it comes to appearance. Yet here she is, bidding to be the first woman in the Oval Office, and she’s worried about her barnet. Has she merely been enjoying post-feminist freedom to experiment and express herself using a variety of coiffures, or is she struggling to establish an identity that sits comfortably with her professional aspirations?

Certainly she’s not alone in the money and time invested in her locks. Any woman who’s ever had a bad hair day will testify to the contribution our coiffure make to our self-esteem. Hair, it seems, is big business and a serious issue – especially if you happen to be a woman in the public eye. Figures suggest the global hair care market will be worth $83.1bn in 2016: tangible evidence that a glossy, tumbling mane is a 21st-century status symbol, as the likes of Amal Clooney, Cat Deeley, Elle Macpherson, Michelle Mone and Kim Kardashian demonstrate with swishy aplomb.

Woe betide she who fails to maintain her crowning glory. Only last week the Duchess of Cambridge, a mother to two infant children, whose husband has just started a stressful new job, was publicly rebuked by celebrity crimper Nicky Clarke for allowing a few grey hairs to appear in her hitherto lustrous brunette mane. “Kate is such a style icon that even a few strands of grey would be a disaster,” he commented, rather ungallantly.

While TV baker Paul Hollywood, aspiring Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, and, of course, George Clooney are revered for their “distinguished” salt-and-pepper look, it seems that letting nature take its course is still taboo for women. Despite stylish role models such as Christine Lagarde, Theresa May, Judi Dench and Jamie Lee Curtis, self-conscious mid-lifers are still heading to the salon to cover their rogue grey hairs.

Indeed a new colour genre has emerged to cater for a generation of women experiencing their first grey growth while rocking a Topshop playsuit alongside their infant daughters. “Bronde” is a clever marketing ploy from L’Oréal Professionale, the world leaders in salon hair colour, blurring the lines between brunette and blond to create a streaky blend of chocolate, caramel and toffee shades currently favoured by the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Jessica Alba.

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As author and screenwriter Nora Ephron once quipped: “There’s a reason why 40, 50 and 60 don’t look the way they used to, and it’s not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It’s because of hair dye. In the 1950s only 7% of American women dyed their hair; today there are parts of Manhattan and LA where there are no grey-haired women at all.”

Professor Nichola Rumsey, co-director of the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, says society places enormous pressure on women to conform to youthful ideals. “I’m in my late 50s and feel tremendous pressure to cover the grey,” she admits. “You need to have huge self-confidence to stand up to that and deflect it and know that you are still good at your job and will be loved by your family if you don’t fit a certain youthful stereotype.”

In 2014 University of Kent sociologist Julia Twigg and Shinobu Majima of Japan’s Gakashuin University wrote a thesis on the reconstitution of ageing, arguing “old age underwent a shift in the late-20th century, impacted by changes in relation to work, the family, and personal identity. So-called ‘normative’ age patterns no longer exist, and expectations for what’s appropriate at what ages are now highly individualised. You age the way you want to now, not the way you’ve been told to.”

Controlled, clearly managed hair is particularly significant for older women in avoiding the status of dereliction or derangement, signalled by wild or neglected locks.

Mayfair hair colourist Jo Hansford, whose clientele includes Elizabeth Hurley, Nigella Lawson, Joanna Lumley, Natasha McElhone and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, suggests that “anyone who has grey hair will always look better with help from a good colourist. I’ve been going grey since I was 24, and was completely white by the time I was 40, but I’ve never let that show. It’s a genetic thing, rather than an age thing, but grey hair is ageing. It drains all the colour from your face, and softening that with creamy, honey tones is always going to be more flattering.”

Even the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde, held in high esteem by many stylewatchers as the ultimate silver vixen, could do with some help, according to Hansford. “I look at her and think of her as an intelligent, elegant older lady. Yet if she had a different colour, you’d take away the age factor. I’d love to get my hands on her. People perceive you and speak to you in a different way when you’re grey. I can see that not being grey means you are perceived differently and can have more confidence.” In contrast, 67-year-old American fashion stylist-turned-model and skincare guru Linda Rodin exudes confidence with her steely locks. “I never thought about going grey: I was more worried about other things, but I do feel there is a horrible pressure on women to look youthful, and grey isn’t associated with youth.”

California-based, Corsica-born artist Yasmina Rossi, who began to turn grey at the age of 12, has had more work as a model in the last 15 years than ever before, including a high-profile campaign for M&S in 2012. She enjoys the respect that comes with her waist-length, now predominantly white, hair. “When I travel around Africa or Arabic countries, white hair is a sign of wisdom,” she explains.

Why, then, are some of those blessed with the coveted attributes of youth rushing to adopt the follicular version of granny chic? In fashion terms, at least, grey is most definitely the new black, as trendy twentysomethings, inspired by the likes of Kelly Osbourne, Girls star Zosia Mamet, singers Pink and Rihanna and Kylie Jenner, dye their hair 50 shades of grey.

“A young face can get away with anything, even that awful matt-grey finish without any shine,” says Hansford. “It works as a trend because it’s fun and temporary, and they know they can move on. I meet women who say their (naturally) grey hair meant they were spoken to as if they were old, and deaf, and an imbecile.”

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Until such time as western society values its older members for the experience and wisdom they bring, the status of our hair as a cue for instant value judgment will continue.


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