YOU would have thought, perhaps, that viewers of the The Great British Sewing Bee would be captivated by the cut of the contestants’ cloth. But apparently what those who tune into the BBC2 show most want to see snipped into shape is presenter Claudia Winkleman’s fringe.
Fans of Film 2013 will already be aware of Winkleman’s hair; the way it obscures her forehead and drifts willy-nilly into her eyes so you wonder how she can get through her critique of the latest blockbuster without whipping out an Alice band. But now the wider world has become acquainted with the phenomenon and has taken to social media to express its consternation. Claudia’s fringe had already joined other celebrity body parts – see Angelina’s Right Leg and Bradley Cooper’s moustache – in having its own twitter account (@WinklesFringe).
“Quick. The shears have been sharpened. Someone cut Claudia’s fringe for her,” said Stephanie Foster, one of many to tweet their dismay at the thicket of hair creeping steadily down towards the presenter’s nose. “How does that woman see?” asked another.
To some, this might seem to be something of a squall in a salon; yet both history and personal experience suggests women’s hair is intertwined like a French plait with their sense of self. A handful of women have come to be defined by a particular haircut – think Princess Diana or Jennifer Aniston. Others have used a change of style to signal a dramatic change in direction. When the Harry Potter series came to an end, Emma Watson disowned her character Hermione by swapping her wild tresses for an elfin crop. With a few clicks of the scissors the actress signalled her transformation from swotty to sassy.
Most celebrities know how to use a new style to grab the limelight. Miley Cyrus secured more column inches last year for her edgy undercut than for her guest appearance on Two And A Half Men. And it’s not just the young who know how to work their locks. When Helen Mirren dyed her hair pink for the Baftas, she showed the world age had not tamed her rebellious spirit.
“Our hair is one of the first things others notice about us and one of the primary ways we declare our identity to them,” says US sociologist Rose Weitz, who wrote Rapunzel’s Daughters: What Women’s Hair Tells Us About Women’s Lives. “It is public, on view for all to see. And it is malleable, allowing us to change it more or less at whim. It’s not surprising that we use our hair to project our identity and that others see our hair as a reflection of our identity.”
I know only too well how hair can affect self-esteem. Having spent years battling frizzy curls that won me the school nickname Van de Graaff (I looked like I was hooked up to a static generator), I finally learned to control curls with straighteners. In most respects, I care less about my appearance than any other woman I know, yet I would rather accompany a party of elderly devotees to a Daniel O’Donnell concert than forfeit my Ghds.
Winkleman, the daughter of former newspaper editor Eve Pollard who has previously presented Comic Relief Fame Academy and Sports Relief, sees her hair as a security blanket. She hates her forehead which she says is covered in wrinkles and prefers to grow her fringe than have Botox. “It’s disgusting,” she told one interviewer about her forehead. “It’s like a Shar Pei dog, it’s so wrinkly.”
But other women use their hair to express their mood or project their personality. In the right hands, hair can be a sword, a shield or an instrument of seduction. How we laughed at US investment manager “Mike” when his email accusing a date of leading him on by touching her hair went viral. Yet, according to Weitz, some women do use the “flip” to attract male attention. “One woman sent me a two-paragraph description of exactly how she flips her hair, including the glances she gives to make sure she is in her target man’s field of vision, the angle at which she holds her head, and the direction in which she pulls the loose strands, all designed to catch his interest without seeming too obvious,” she says.
Others may adopt a no-nonsense hairstyle to communicate their ability. As Melanie Griffiths said in Working Girl: “You wanna be taken seriously, you have to have serious hair.” That’s an opinion even arch-feminist Hillary Clinton has some sympathy with. In 2001, the senator addressed graduating students from Yale College. As the women in the audience looked to their role model for advice, she imparted this gem: “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. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.”
Clinton has learned the hard way how a new cut can help or hinder her electoral chances. Throughout her career, she has boasted a number of styles – page boys, bobs, chignons and ballet buns – all of them scrutinised for subliminal political signals. Publicly she may be coy about whether or not she plans to stand for the 2016 presidential election, but last week Maureen Dowd from the New York Times said you only had to look at the way she had ditched “the skinned-back bun that gave her the air of a KGB villainess in a Bond movie” for a “sleek new layered cut” to know she’d be running.
If taking pride in your hair can boost confidence, then savaging it can be a sign of distress. When Mia Farrow appeared with her pixie crop in Rosemary’s Baby (filmed when her marriage to Frank Sinatra was collapsing) it wasn’t so much a fashion statement as a damage limitation exercise after she had hacked most of it off. Britney Spears famously shaved her head after suffering a nervous breakdown in 2007. Other celebrities, like Cynthia Nixon, have lost theirs through cancer or, like Gail Porter, through alopecia. Yet, shunning wigs and going out bald, they have proved that having hair is no prerequisite for turning heads.
As for Winkleman, she shows no sign of yielding to viewers’ demands, despite suggestions that, if she doesn’t, her fringe will be down to her chin bythe time she’s 50. And why should she? Her fringe has become an inextricable part of her identity, andfor every fan who has complained about it, there’s one who celebrates its quirkiness. As one Mumsnet poster put it: “At least she’s her and not some vapid clone.”