To my mind, most people of either sex look fabulous with grey hair. There’s John Slattery, aka Roger from Mad Men, the archetypal silver fox, and George Clooney who is more salt and pepper, yet still distinguished. But Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Diane Keaton also rock their faded locks. And if Kirsty Wark’s grey hairdo – as sported on last week’s Newsnight – wasn’t quite in their league, it had more to do with the quality of the wig than its colour.
Wark underwent the transformation because the programme was reporting on scientists who have discovered the “grey” gene. This is being heralded as a major advance, as if greyness was an illness we were desperate to find a cure for and those who are told they have it will start fretting about whether or not to have children. However, the suggestion seems to be that, in the long-term, we will be able to eradicate grey hair by gene manipulation, which is bad news for hairdressers whose fortunes are founded on our insecurities.
The historian Mary Beard, who was also on the programme, believes women are at a disadvantage if they refuse to reach for the colouring; and she should know. Her long grey hair has led to her being called a witch and told to stay off our screens until she has sorted herself out. What she knows about the Romans is apparently not worth hearing unless it’s delivered by someone more telegenic.
Beard insists there are double standards at play; she says women are punished for ageing, while men are rewarded; and you can see her point. One glint of silver in Kate Middleton’s head and tabloid reporters were swooping like a conventicle of magpies. Then the Daily Mail wheeled out stylist Nicky Clarke to administer a public ticking off.
Greyness is only half the story, though. What women like Beard are really being condemned for is the heinous crime of “letting themselves go”. If only he had refrained from decking a producer, Jeremy Clarkson could have gone on wearing his tangle of grey curls until cars became obsolete. But middle-aged women are forced to live by different rules. If you are young you can wear your hair mussed up and call it boho, but only Helena Bonham Carter gets away with sporting a bedhead into her late forties; and that’s because she is a licensed eccentric. The rest of us are expected to get with the programme and into a salon. If we can’t be bothered with all the faff and the expense, then we should expect to be judged.
When Jenny Beavan walked down the stairs to collect her Oscar for best costume designer in M&S jeans and a fake leather jacket, and with her hair uncoiffed, she was judged very harshly indeed. The men who sat haughty and applause-less may claim their sentiments have been misconstrued, but I have watched that clip several times and there’s no mistaking the disdain on their faces. And on the faces of some of the women too. It’s as if it breaks some natural law for a woman to be middle-aged and dumpy and not be sitting at home crying into her gin.
Beavan, though, did not care a whit about their disapproval. She strode along with the air of someone whose genius had just been acknowledged for a second time, as indeed it had; someone who was comfortable in her own skin.
In her casual defiance of convention, Beavan came across as much cooler than the actors – the Cate Blanchetts and the Reese Witherspoons, who complain about being treated like coat hangers while continuing to wear figure-hugging gowns and play by Oscar rules. Of course, if they want to dress glamorously that’s their prerogative and if I had a opportunity to wear a Prada frock then I wouldn’t pass it up. (Though realistically for someone of my size or Beavan’s it wouldn’t be an option).
Beavan doesn’t care about all that; yet – after the Baftas (where Stephen Fry made his “bag lady” joke) and the Oscars – what were we all talk-ing about? Not the wonderful costumes she designed for Mad Max: Fury Road, but the less-than-wonderful costume she chose for the ceremony.
The best thing about Beavan is she’s not even bothered by that line of questioning; where Sarah Millican admitted crying after the outfit she wore to the Baftas was torn apart on Twitter, she said hers had been a kind of homage to Mad Max. “I thought if I can’t beat them, if I can’t sort of join them, then why not try doing something a little fun?”
Beavan has shown that an older woman at peace with herself exudes an inner grace that cannot be taught or supplied by a stylist. She is proof that you don’t need sequins to shine; and you don’t need heels to stand tall. «