When it comes to the old adage that women should cut their hair short after a certain age, it’s time to throw out the antiquated rule book, says Kathleen Baird-Murray, a committed “long hair person” at 54.
My father—a Naval officer—used to say that the length of a woman’s hair should be in proportion to the width of her hips. He has, sadly, long since passed, but used to love winding up my mother (whom he adored) with a chuckle and this particular bon mot whenever he felt she had had a little too much chopped off at the hairdresser. In reality, he loved the hairstyles of his wife and three daughters, a mixture of short and long between us, and would have been horrified had any of us retrieved the tape measure to ensure our hair was proportionally correct.
And yet rules persist, stubbornly so, and the attention received by Helen Mirren’s waist-length, shimmering silver hair in Berlin recently only served to remind us that that old premise—that women of a certain age should not wear their hair long —has no place in our modern vernacular, let alone at today’s salon. Mirren’s extra-long hair swung as she swirled, redolent of her confidence and swagger.
So have we finally moved on? “I think women are far more in tune with their needs and wants than they’ve ever been,” says Joel Goncalves at Nicola Clarke for John Frieda, who has been keeping my hair long for over 25 years. “Even compared to 20 years ago, they’re less bothered by peer pressure, and far more confident to do their own thing with their hair.”
You do, however, have to be able to carry it off. The kind of guts it takes to swoosh and swing a tumbling mane on a red carpet are second nature to an actress, but long hair is a statement of its own. And perhaps that’s why its popularity is growing—pun intended—at least according to the unofficial survey I conducted at John Frieda, where they’ve reported an uptick of those over 50 wanting flicks, fringes, layers—all on long hair—this year.
Long hair, after a certain age gives you a presence, it stops the invisible cloak from descending. It becomes a “feature” as distinctive as those other markers we lean on as we age to prevent us, consciously or otherwise, from disappearing or being ignored. Think those heavy-set glasses á la Iris Apfel, or a bold pink or red lipstick. Long hair is witchy and wild like Grandma Death from the film Donnie Darko, or Darlene from Ozark. It’s carefree but elegantly spirited like Demi Moore, who at 60 has below-waist-length hair. It’s charismatic and cool like Kristen McMenamy. You have options with long hair. It can go up or down; be colored or left natural, and while it’s never without commitment, and always a pain in the arse to take to a swimming pool, the gratification when the planets align—by which I mean, for me at least, box-fresh color and trimmed ends—is reward enough.
Besides which, at this age, you know what suits you best. I am almost 55 and apart from a brief period of short hair during my second pregnancy and a bob as a student, I’ve always been a long-haired person. Once, tempted by that choppy Meg Ryan haircut that was doing the rounds, I asked Joel if I should cut my hair short. Always eager to get the scissors out, I was surprised by his answer. “The thing is… as we get older, what looks incredible in the salon, or at a party, doesn’t look so good on the school run,” he said. And it’s true, never mind the fact that I’m not sure I’d feel like “me” if I had short hair, that particular cut would have advanced my invisibility instantly.
If there’s a rule at all, it’s one that pertains to all ages, and all hairstyles – a good cut shouldn’t ever wear you, or feel too done. My father’s adage about hips and hair was way off any mark, and yet I’ve often heard hairdressers comment that your height has a bearing on how long you wear your hair; just as rounder face shapes can benefit from having a few layers cut into the front.
And of course, there is the question of condition, where there are, it seems several rules. Long hair requires maintenance as we age – but then so does everything else, frankly. If you’re coloring it like Demi Moore, Nicola Clarke recommends applying your color half a shade lighter, a centimeter around the hairline. “This stops the hair looking too solid or flat,” she explains. “I also recommend adding a gloss to give a youthful shine to the hair.”
If you’re aiming for long, grey hair like Helen Mirren, follow the same rules between appointments as you do for colored hair. “I recommend a de-brassing shampoo, but not with too much purple or blue pigment as this can dull the hair over time,” says Clarke. Virtue’s Colorkick De-Brassing Shampoo is a brilliant option.
Finally, the rule about trimming your hair regularly in order to maximize length might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s no old wive’s tale. When I email Joel, asking how I can get my hair as long as Demi Moore’s, he replies: “You have to trim your ends every four to six weeks to ensure that they stay solid. This way, you prevent breakage—if the ends don’t split, the hair won’t break further up the shaft. If you leave your hair to grow without trimming it regularly, it doesn’t ever get longer. But it takes patience—about a year.”
In a moment of self-doubt while writing this, I asked my boyfriend, what do you think of long hair on women over 50? “I highly recommend it,” he says, quick as a flash. “Besides, it’s better than on a man.” I hadn’t even thought about that. But thinking about it now, with the exception of Iggy Pop, there really should be a rule about that.
This article was originally published on British Vogue.