Thursday 16 September 2021 3:54 pm

Going grey gracefully: How to make silver hair work for you

Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons official.

Last week, I wrote about the trauma I endure when going to the hairdresser. However, there was an upside. As the barber’s scissors danced around my head, he remarked that I had thick hair. I agreed, without wanting to seem boastful of something utterly outwith my control. But I ventured the opinion that, while I was not succumbing to baldness, I was beginning to go grey quite a bit at the sides.

“That hair’ll stay, though, sir,” he observed.

I looked pleased.

“Because grey follicles are dead, you see.” He had raised me up, and thrown me down, ever so neatly.

Nevertheless, it started me thinking about the greying process in general. Last week, I said that I would restrict myself solely to gentlemen’s hair, as it was all I knew. Here, if ladies will forgive my presumption, I will stray on to the distaff side as well.

The received wisdom is that grey hair is unfair, sexist even, because men look distinguished while women simply age. I think this is half-right, and I’d like to unpick it a little.

It is true that, as a man, grey hair can be an addition to the armoury; silver streaks through thick, lustrous hair carry an air of experience, savoir-faire and perhaps even wisdom. We can all think of iconic silver foxes: Richard Gere, George Clooney, post-presidency Barack Obama. These are men who have not only weathered the onset of grey, but have actually used it to enhance their image. They look better.

It helps, of course, if you’re working with good source material. All the men named above have good hair, so of course it still looks good when grey. To that end, gentlemen of my age and similar, finding that the colour is seeping away a little, must look after their locks in the usual way: regular washing and conditioning, scheduled haircuts to keep the style neat, finding the products which work best for you in terms of shaping and holding. All of these are personal matters, of which you’re no doubt taking care already. They’re the foundation.

All of this assumes you have set your face against dyeing your hair. I hold no brief against artificial colour, though I haven’t the patience myself, but there are a few things you have to bear in mind. Firstly, it’s a huge commitment. It will require almost constant upkeep, making sure roots do not show and the colour is consistent. It is also not simple. When your hair begins to lose its original colour, do not make the mistake Sir Tom Jones used to make, choosing a very dark replacement, or it will end up looking like you style your hair with Kiwi boot polish. Lighten, and soften. This will require close attention, and you must remember that it will lighten the whole palette of your face and skin, which may have implications for your wardrobe.

If you are embracing the silver lining, a good hairdresser will cut to enhance. Grey hairs are a different texture, so must be treated differently or else they will stick out or otherwise misbehave. Your barber should be able to blend them into your remaining colour until they become a glittering streak of eminence instead of a sign of being clapped-out.

For women it is different and more complicated. There are a dozen reasons for this, many of them unfair, but it is true that we react differently to grey hair in men and women (judging the latter more harshly), and it is also true that we expect women more readily to colour their hair. Having your highlights done is a routine part of many women’s lives, but I have never met a man who unapologetically announces that he is off to have his highlights done. (This is an attitude that serves neither sex, but there we are.) The colouring of women’s hair is more frequent, more accepted and more skilfully executed.

For the brave or self-confident woman, however, there is another way. Embrace the silver. This is still a decision so rare that fashion magazines will remark upon it (“So-and-so embraces her natural colour”, as if you are making a positive choice rather than simply not dyeing your hair), but the world is not fair and we must, for now, deal with it as it is.

The same rules apply as for men: you need to have fundamentally good hair in good condition. But there are examples out there to emulate. One of the most famous, of course, is Anna Murphy, the fashion director of The Times, who has long sported a silver mane. She is a fiercely bright, no-nonsense woman, but she is also indisputably glamorous, and that combination is underlined, I think, by the grey hair.

A new recruit to the silver stable is the brilliant Vanity Fair editor Radhika Jones. At the recent Met Gala she was sporting a silver-and-black striped bun, inch-perfect and definitely starry but clearly a decision not to conceal any longer. One might think a Harvard-and-Columbia doctor of philosophy has quite enough to show in the achievement stakes but Jones has always dazzled.

I have only scraped the surface of this. My point is, if you are getting grey hairs, don’t panic. It is merely another stage of life. There are several options, from denial to leaning in, and all are feasible but each comes with its own baggage train of obligations. And if you take nothing else away from this, remember my barber’s words: the grey hairs will stay, because they’re DEAD. Which is a comforting thought.

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