This week on Refinery29, we’re filling your screens and consciousness with inspiring women over 50. Why? Because living in a culture obsessed with youth is exhausting for everyone. Ageing is a privilege, not something to dread. Welcome to Life Begins At...
Incidentally, four out of the five women in this series shaved all their hair off in their 20s and 30s. Sharon, now 54, shaved hers on a whim and loved it so much she kept the style for a few years. "It commanded attention without sexualising or feminising me," she says. Scarlett, 55, pictured above with her lovely dog Maude, had a shaved head with a cross-shaped black fringe, designed by the '80s hair genius Ross Cannon. "I was completely fearless," she says of the iconic cut, "I couldn’t work out why I hadn’t shaved my hair before." People mistook actor Olwen, now 64, for a man when she shaved hers at 30 because she fancied a radically different, more punk look. The primary reason we approached the women in this shoot is because now, in their 50s and 60s, they have long hair, which is the thing that’s unusual. Instead of opting for highlights and a bob, or a short do, as the majority of women in this age group do, they wear their hair long and free, in plaits or locs, grey or dyed pink. The shaved head trend emerged from the interviews, but it’s interesting because it proves they didn’t conform to convention then either. Another thing these women have in common is that they are creatives, enjoying impressive and varied careers in fashion, beauty, art, theatre, film and television. They also all advocate washing your hair infrequently if you want to keep the condition good long-term.
Since Samson and Delilah in the Old Testament, long hair has been associated with strength, wisdom and power, words entirely befitting this distinguished bunch. Read on for their fascinating hair histories, and views on hair as an expression of identity. Who knows what they may inspire you to do...
Caryn Franklin MBE (59), Fashion Activist, Journalist, Professor of Diversity
Tell us a little about your hair history… The '80s was my most prolific experimentation time. I had a massive dyed black quiff. It was about six inches high. I used to go to a barber called Andy’s in Brixton for a number one, which means a very close shave back and sides. I’ve been peroxide blonde as well as red. I’ve even been completely bald. I shaved it all off for a Nick Knight i-D shoot when I was fashion editor there and kept it for six months, I liked it so much. In my 30s my grey streak grew into my dark hair and I really loved the contrast. My strangest haircut may have been when I had pointy hair extensions at the back of my head and some strange shape going on at the front of it, built from hair extensions by Kevin Ryan at Antenna in the mid '80s. He was my i-D session hairdresser for many years… we mucked about in between shoots of course!
How does your long hair make you feel, at the age you are now? I like my wisdom and experience to be visible. Grey hair isn’t for everyone and it can age you, but I’m okay with that. I like being old and I like being unrepentant about getting older. Anyway, it’s a privilege to grow old when you think of the alternative. Hair has power and age has power. I see my long grey hair as a magical mane. Other women love it and comment on it in the street. It’s not for nothing that middle-aged and probably grey-haired, medieval women who were accused of witchcraft (they were actually feminists fighting for independence from patriarchy) had all their hair forcibly shaved off when they entered prison. The power that female hair represents can still be seen in most faiths that require women to cover their heads. I grew up seeing my Western mum put on a headscarf as soon as she entered a church when we were sightseeing. That act always struck me as highly significant when I was a child.
Why do you think this stereotype of women cutting their hair over 50 exists? I’m duty bound to start by saying something provocative, like: It’s just possible that there is some kind of trauma connected to women and long grey hair. Women have been conditioned to feel apologetic about getting older, even frightened. This may have something to do with the 300 years of persecution of women as witches in the middle ages, and the disregard of their tribal-elder knowledge of herbalism, ecology and community. Epigenetics – the term used to describe our inheritance by mechanisms other than through DNA – indicates that we may hold trauma in our bodies and pass it down through generations. But then I think there are also just plain simple reasons like it might seem easier to look after when shorter, perhaps. I always found longer hair easier, I just shove it in plaits, a pony or I wear a lot of fabric in my hair. I throw it up on top of my head and wrap it in scarves if I’m making an effort. It only takes five minutes to do, then I’m off. No irritating blow-drying for me!
What tips do you have to keep the condition good long-term? I hardly ever wash my hair. Say once every two months, sometimes even longer. Occasionally I rinse the top of my head under the tap in plain water. I use an organic coconut oil serum from Boots on a daily basis because I have very dry hair. That’s about it.
Mouchette Bell, Fashion Editor, Stylist, Model
Tell us a little about your hair history… As a child I always had my hair cut very short. I hated that style as I felt it made me look like a boy and I wanted to have long, flowing, girly hair. My mum could not quite grasp afro hair; she is white with straight hair. She did her best but it was difficult for her as a working mum. I remember once hiding under the bed all day, traumatised as she had cut it too short. I started growing it out at about 12. It was the time of Angela Davis and Marsha Hunt and afros were in. Suddenly, my hair was amazing! What a turnaround from the torture of childhood hair days in Dublin. Plus, we had moved to London.
How does your long hair make you feel, at the age you are now? I love my long hair now, it is a lot of work as I do not straighten it so it takes a lot of time to manage and the water is very hard in England. There are some good products out there. Oribe has a great range, or most pure oils are softening. Add a little essential rose oil to something like grapeseed oil. Or indeed olive oil – the ancient Greeks knew what they were doing. I once had a boyfriend who actually asked me to wear my hair short; 'Cut it', he suggested. I knew I had to get away from him. Hair is powerful. The story of Delilah comes to mind.
Why did you choose to wear your hair in plaits for the photo? I wear my hair in plaits most days as it stops my hair from getting into knots and I think it looks not too bad on me. I have been wearing plaits in one form or another for over 40 years. Plaits literally control the hair and save time because you can leave them in for days.
Why do you think this stereotype of women cutting their hair over 50 exists? The stereotype comes from some weird place – I don't know and I don't want to know. Maybe it's innocent as hair can thin out a little or a lot as you get older. Maybe it's a coping thing. But my desire for long hair is too strong to give the over-50s short hair notion any airtime in my head.
What tips do you have for younger women regarding hair care, to keep the condition good long-term? Careful not to use too many chemicals – keep the products as natural as possible. Let it 'rest' sometimes by styling a headscarf or saturate in some lovely oil or conditioner and tie it back.
Sharon Lloyd (54), Academic, Course Leader for BA Hons Makeup & Hair Design
Best haircut? I had a shaved head for a few short years. The decision to cut all my hair off wasn’t earth-shattering, I simply realised I had wasted a lot of my time in front of the mirror wrestling with hair that never seemed to look right and I had better things to do with my time. I remember it clearly, I was on a train to London when I made the decision and immediately went to the hairdressers and told them to shave it all off – at first they hesitated but when they saw I was up for it, they found it equally thrilling. I think I loved my shaved head because it commanded attention without sexualising or feminising me.
Worst? Where do I start… The afro that wouldn’t stay up at age 11, my punk pink candy floss hair job at 17, the Vidal Sassoon cut and blow dry at 24… I think the wet-look perm so drenched in curl activator I looked like a bad mimic of Michael Jackson wins. I was 20 and it was literally dripping down my neck and onto my clothes as I left the hairdressers. I was terrified in case my head touched the window of the bus going home and it left an awful, greasy Jheri curl imprint; that was a telltale sign of a hairstyle gone wrong. In addition, on the way home I caught myself in the reflection of a shop window and was deeply mortified that anyone would think I deliberately wanted to look like this. Consequently, I wore it up in a bun for the next five years!
When did you start wearing your hair in locs? I got married and was pregnant six weeks later. I knew immediately that there was no way I was going to spend time on my hair when I could be focusing on my baby. Judith is my wonderful and very patient hairdresser, and at the time we discussed how I wanted to grow locs but still look alternative – so we also bleached it. A little at first just to lighten the colour, but by the time my son was two it was almost white after regularly bleaching it and then living in Lisbon for two months. I think the reason I dyed it black in the end was because I wanted to be taken more seriously. I don’t dye it now – I’m looking forward to growing into my grey years.
What does this hairstyle mean to you? I have thought about the significance of locs for some time. It was such a taboo growing up, and now it signals ownership of myself, my body and my image. For a while I was concerned that it would look 'untidy' or 'unprofessional' but I can look back on my various hairstyles in my younger years and see that the majority of my hair looks have attempted to mimic a style that denied my black heritage, and more importantly while these looks may have made me appear more 'acceptable' to others, they didn’t enhance how I felt about myself. My current hairstyle doesn’t feel smooth or silky, it isn’t tangle-free or shiny – it doesn’t fit any current commercial label that highlights hair as 'beautiful'. And I’m okay with that, because I don’t need to be told it’s beautiful – I know it is because it reflects me.
How does your hair make you feel, at the age you are now? I stand in front of the mirror and can see that the length of my hair is a marker of time. Since black hair appears to grow slowly and breaks easily, this particularly influences how I feel about my age. It has taken years to grow it this long (my son is 15 now), and ironically the length of my hair is a signal of my maturity, experience and patience. This seems completely at odds with the advice that is spouted about older women cutting their hair because long hair is 'ageing'. What’s wrong with ageing?
How do you care for your hair? Any tips on maintenance for locs? My hair is pretty low maintenance. I don’t believe in constantly washing hair – stripping hair of its natural oils really doesn’t help maintain its condition. I use a variety of products that are paraben-free, but equally loading your hair with products is problematic. A lot of the time they (particularly creams) sit on top of the hair, which only makes the hair appear ashy and dry. I love hair oils that seep into the locs themselves – there are several oils from India that I use, I’m not fussy really. As long as it smells good!
Scarlett Cannon (55), Model, Muse, Writer
Most radical haircut? Ross Cannon, the genius of hair, was my hairdresser until he died in 1992. He was the person responsible for creating all of my looks. The most radical was the crucifix fringe. It’s such an iconic look, it still causes people to go 'wow' today. I was 18 when I got that, I was completely fearless. I thought it was fantastic. I couldn’t work out why I hadn’t shaved my hair before.
Worst haircut? The in-between stages when I was growing my hair out from short to long. I didn’t hate my hair in the in-between stages but I didn’t love it, either. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed wigs. I had a nice couple of wigs that I used to pop on. Ross did a few Marcel wave numbers for me as well, and we needed length for that, so it took a while to grow it that long. I first started growing it long in the late '80s.
Why did you decide to go pink? I met Jean Vial [fashion and celebrity hairstylist] when I modelled for the Gareth Pugh show. I got on with him like a bomb. Now he cuts my hair, and he’s a global influencer for Revlon so he sent me Revlon Nutri Color, which is a conditioning rinse. Because my hair is naturally white, it has a really interesting grab. I did it dark pink this time for Alternative Miss World because I wanted it to look really strong on the stage. I’ve been having quite a bit of fun this summer with the Nutri Color – I did violet, then pink, then orange, then another pink, a couple of lilacs and pink again.
When did your hair go white? It was dirty blonde when I was young, I had to bleach it to make it look like anything. I started going white about 14. And I stopped colouring it in 1997 when I was 34. I used to colour it Arctic Silver Blonde and then I realised my hair was growing out that colour anyway. It’s got whiter and whiter and whiter and now it’s all white, which I adore.
How does long hair make you feel at 55? I wouldn't dream of cutting my hair. A couple of people suggested I get a 1920s bob and I think: I’ve gone my whole life without having to succumb to a fucking bob, thank you very much. Ross would turn in his grave and come and haunt me if I cut a bob. I think it would make me look older, and I love my long hair. I’m like Samson, it gives me power.
How do you keep your hair in good condition? Ever since it’s been long, my hair care has always been: wash as little as possible. I went from washing my hair a couple of times a week to washing it once every two or three weeks. That’s my top tip for long, long hair. I use gallons of conditioner. Tie it up or plait it if it’s windy because if it blows around it gets damaged. Limit your use of heat appliances.
Olwen Fouéré (64), Actor, Creative Artist
Tell us a little about your hair history… I had very thick, long dark hair, usually kept in a plait, all through my childhood. When I went to boarding school, pressure was put on my mother to have my hair cut. Eventually it was cut to shoulder length but we kept letting it grow. White hair began appearing in my dark hair when I was in my early 20s, if not before. When I was around 30 I felt like making a big change to my looks, something more punk and pared back, and I was playing a couple of male roles so I had my hair cut extremely short. It felt very liberating at the time and people often mistook me for a guy. After that I played around with lots of styles and colouring, letting it grow a bit, cutting it again, mainly settling on a very short peroxide white, triggered by playing Ariel in The Tempest. It was always difficult to get the perfect short cut and it meant having several haircuts a year to get the androgynous style I wanted. Then it was dyed dark for another role and eventually I began to let my hair grow long again. I got tired of colouring it dark – and felt it was unhealthy – so I began turning blonde again about 13 years ago and, as my real hair was an almost perfect white by then, I stopped colouring it completely. And I kept letting it grow. I hate getting it cut now. I get it trimmed maybe once a year when I feel it has gone too wispy at the ends but even a trim can be mildly traumatic unless it is done brilliantly by someone who really understands an individual person’s hair.
How does your long hair make you feel, at the age you are now? Great. Free. It’s interesting to note that in several cultures long hair is respected as a manifestation of physical and spiritual strength. I feel that strength.
How has your definition of beauty changed over the years? I don’t think I've ever had one! There are so many factors involved in how I might respond to something or someone as beautiful. It's a feeling.
What tips do you have for younger women regarding hair care, to keep the condition good long-term? It partly depends on the kind of hair you have but generally I don’t brush or comb because both actions simply cause frizz and split ends in my hair. I never blow dry and dislike using any styling products. I lightly finger-comb my hair in the morning with a small amount of coconut oil and when I wash and condition it, which is every three days. I coat my hair with coconut oil in the sun and before swimming in the sea and I keep the salt in my hair and on my body afterwards. I love the nourishing feeling of all those minerals from the ocean. My advice is: Respect your hair. Its condition can tell you things. Good nutrition is important and it shows in your hair. Don’t smother it with chemicals and above all, wear your hair whatever way you like, not how anyone else tells you. It is part of who you are.