I’ve recently had my hair cut. Something that doesn’t happen often, as I don’t take much care of my appearance, but I was due to attend the CILIP librarians’ conference for work and realised my “rat’s tails” needed attention. This got me thinking about hair care, or lack of it, when I was growing up, and provides an excuse to feature this beautiful art deco vanity set even though I can’t remember where it came from. It must have been either Grannie Lane or Churt; if the latter it must have belonged to Auntie or to Elsie Fry. Lovely though it is, I have never used it, as it is made of horsehair, silver and silk, so not very vegan-friendly. My hair care regime tends to be a quick brush in the morning to remove the tangles of sleep and a wash twice a week, usually after swimming. This may not seem like much but it’s far more care than my hair ever received in its first one and a half decades.
I’ve mentioned previously that I had a very old-fashioned upbringing, my parents being a generation older than those of most of my peers (when I was born in 1961, Mum and Dad were 38 and 48 respectively). One of the ways in which this difference was manifest was in the realm of personal hygiene. In our family a weekly bath was the norm, with nightly face and tooth cleaning in between, but hair washing was even less frequent. To be fair, in my case this was entirely my own choice: I hated having my hair washed. I mean really, really hated it. I didn’t start washing my own hair until I was at secondary school, so for my first 12 years my poor Mum suffered the ordeal of holding my head over the washbasin while I SCREAMED my displeasure – loudly enough, I remember her saying, to be heard by all the residents of Laurel Road. No wonder she didn’t want to do that every week.
I think Mum must have cut our hair herself when we were small. I was very moved when I came across this envelope amongst her things, with “Children’s Hair” written on it in her handwriting:
..and that’s exactly what it contains: 3 curly locks of soft golden hair, in the little plastic bags that Dad used for storing watch parts:
I don’t know why I objected so fiercely to having my hair washed; perhaps I was afraid of getting soap in my eyes. Shampoo was a modern invention which had yet to reach our house. Instead, Mum washed our hair with a green slime called Soft Soap, which came in big round tin drums. These tins were really useful for storing all sorts of stuff; I remember we saved string in one for years, and Dad pierced a hole in the lid through which you could pull the end of the string. As for conditioner, Mum insisted this was yet another product created by capitalist marketeers to persuade the masses to buy things they didn’t need, and I believed her.
Until, that is, my first independent visit to a hairdresser. I had been to hairdressers a couple of times as a child: once to put right the damage done by my brothers playing barbershop, once to rescue my hair from a lump of potty putty, and once for a bridesmaid’s hairdo. I generally feared hairdressers and left my mousy flyaway hair pretty much to its own devices, wearing it in plaits or a pony tail for school, or loose, which my Mum called “rats’ tails.” Then one day in the school holidays when I was about 11, my best friend next door, Briony, was going to the hairdressers. For Briony, who was always (and still is) much more mature and sophisticated than me, an unsupervised visit to the hairdressers was no big deal, so she suggested I come along too. With Mum’s permission (and housekeeping money) I did, but the visit did not go well. The hairdresser was openly horrified at the state of my hair, and although she tussled gamely for almost an hour with a very stubborn plug of tangles, she eventually admitted defeat. I went home with a newly discovered shame and didn’t set foot inside another hairdresser’s salon for about 6 years.
I did eventually catch up and become a teenager at the age of 15, taking an interest in boys and fashion and my appearance. A new friend suggested my fine flyaway hair might benefit from the application of some conditioner; I scoffed, but tried it – and never looked back. For the first time in my life I could run a comb through my hair after washing it, with no painful jagging and tugging at knots. My hair was silky and shiny, no longer lankly tangled. I was amazed. At the age of 17 I was even bold enough to attempt to get a perm (it was 1978), the results of which meant it would be another 20 years before I would trust a hairdresser again. But conditioner (vegan brands such as Tiki, Faith in Nature and Lush being my favourites) has been my friend ever since.
I remember vividly my childhood dressing table, with its 3-way gilded mirror and my wooden hairbrush and comb nestled on the ornately engraved silver plate that had been Grannie Lane’s and was for some reason deemed suitable for me to use. I still have it, but it is strictly for display only: it’s too precious for daily use – even for a daily hair care regime of 10 seconds’ hasty brushing. Thank goodness for hairdressers.