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Giving up the bottle – accepting greying hair

This time last year – after three and a half decades on the bottle – I made a conscious decision to accept my greying hair.

I first dyed my hair when I was 16, having gone swiftly from blonde to mousy brown. A decade later, a grey Mallen streak appeared at the front of my dyed blonde parting. I wasn’t ready to accept the natural truth, so spent 20 years as a “gronde” (grey-blonde), camouflaging my grey-streaked hair with a biannual half-head of blonde highlights. When my hair is tied up, the natural underbelly becomes more visible; at the age of 51, I finally realised I was starting to like seeing the grey beneath. I just wished I could become a beautiful, uniform shade of pewter overnight.

Perhaps I have been influenced by fashion: the silver beehives on the catwalk at Jean Paul Gaultier, younger celebrities such as Lourdes Ciccone and Lady Gaga dying their hair grey and platinum-haired fashion folk such as British Vogue’s Sarah Harris becoming street-style stars.

A model walks the runway during the Jean-Paul Gaultier Ready to Wear Autumn/Winter 2011/2012 show. Photograph: Julien M. Hekimian/Getty Images

But while there may be ironic #grannyhair posts all over Instagram, when you’re over 50 and contemplating the change (of hair colour), there’s more to it than a hashtag. There’s the psychological matter of coming to terms with the ageing process – of accepting that you will look older, that you are older, that you will be viewed differently. But with age, I have found, also comes the confidence to stand your ground. To choose wrinkles over Botox and fillers, style over fashion and natural grey hair over a dye job.

It has been liberating to see over-50s embrace grey: milliner and DJ Thelma Speirs, Matchesfashion.com’s chief executive, Ruth Chapman, New York beauty entrepreneur Linda Rodin and Jayne Mayled, the founder of White Hot Hair are all women who believe that looking and feeling good don’t have to mean looking younger. It was Mayled who told me that she wanted her hair colour to reflect the way she felt: “I went grey early on and kept dyeing it, but it became harder and harder to do it and not look like Paul McCartney.” If I hadn’t been sold before, I was after that conversation – I was ready for a more natural, authentic look.

The first thing to know is that “natural” is not as effortless as it should be. My attempts to go grey gradually are fuzzy and patchy – a dandelion clock of white hair frames my face at my roots. So, on the advice of fellow Mallen-streaked style expert Caryn Franklin, I book an appointment to go fully silver at Charles Worthington, where senior master stylist Linda Frawley uses a “colour fan” to demonstrate the shades that suit my face.

Linda Rodin. Photograph: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

I’m surprised to learn that it’s the cooler end of the spectrum – greys and blue-y purples rather than the warmer reds and yellows – that flatters my skin tone and highlight my blue eyes. Frawley recommends a mixture of lowlights (to kill off the brassy blonde) and highlights (bleach to lighten the hair and make the grey look more uniform), followed by a mink-coloured toner. She tells me that more and more of her clients are going au naturel, although, counter-intuitively, this is a long-haul ride often involving more frequent salon visits.

I will not emerge from Frawley’s chair freed from the shackles of regular salon visits – at least not yet. Undeniably, this is an expensive, time-consuming process. Frawley says that it’s often after a handful of visits – when roots have grown and highlights have been neutralised – that clients find a shade of grey they can live with. The possibility remains, of course, that, when your natural grey grows through, it will be a pale (or indeed smoky) imitation of the shade you had chosen so carefully – and those biannual hair salon visions will continue.

There will be upkeep, too: Frawley warns me that grey hair will alter my entire palette and I may need to review my makeup and predominantly black and navy wardrobe. Marc Trinder, the salon’s art team director, advises me to start using a violet shampoo immediately to keep the grey lovely and pale. Keeping it in good nick – avoiding any scouring pad connotations – requires more care, as the hair now has less melanin. It’s best to use heat-protective and moisturising products, and to have a gloss applied in the salon to give it a top-coat glaze.

But for me, it’s all worth it. The new shade, a silvery white, feels right. The texture is coarser and has more oomph and, as a result, my hair is bigger. But the best thing of all is that no one notices. What you see first is the gloss; it’s a subtly different me – softer, chicer, more Scandi. I decide I will not change my wardrobe after all; I’m happy to go the cool, northern European route. And I’m happiest of all to be celebrating my age, not hiding it.

Alyson Walsh is the author of Style Forever: the grown-up guide to looking fabulous, published by Hardie Grant – she blogs as That’s Not My Age @thatsntmyage

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