It occurs to me that an era is defined as much by its hair product of choice as by its politicians or top 10 hits.
The early 1960s is John F. Kennedy and the sprayed-on firm hold. The mid-1980s is Maggie Thatcher and her helmet-head, Ronald Reagan, Madonna and jheri-curl stains on the new velour couch. The early 1990s is Newt Gingrich, Nirvana, blue styling gel and hair that never seems to dry. The 2000s are Bush and Blair, and leave-in conditioner that heals your scalp while you party. But what, I wonder, will define the coming decade?
In an effort to discover the answer I decided to put my own head to the test, and ordered half a dozen products to be sampled. I was searching for the one that would be neither too hot nor too cool; not too noughties nor too sci-fi.
More than a dozen came: Fiber Cream by Redken (£11.75), Hard Wax high rise* by Redken (£11.75) (the asterisk is for maximum control); Liquid Pomade by Aveda Men (£14); Pure Formance Grooming Cream by Aveda Men (£12) …the list goes on. In the end, after trying them all, I narrowed the field down to four.
First, Matt Putty texture paste, made by Murdock London (£14). In many ways, it was my favourite. It comes in a silver canister and radiates particularity and charm. The label shows a crest – Americans love crests – over the words: “Barbers’ and Gentlemen’s Grooming.” The product itself, which is something between paste and goop, is as grey as a rainy day and smells like the John Lewis returns department.
I took a shower, then, as my wife and children shouted encouragement, rubbed a pinch into my fingers and through my hair. The label promised a matt finish, which sounds like a description more appropriate to a gallon of paint, but I get it: Murdock will not whip me into a sharpie or a low-rent gigolo; when in public, a gentleman prefers a matt finish. I would place this product with the best. It holds all day and, though I spent some of this time in front of hot lights, I never burst into flames.
The next morning, after washing out the hair putty, I finished my grooming routine with the application of Spray Wax by Sachajuan (£17), a company in Stockholm. It comes in a white can with an aerosol-type trigger. Leave it to the Swedes, those fjord -dwellers, to send forth a hair product that goes on in a blinding white cloud of wax. The result was a sort of petrified head of hair, with every strand in place but frozen, as if time itself had come to an end.
Wondering what else such imaginative folks could come up with, I decided I had to try Ocean Mist, another spray from Sachajuan (£18). It comes in a clear atomiser, which lets you see the formula inside, and promises “a beach feel. The hair gets a natural twist and volume, like after a day at the beach with sun and great waves.” It sounded like a Ventures riff in a bottle: Brian Wilson singing, the sand blowing through my salt-fleck curls, that girl checking me out. I sprayed it on dry.
It felt good going on, smelled cool and clean, but the results were a disastrous explosion of whipped-up and scented hair. Whenever I tried to push it down, it sprang back. In a hat, I looked like José Cardenal, who, in my youth, when he played for the Chicago Cubs, was known for his monstrous afro, topped by a tiny looking baseball cap.
To counteract such hair trauma, I resorted to a staple: Herbal Hair Gel by Taylor of Old Bond Street (est. 1854) (£9.95). (I might be using the same hair gel as Charles Dickens!) It emits clear goops of gel from a soft tube. I cannot describe the smell but I’ve known it all my life: from my nanny, my tailor, my old Oxford don. It’s the smell of order, where the first wayward hair is dealt with as firmly as the first weed or communist. I give this three stars – a top rating. The results were indeed to my satisfaction. I suspect George Osborne knows of what I speak.
I started this column a year ago with a few mandates: to give voice to those of us who have heretofore bypassed the make-up counter, out of fear, politics, or inertia; to test beauty products honestly, giving an unbiased assessment of their worth; and to keep an open mind while also remaining healthily suspicious about the life-altering possibilities of this blush or that toning cream.
Admittedly, I came into this gig a cynic. I did previously own and use a few products – basic moisturisers, shampoos, hair grooming aids, an eyeliner I bought for my wedding in 1993 – but I’d never worn polish on my toenails, I gave up on ever finding a decent mascara, and I didn’t actually believe that an anti-ageing cream stood a chance against the ravages of time. I happily and unapologetically embraced the natural me, standing on the sidelines, watching the hordes of hopefuls transfixed by the golden promises of the beauty industry with something resembling detached bemusement.
A year on, the beat has taught me, if not the error of my ways, then at least the value of being open-minded about the benefits of beauty products, not just on the surface of the skin but deep within the psyche: a sort of Pascal’s Wager – if not on God, then on product.
Yes, that Butt Lift in a Box was as snake-oily as I assumed, but a few of the anti-ageing creams I tried seemed to really shave off a few years (that is, until frequent use of them brought my skin back to the breakouts of my teenage years, and given the choice of crows’ feet on my eyes or pimples on my cheeks, I chose the former). Still, I no longer stand in judgment of women who embrace their most polished selves. Simply playing around in the beauty cupboard with friends and family, seeing the glee on my daughter’s face when presented with sparkly eye shadows, the excitement in my friends’ eyes as they dove into a sea of polishes, had a value all of its own; candy without the dental downside.
I also walk away from this year with several new products I’m grateful to have in my arsenal. Kevyn Aucoin’s The Mascara (£15) – which I bought myself, on the recommendation of a friend, when no other mascaras passed the no-running-down-the-cheeks-during-a-funeral test – is a small miracle. I’ve worn Invisible Zinc’s Environmental Skin Protector moisturiser/SPF30 sunscreen (£22) every day during the summer months; it both moisturises and blocks the sun’s rays as advertised, and then some. I rarely skip a morning of dabbing StriVectin-SD Eye Concentrate for Wrinkles (£36) under my eyes. (Forget the medicinal-looking packaging, the stuff works.) The BaByliss Pro Volare V2 blowdryer (£85) has saved me literally hours of time, drying my hair in five minutes flat. And though I formerly shunned lipstick, I now carry Bobbi Brown’s shade of Heather Pink (£18) in my purse, en cas où, as French women say: they are my idols when it comes to knowing how to use small amounts of product for impressive gains.
On the other hand, I recently rubbed some of my daughter’s nail polish remover over my electric blue toes and felt relieved to see my naked nails underneath. Does that mean I’ll never go back to a polished-toe look or shun pedicures in the future? No. Not at all. It just means I’m more comfortable going natural. The sparkly make-up I tested last Christmas sits untouched by anyone but my teenage daughter and her friends. And the eyebrow treatments that promised enhanced thickness were tossed in the trash.
Although this is officially my last column I may, from time to time, check back here, but for now other work responsibilities beckon. In this economy, we are all scrambling to make ends meet, but I can honestly say I now believe I will scramble better with my best (pedicured) foot forward, my (Kevyn Aucoined) eyes open, a (Bobbi Brown) smile on my face, and Invisible Zinc’s ESP on for safe measure.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a mani/pedi appointment with my daughter I have to keep. She’ll be getting polish, I’ll be going bare, but it’s a new avenue for bonding that I’m grateful has been paved.
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