Hillary Clinton’s scrunchie proves that hair matters

Hard Choices? Meh. Hillary, for once, has taken the soft option. The title she joked about using for her memoirs – The Scrunchie Chronicles, 112 Countries And It’s Still All About The Hair – would have been so much better. I mean, I’m sure Hard Choices is a great book and all – I haven’t read it, so if you’re looking for a precis you’re on the wrong article – but The Scrunchie Chronicles is the book the world needs more.

And Hillary would have been the woman to write it. In 2001, giving the commencement speech at Yale, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton drew on her eight years as first lady to give the students the following life advice. “The most important thing I have to say to you today is that hair matters,” she said. “Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.” Alongside her trouser suits, Hillary’s devotion to her scrunchie ponytail ties has been one of the most scrutinised aspects of her image in 22 years in the public eye. “Hillary in UN Hair Fail”, read one headline during her tenure as secretary of state.

It is undoubtedly ironic that when secretary of state, Clinton travelled to Cambodia two years ago to take part in the launch of a gender equality and women’s empowerment initiative for the region, coverage of her trip was dominated by description of the “metallic paillettes” which decorated her black scrunchie, and gossip that her staff were trying to ban her favourite hair ties. But Clinton understands and seems to have made peace with the way in which her image has meanings she cannot fully contain and control. She once described herself as a Rorschach test, an image on which Americans projected their ideals and their fears about women. On the global stage, Clinton’s scrunchies become a symbol of who she is, whether she likes it or not.

The real significance of the Clinton scrunchie is disappointingly prosaic. Oscar de la Renta, a close friend of Clinton (who, alongside Anna Wintour, is gearing up to provide a formidable fashion industry power base for Clinton’s presidential campaign), recently told a reporter that he had encouraged his friend to cut her hair while she was secretary of state, and that she had explained that she couldn’t because, if she arrived in a foreign country and asked for a hairdresser, homeland security would have to have the person checked out, which wasn’t practical with her schedule; with long hair, she could style it herself. (Since moving on from the role, Clinton has cut her hair into a shorter, blown-out style.)

There is something marvellous about this anecdote: of Clinton reluctant to waste diplomatic time waiting around for a blow dry, so simply grabbing a hairbrush, a ponytail tie and a can of Elnett. But I suspect the reason we are transfixed and yet unsettled by the scrunchie is to do with this very intimacy. Her scrunchies look like she buys them in a corner drugstore, and the image of her smartening herself up is reminiscent of the way you or I might grab two minutes in the ladies’ before a meeting. Not yet quite comfortable with the notion of women in power, we seem to prefer such women not to muddy the waters by behaving too, well, normally. Add to that the fact that Clinton is 66 and that the scrunchie is associated with youth – teenage pop stars in the 1980s, Courteney Cox in Friends, Olympic gymnasts – and you have a hair accessory turned political hot potato. All the way back in 1992, the year she became first lady, a profile in the New York Times described her as “a lightning rod for the mixed emotions we have about work and motherhood, dreams and accommodation, smart women and men’s worlds”.

At the heart of the eternal debate and fascination around Hillary’s image is the fact that we simply have no template for how a clever, serious woman should look. The shoulder-padded career woman feels as dated an image as the bluestocking. Commercialised, ad-break femininity has spun so far from the real world, toward an image of a faux-Californian nincompoop with (as Lake Bell memorably skewers it in her film In A World) the vocal range of a pet’s squeaky toy, that we have no reference for how women who don’t fit that mould should dress or wear their hair, so we are inclined to point and giggle at everything. This is why the issue of how clever, serious, non-squeaky-toy women look – Angela Merkel’s jackets, Theresa May’s shoes, Christine Lagarde’s silk scarves – is such a recurrent flashpoint in our culture.

And it is not necessarily an area in which we are making progress. At bedtime, my eight-year-old daughter and I are currently reading Enid Blyton’s girls’ boarding school tales. There are plenty of faults to find here – I could live without the gypsy girl from the circus background with the inevitable flashing eyes and hot temper, for instance – but it is striking how cleverness and attractiveness are yet to cleave apart in characterisation of these young women. Writing in the early 1940s, Blyton is more inclined to give the bright girls at the top of the form the clear blue eyes and the winning smiles. Given how unreconstructed the books are in other ways, it is frustrating that in this one aspect they are more enlightened than much of contemporary popular culture.

And hair, as Clinton told those Yale students, matters more than any other aspect of appearance. This is why it bothers me much more that the Duchess of Cambridge has hair like a dolly than it does that her wardrobe is largely in the palette of iced gem biscuits. Hillary is funny and knowing and subtle about the ways in which her image is both part of who she is, and has a life of its own. Her Twitter bio lists her identities as “hair icon, pantsuit aficionado” in between “SecState, author, dog owner” and “glass ceiling cracker”. She recently changed her Twitter portrait to the shot which accompanied a profile in last month’s Vogue magazine: on board a military transport plane bound for Tripoli (for which read: serious as it gets), Clinton, in oversized black sunglasses, statement necklace, poker face – and immaculate hair – has a Wintour-esque air of glamour. The scrunchie seems to be in the process of being consigned to her past. Which is a shame. In an interview in Elle magazine in 2012, she commented that she thought criticism of her had to some extent abated because “there’s a certain consistency to who I am and what I do, and I think people have finally said: ‘Well, you know, I kinda get her now.’ People have actually said that to me.” And the scrunchie is part of that story – even if it is now being written out of history. – By Jess Cartner Morley © Guardian News and Media 2014

Image – Hillary Clinton greets US embassy staff at a hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on July 13, 2012. (AFP)