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Double Take

Hillary: The Vast, Big-Hair Conspiracy Is Finally Over

February 02, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hillary's hair is happy at last. Curving just below her jawline in an age-appropriate burnished gold, it has that worry-free career-gal style, with fluffy side-swept bangs for softness. It is sensible hair, and more significantly, it is small hair. And for the former first lady now senator from New York, that's got to be a relief.

It is rare that one meets a girl child, or a girl adult for that matter, who aspires to be first lady. It would be nice to assume that the women's movement has had something to do with this--that little girls now imagine themselves as president instead--but I think it's probably the hair. First ladies have terrible hair. It seems to be part of the job description, along with the ability to smile for whole days at a time and the willingness to walk up marble staircases in heels before the kind and sympathetic eyes of 317 camera crews.

If these two requirements don't significantly shrink the job-candidate pool, then the requisite hair style certainly will. For reasons unfathomable in the year 2001, the first lady of the United States always has big hair. Maybe not big by the standards set in the country music industry, or at certain roadside establishments in the states formerly known as the Confederacy, but compared to the hair height of most women, the first ladies are inches above the median.

You never see a first lady with locks that simply lie against her head. They don't get to tuck it behind their ears or cut it really short or slick it down with gel or get a swirly perm. They are apparently forbidden to wear pony tails or barrettes or those big claw clips the rest of us reach for when nothing else is working. Oh sure, Jacqueline Kennedy wore those darling scarves, but most of the time, even she had big poufy hair. Of course, she looked wonderful, but she would have looked wonderful in a RuPaul wig-hat.

For the rest of the women involved, however, the federally mandated use of hot rollers, teasing combs and way too much hair spray did not result in wonderful. For Lady Bird Johnson, high hair was the style of the time. Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush got away with it--they were, shall we say, senior first ladies, with beauty parlor privilege. For Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the big hair was not a natural look at all.

Especially for Hillary. For one thing, liberals don't have big hair. They have long tails, they have weary-mom bobs, they have dreadlocks, but by and large they respect the laws of gravity. And for a child of the '60s, big hair is not just uncool, it's complete and unconditional surrender. To being a traditional wife, to being the ultimate suburban hostess. Heaven knows she tried; but every new 'do found a new round of critics.

Laura Bush may be spared criticism from one quarter--Barbara Bush made a few comments regarding Hillary's alleged lack of style--but she has already felt the sting of the Foggy Bottom fashion watch who sniffed at her inaugural wardrobe. And slowly but surely, her hair is beginning to climb. Of course, she's from Texas.

"It's like they're all trapped in 'Dynasty,' " says Phillip Bloch, a Los Angeles stylist for the glitterati. "Or 'Dallas.' Only those characters dressed better."

And first lady clothes are almost as bad as the hair. When a man becomes president, he can still wear the clothes he's always worn--dark suits. But his wife needs a whole new wardrobe, devoid, it would seem, of any style or color that might actually be found in a typical American woman's closet.

When Hillary kicked off her Senate campaign, Nora Ephron offered the ultimate encouragement: "You'll never have to wear a turquoise jacket again." And practically the first words out of the newly elected senator's mouth were a reference to her six black pantsuits. Every working woman in America owns at least one black pantsuit; relatively few would ever even attempt a turquoise jacket. Or a purple wool suit. Or a fuchsia double-breasted dress.

Of all the hallmarks the presidency has carried over from the British monarchy, none is as unsettling as our insistence that our first ladies dress like the Queen Mum. Obviously, one wants the first lady to stand out in a crowd, but so often that crowd is composed mostly of men, and so she stands out quite nicely without a big lavender hat.

"I don't understand it," says Bloch. "Those terrible reds, those unnatural blues and those greens; no grass in the world is that green. I realize they can't exactly dress out of Vogue, and no one's saying, 'Get the Jennifer Lopez Versace dress,' but really. Take a look at Town and Country."

The problem is, the first lady is not supposed to be Town and Country any more than she is supposed to be Vogue. But neither do we want her to look like a Beltway businesswoman, or even a society dame. She is both and neither--she occupies a unique position in the sociopolitical scenery. She is, by definition, a lady. And these days, it's hard to know what a lady is supposed to look like.

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