Hair can define so much more than the way we look. Shadow secretary of state for international development and MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington Diane Abbott charts her hair evolution
Photography: David Bailey
Over the years I’ve had many different hairstyles, and looking back at photos now, I see they’re a visual representation of different stages of my career. I don’t think there’s any contradiction in caring about how you look and being a feminist. That kind of statement is put about by people who are basically opposed to feminism and is a canard as old as feminism itself. It is a shame that so many young women fall for it.
My parents are Jamaican and for working class West Indians of that era, long straight hair was prized. So as a black girl growing up in west London in the Sixties, that was all I wanted, even if it was the complete opposite of what I actually had. I was the only black girl in my primary school and other children would often touch my hair out of curiosity, which I didn’t like – I’ve never liked people invading my personal space.
The earliest memories I have of my hair are of my mother washing it once a week and then sitting me on the floor while she combed it out, which took ages as I have masses of naturally very frizzy hair. When I started primary school she would put my hair into fat plaits every morning, tied with colourful ribbons. We would stand in front of a big mirror she had above her dressing room table and listen to the 8am BBC news on the radio. There in my mother’s bedroom was where my passion and interest in the news was first born.
Hair is really important to black women. We spend a lot of money on it and pay a lot of attention to it. Natural black hair has had a big resurgence over the past few years because there has been a resurgence of interest in all things organic and natural – not just Afros but twists and plaits, and I think that’s great. It’s healthier for your hair, for a start. But the most important thing for me, as someone who has done everything possible to her hair, is that women have the right to choose and not be judged on their decision.
Over the years I’ve had every conceivable style. Some have been to make a statement, some just because I liked how it looked. The only thing I’ve never experimented with is colour – aside from a few blonde streaks when I was younger, which I swiftly got rid of.
It was when I was 15 and at grammar school in Harrow, north-west London, that I started straightening my hair. This was before chemicals were used. Instead, you used a metal comb heated up on an oil burner. It wasn’t great for your hair and depending on how expert the person doing it was, you sometimes ended up with burn marks on your neck. But it was an era (pre prominent American political activist Angela Davis) when all black women straightened their hair. It was a rite of passage for teenage black girls, like buying your first pair of high heels.
I had a Saturday job as a sales assistant in Selfridges and worked on a counter opposite the wig section. I liked trying different styles so one day, I decided to buy a chin length wavy black wig. But a few weeks later I was on the Tube when the door closed, trapping my wig in it and pulling it half off. I was mortified and didn’t wear a wig again for a long time after that.
As a teenager I‘d already started to get interested in politics. There was a lot going on in black politics at the time, especially in America with the Civil Rights movement and the rise of figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. By the time I went to Cambridge University to study history in 1973, the black activist Angela Davis had burst onto the scene with her huge Afro. She was the heroine of the hour and her effect was seismic – she inspired me to cut my hair into a short Afro.
Sometimes you have a hairstyle because you like it, and sometimes it’s a statement. My decision to cut my hair off and have an Afro was political – it was about celebrating black power. It was also the era of feminism and accepting who you really were. That played a big part in my choice, too. But my style did not stick out because lots of people (including men) had all sorts of individual haircuts.
That moment in my life was the start of something. When I look at pictures of myself back then, I see a girl with so much confidence. I came from a working class family and had got into Cambridge. Because of that I felt like I could take on anything and anyone.
I kept an Afro for much of my 20s. Once a month I would have it cut at a barbers in south London, because they were the best at doing Afros back then. On a practical level, it was an incredibly easy style to maintain: I could just jump in the shower and I was good to go. All those hours of having it straightened were gone. It felt liberating.
After university I worked in a variety of jobs: in the civil service, a TV researcher and reporter, a press officer for the Greater London Council, under Ken Livingstone and later as head of press for Lambeth Council. I had also been elected to Westminster City Council from 1982-86, which I did alongside my day job.
My next major hairstyle was braids, which I got in 1986. This time it wasn’t a statement; I’d just seen people wearing braids in London and thought they looked great. They took hours to put in – I got them done in someone’s home as it was hard to find a salon to do them – but once they were in, there was zero maintenance.
My favourite braids were the ones I had when I became an MP in 1987. I was the first black woman to be elected to parliament in the UK when I became the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, a seat I have held ever since. Looking back, it was an unusual hairstyle for a woman in public life at the time – there weren’t many women with braids in high profile jobs but I never felt self-conscious about my hair. I sometimes hear people say that if you’re going into a corporate job you can’t have a natural Afro hairstyle, but I just don’t believe that. I’ve personally never felt pressure to have my hair a certain way. I felt pressure to look professional but to me that didn’t have to mean having long and straight hair.
I’ve always been creative; I did an art A-level at school and I used to carry my sketchbook with me everywhere I went. I’m often inspired by what I see around me so when I saw some women in Hackney, where I was living in 1988, putting gold thread in their braids, I copied them. At the time there wasn’t the information on YouTube and blogs that we can access now, and then, as now, the mainstream press doesn’t cover black beauty and fashion. It was just me trying to be a little bit out there.
After braids, I went back to my Afro for a bit and then in 1991 I wanted to try something different. The wet-look was very in at the time and it was pretty easy for me; I just put some gunk in my hair and ran an Afro pick through it. In retrospect, it’s not my favourite style, and I don’t think I’d do it again – I’m not sure many people would, but it was very of its time.
In the mid-Nineties, I started to chemically relax my hair. Braids felt too youthful for me and as I entered my 40s, I wanted something a bit more mature. I just fancied a change. As a female politician, there’s a fine line between looking presentable and having your image become the talking point. I like to look nice but once my hair is done and I’m dressed in the morning, I don’t think much more about it. I’ve got more important stuff to get on with.
In May 1997, when Labour won their landslide election victory, I had chin-length hair. I still remember that night well. It was a much bigger win than anyone was expecting and we had a big celebration down on the Southbank. Tony Blair flew down to London from his constituency by helicopter. There were thousands of us packed in and he came on stage and said to the crowd, “A new dawn has broken. Has it not?”
Since then, my hair has tended to be a variation on that look – but styled in a variety of ways. Sometimes I’ve worn weaves because they make my hair easier to manage in the morning. But sometimes my hair has been relaxed, and sometimes I keep it natural but sleep in a roller set which gives me soft curls. When I started appearing on BBC One’s This Week in 2003, my hair was natural but tied back with some gel in. It was a simple, classic look that worked well and felt right for TV. I sometimes experiment with a fringe, which I quite like. But as with all my styles, neatness is everything. I like experimenting with my hair but my constituents expect me to look well turned out and professional.
I’ve been an MP for 28 years now and I’m used to the fact that I can go on Question Time and no matter how thrilling or insightful my answers are, people will still comment on my appearance instead – even my own friends! Female MPs get scrutinised in a way that men just don’t, whether it’s Theresa May and her shoes or comments about Hillary Clinton’s hair.
Right now, I’ve got tracks [a type of extension that is woven or glued into the hair] in, and that suits me fine. But I think my favourite style will always be the short Afro and I’m sure that will be my final hairstyle too. It’s the hairstyle I’ve had the most fun in. I can definitely see myself with it in 10 years time, only this time there will be a lot more grey, of course.
Diane Abbott: my life in hair
From a natural Afro and braids to relaxed curls and back again: browse the gallery below to see the styles that helped define a political career
Abbott’s mother would do her hair for school while listening to the news
Embracing her natural afro was “liberating”
Inspired by women in London, Abbott moved on to braids in 1986
Longer braids: in 1987 Abbott was the first black woman to be elected to UK parliament
Channelling her creative side: Diane added gold thread to her braids
Keeping up with the wet-look trend
Chemically relaxing her hair
1995As a busy politician Abbott found relaxed hair easier to maintain
Neat in 1997: the year of Labour’s landmark victory
Regular appearances on BBC’s This Week see an easy to manage style
Abbott achieved soft curls by sleeping in rollers
Fringe benefits: Abbott continues to experiment with her hair
My hair kit
Diane Abbott selects the three hair products she can’t live without in the gallery below
My 2016 pledge to women
“This year I was appointed Labour Party shadow secretary of state for international development. So in 2016, I am passionate about supporting would-be business women and entrepreneurs internationally. Empowering women strengthens the whole of society. Women are not victims. We can decide our fate. I pledge to help nurture the female Steve Jobs of the 21st century.”
Photography: David Bailey, Rex Features, Getty Images, Eyevine
Hair: Natasha John-Lewis using Label.M
Make up: Pauline Briscoe using Fashion Fair Cosmetics
Photography assistant: Fenton Bailey
Digital artwork: Rick Carter at paperhatftp.co.uk
With thanks to Mark Pattenden