Like millions of Americans, I eagerly watched the long awaited premiere of the third season of Downton Abbey. This time I had a professional interest in the story, since it features two much older women with very different styles. The matriarch of Downton Abbey, Lady Violet Crawley (played by the great Maggie Smith), is juxtaposed to Lady Cora’s American mother, Martha Levinson (played by Shirley MacLaine). That these two women come from different worlds is immediately obvious from their clothes. Lady Violet wears dresses that make few nods to the rapidly changing styles of the 1920s. Martha Levinson, by contrast, dons the latest looks.
But by far the the biggest contrast was their hair. Lady Violet wears her long gray hair in elaborate up dos—styles that she might have worn for years. In bold juxtaposition, Martha Levinson has bobbed hair dyed a bright red.
Hair dyes were still very controversial in the 1920s, and were only widely adopted by American women four decades later. Although dyes were available, they were largely unregulated and often unsafe. Women’s magazines were filled with cautionary tales about their dangers, including one from Good Housekeeping in 1928 that warned of intestinal and liver damage from the metals used in dyes. “One can never know just when they will begin their dreadful attack,” was the ominous conclusion.
Perhaps the designer’s goal was to make Martha Levinson look reckless with her brightly dyed hair. Or perhaps it was a commentary on the present, not the past. The first thing I thought when I saw her step out of the limousine was that she was sporting menopausal red hair, a very twenty-first century trend.