The British Sociological Association’s annual conference in London was told that over-74s were attending three times as often as they did in 1961.
Professor Julia Twigg, of the University of Kent, said that “older women are increasingly engaged with fashion in the early 21st century” and were responding to the “massive industry based on the systematic dread of looking old.”
Professor Twigg and Dr Shinobu Majima, of Gakushuin University, Japan, drew on data from the Expenditures and Food Survey, for which 10,000 households have given information on their spending since 1961.
Their results show that women aged 75 and over went to the hairdressers an average of around eight times in 2006, compared with 2.5 times in 1961, but down from 10 times in 1991.
By contrast, 16-34 year olds went to the hairdressers an average of almost four times in 2006.
The figures also showed that women aged 75 and over bought clothes about once every two months, twice as often as they did in 1961. Those aged 16-34 bought them about once a month.
Professor Twigg told the conference: “There is evidence for increased engagement by older women in aspects of appearance.
“They are shopping for clothes more frequently, they are more involved in the purchase of cosmetics through the development of anti-ageing products, and women over 75 are now the most frequent attenders at hairdressers.
“We observe a striking change from a pattern in 1961, when women in younger and middle years were the most frequent attenders to one where in 2006 it is the oldest group who are the most frequent attenders.
“The reasons for this are that women now aged 75 were the ‘shampoo and set’ generation in the 1950s and 1960s and have continued the habit. It’s also true that going to the hairdressers is a source of social contact for them.”
However, this had a darker side, she said, because “successful ageing is increasingly interpreted in terms of ageing without showing the signs of doing so” and that “the expansion of cosmetics sales was closely linked to the cultivation of the anti ageing market.
“This is a massive industry based on the systematic dread of looking old. It is not an emancipatory project.” Also, many older women were too poor to afford hairdressers or many cosmetics.
Professor Twigg also said that her results showed that the idea that there was a British baby-boomer generation – those born in the late 1940s and 1950s who spent significantly more on clothes and cosmetics – was wrong. In fact, she had found that there was nothing distinctive with this generation – they were following a longer trend of increasing consumption that had happened over many generations.
Professor Twigg said that her research found that women aged over 74 were spending more of their income – 7% – on hairdressers than any other age group, although she stressed that this figure was influenced by changes in income rather than absolute spending. The same applied to her finding that 55-74-year olds spent more of their income – about 12% – on clothing, higher than any other group.