Vidal Sassoon died last week. He was a hairdresser, in the same way that Mary Quant was a dressmaker or The Avengers was just another TV series. He introduced short, sleek, edgy hairstyles to the celebrities of the Swinging Sixties – and my brush with his hairbrush is about as close as I ever got to Carnaby Street fashion.
According to his obituaries, Sassoon made most of his money from selling hair care products and by teaching his hair-cutting skills. When I spent 6 months in London in the late 1970s, you could get a haircut at the Vidal Sassoon School of Hairdressing for £2 as a ‘model’ – on condition that you let the student do whatever s/he wanted. A friend of mine ended up with purple hair. I was luckier, a silent spectator as tutor and student riffled through my hair, drew a map of my scalp showing crown and parting, and then layer cut it to a point, so that it sat neatly or swung obediently. They were the best haircuts I’ve ever had.
In the 1970s, Vidal Sassoon attracted students from all over the world. When a young man from Hong Kong cut my hair, he told me that my ‘widow’s peak’ is a sign of beauty in China, and gave me a cut to accentuate it.
Hairstyles can be a fashion statement or a revolutionary statement or a way of displaying tribal allegiance. When I was a student in the late 1960s, student radicals were always described as ‘long haired radicals’. I remember before an anti-Vietnam protest march, men queuing outside the campus barber shop. They got their hair cut so they would be harder to identify – but also so that the then-notorious Queensland police would have less hair to hang on to.
Long hair can be a problem – and has been since biblical times, when King David’s rebellious son met a sorry end:
Absalom met the servants of David. And Absalom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away. 2 Samuel 18:9
On the other hand, short hair did for Sampson. Clearly hairstyles matter, even when the statements they make have become obscure. For the long and the short of it is that humans are the only mammals who do not shed their hair, except for a few domesticated animals – most sheep, and a few dogs such as poodles – who could not survive for long without human intervention to clip them regularly.
Unlike dogs and sheep, we have a choice – to clip or to braid – for walking on 2 legs has given us fingers. One of the earliest representations of a human being shows a woman without a face – but with a complicated hairstyle.
When the Manchus conquered China in the mid-17th century, they forced the Han Chinese to wear their hair in a long pigtail or queue, and to shave their foreheads. The Chinese who migrated to Australia during the gold rushes still wore their hair this traditional way – and it became a dangerous problem during race riots on the gold fields, when thugs dragged them by their hair, and forcibly cut off their queues. Some Chinese were scalped as a result, and probably died from their wounds, though it is hard to pin down numbers.
The long pigtail went out of fashion when the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911. Short hair became a revolutionary statement, and western hairstyles became fashionable, a statement of modernity. At much the same time, western women were also cutting their hair short as a mark of liberation.
In a global world, both men’s and women’s hairstyles have largely converged, thanks in part to Vidal Sassoon and his franchise of hairdressing schools. We go from short to long to short again, in thrall to international norms, so it’s nice to see the occasional culturally-specific hairstyle, like the braided crown of Yulia Tymoshenko from Ukraine.
And it’s nice to know that my widow’s peak is a sign of beauty – even if only in China.
Michael Godley, ‘The End of the Queue: Hair as Symbol in Chinese History’, in Chinese Heritage Quarterly, 2011.
This time last year:
Secular Saints and Sinners, 11 May 2011