When Vidal Sassoon realized in the 1950s that he wanted to “change hairdressing to a different form of art,” he didn’t turn to barbershops or magazine models for inspiration. He looked at the architecture of buildings. He was looking for something radically different than the “teezy weezy” approach that was in vogue. The shape of hairstyles at that time came from setting the hair when wet and then using a technique called back-combing to mold a shape into the dry hair and then “set” it with loads of hairspray—a look that Eva and her sister Zsa Zsa Gabor made popular. Women wrapped their heads in toilet paper before bed to maintain the style.
Sassoon wanted “to eliminate the superfluous and get down to the basics of cut and shape,” to create haircuts and styles that could be blown by the wind, brushed in any direction and yet fall back into their scissor-formed shape.
The team of hairdressers working with Sassoon developed an entire language of haircutting that never before existed. They talked about “elevation,” the angle or degree at which the subsection of hair to be cut is held out from the head. Zero degrees of elevation creates a blunt weighty line, as in the bob. Slight amounts of elevation (around 45 degrees and less) below the round of the occipital bone creates what became known as “the graduated bob.” And elevation between 45 and 90 degrees removes weight to give what was called “the shag”—a mainstay of hippie culture and precursor to the mullet.
Now, this is interesting if you’re involved in hairdressing and/or the evolution of fashion and style. But the revolution that Sassoon started extends beyond just hair. It changed the way women related to beauty and femininity: it freed them in fundamental ways and it reflected the ethos of an era that still reverberates.
In the late 1960s, Sassoon’s stylists cut African-American hair to enhance its natural, nappy appearance. It’s hard to imagine the full-blown naturals sported by people like Angela Davis without the revolution Sassoon instigated. And as men let their hair grow, this new way of cutting hair democratized and androgenized the youth culture.
Sassoon’s focus on the architecture of hair suggests a new order founded on deep structural integrity that has an elegant geometry at its core. Rather than trying to dominate or overcome a head of hair with scissors, a good stylist is like an engineer who builds and shapes through dimensionality and angles.
As a hairdresser who practices this approach, and as a philosopher who studies the unfolding of human culture, I have noticed a recent rejection of Sassoon’s ideas. Hairstyling is increasingly biased toward the formless. Popular cuts and styles reject any form whatever—a sort of dismantling of the decaying, unjust, and ineffective structures that currently exist. At the same time, there is a reimagining of structure that takes the formless into account. Modern hairstyling appears to be moving toward an integral look that incorporates lessons learned from the past and technologies accumulated along the way.
Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, also known by his stage name The Weeknd, wears his hair in changing shapes that are a fusion of form and freedom. Miley Cyrus’ constantly morphing topknot exemplifies this new architecture as well
In his work, Vidal Sassoon showed us the fundamental power of geometry to change the way we see and experience one of the most ordinary things in life—the very hairs on our head.
Originally published in This Land: Winter 2016