GREY MATTERS: Vidal Sassoon: In the Salon, In the Movies, In Life

GREY MATTERS: Vidal Sassoon: In the Salon, In the Movies, In Life

Vidal Sassoon did nothing less in his astonishing life than co-engineering the design and mindset of desire and freedom in fashion, cinema, and feminism—in ways that echo to this day.

nullIn the mid-60s, his radical, Bauhaus-inspired cuts for Twiggy and Terrence Stamp in Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise defined a Mod brand of cool reemerging again today in everyone from Karen O to Ladytron to Lady Gaga; the pixie cut he crafted for Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby made that film all the more effective and is now being rediscovered by Michelle Williams, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Mia Wasikowska, among others; the feathered cut he crafted for Farrah Fawcett in Charlies’s Angels gave the 70s Sexual Revolution a go-to style that, when shortened, also worked for men.

By creating “wash and wear haircuts” that freed women from the tyranny of elaborate post-war styling, Sassoon caused a side effect that was his greatest effect. Women of the early 60s who got Sassoon cuts were no longer spending a huge portion of their discretionary earnings and spare time on the salon, and so, simply in terms of dollars, cents, and time, feminism became that much more logistically possible.

And so I feel as if this amazing history is in danger of being lost when I realize that when people think of Sassoon, they think of superior hair products. In fairness, though, he also created that industry.

Me, I first “met” Sassoon entirely by accident of need.

When Lizzie E. came up to me at high school’s end and asked how I was going to support myself until my band got signed, I was like,  “I have no idea.” When she asked if I wanted to go to beauty school, I said,  “Sure. Why not?”

But beauty school was lame, all boring rudimentary cuts, color, curling iron work, and such. Until The Twins showed up.

The Twins: two impossibly suave young Latino men in Armani suits with hair like Al Pacino in Serpico. They may have had names, but I never learned them. They didn’t talk much. They cut.

The Twins had been to Vidal Sassoon Academy. This was the late 70s. Everyone knew all about Vidal: he was a living media presence in the process of creating that idea, too. Think Tim Gunn but younger, ludicrously cool in his Pierre Cardin suits, and also a mensch.

nullAnyway, at school, students lined up daily as the Twins executed precise Sassoon-style versions of a Ziggy cut, a Bryan Ferry asymmetrical, a pixie, and the Master’s other contribution, the bob.

Everyone came out of a Twin session changed. Happier. More confident. More cool and more themselves at the same time.

I wanted a Twins cut! But I was also only 17 and seething with a crippling sense of how little I deserved such fine things, in part a side effect of the bipolar disorder percolating in my head.

So I just watched.

All very nice, but this is a film blog! Yes, but film and fashion are always absolutely intertwined.  

To explore what I mean by that, you have to ask, and also know: What is a haircut about? You. If you’re in the Marines, for example, it’s about erasing your identity with a buzz cut ten thousand other women and men have, so as to become an interchangeable part of a unit.

A haircut is also code. It’s Audrey Hepburn's hair in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), signaling in streaked hair-color semaphore that she’s a very new sort of girl, an idea and look Gloria Steinem promptly appropriated and repurposed as an act of playful post modernism, whose referencing of Tiffany's was a hidden-in-plain-sight rejection of the top-down, patriarchal conservatism that institution stood for. And all while looking devastatingly chic.

This is all because of an irrefutable bottom line: hair is the most telling human visual tag after skin color. It’s the thing people remember. And that's why when profiling a perp, after race, a cop will ask what color hair, what style, how long, etc. Because everyone remembers that. It’s probably a tribal thing, engrained on a DNA level.

Until Sassoon, post-war America conservatism recognized the threats inherent in hairstyle—sexuality, individualism, personal agency—and quashed them.

A salon visit—and you sometimes needed multiple ones per week—meant enduring having your hair chemically burned with harsh, primitive perm, bleach and color concoctions, then soaked in gum, methylparaben, gelatin, cornstarch-based based adherents, before being wrapped in scalp-tearing curlers. The client was then stuck under burning hot driers for hours on end before having the hair—now decimated tissue resembling burnt wire—tortured into halo-like shapes held together by industrial-strength lacquers.

nullAt this time, the ‘50s and early 60s, nobody looked at hair and thought: Bone structure! Bauhaus! Geometry!

Nobody asked: How can I enhance the way this woman naturally is, instead of warping her into something she’ll never be?

Sassoon did.

Sassoon, who was born in 1928 into such dire poverty that his single mother was forced to send him to a Jewish orphanage, who later joined the Israeli Defense Forces to fight in the 1948 Arab Israeli War, who then, at his mum’s insistence, got in the hair trade, ran a regular salon for a while until he just had it with things as they were, the sheer cruel, ugly oldness of it all.

He threw out the hair driers, the perms, the chemicals, everything but his trusty sheers.

Word spread like wildfire. Some madman was cutting hair based on bone structure, and geometry, and then letting women just leave the salon! No setting! No lacquer. Just beautiful, healthy, shiny hair. Hair he encouraged women to run their fingers through.

nullHollywood came calling: their new, post-war Chinese sex symbol in the making, Nancy Kwan, needed a look. Vidal created a luscious, cascading bob for Kwan for The World of Suzie Wong (1960). The Beats appropriated it, every present-day hipster girl has had one at least once, and actors like Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett and Charlize Theron look especially good with one.

But Sassoon’s eureka moment came in 1964. It was the five-point cut. It was a radical, Bauhaus-inspired design that practically screamed the end of an era and the start of something new.

Craig Teper’s recent gold standard documentary, Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, gets inside the mind of a man who’s known pretty much every way a person can live, and from that experience came a well of empathy that fueled designs that could have been cold or detached or, god forbid, ‘arty’ (and so dismissed.) He could think of hair as a fine artist, as a businessman or, as we’ll see, a method actor. In the film, Sassoon tells his greatest hits in an alternately incarnational/imperious/impish vocal style that’s another pleasure.

nullThere’s the tale of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), where Roman Polanski desperately needed his hero to have a visual signifier of motherhood in crisis that would capitalize on both the rush and anxiety accompanying the first wave of feminism.

He called Vidal. The cut Sassoon delivered for Mia Farrow was short, but feminine. Angular, but not overtly weird. The effect was a triumph of style-based foreshadowing: the idea that this woman would give birth to Satan’s child was totally believable to men—just look at her haircut! American women, ironically enough, wanted to look like Rosemary, and they all flocked to Sassoon-trained stylists.

If I have one complaint with the film, it’s that it’s too humble. Another incredibly important cut, the one worn by Sassoon client Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula’s boundary-breaking Klute, is a study in, shall we say, influence. That cut is the missing link between the geometry of the 60s and the flow of the 70s, eventually migrating to the heads of Suzie Quatro and Joan Jett and a good many of the lesbian bars my friend Lizzie E. would hang at.

But his greatest achievement will always be a side effect of the wasted time and money his cuts returned to women. The quarterly perm, the monthly color retouch, the monthly cut, the once, twice, thrice roller/set/comb-out/styling sessions. All of them replaced with one haircut every two or so months.

Without that boon, feminism would have been incalculably harder to pull off.  Or as Vogue’s creative director Grace Coddington, a one-time model who enjoyed the original five-point cut, has said, "He changed the way everyone looked at hair . . . and it liberated everyone."

Me, I never got my hair cut by The Twins. But my band did get a record deal, and the guy who cut my hair was, by incredible good luck, the haircutter for Bryan Ferry, once and future king for all things cool beyond measure.

And, of course, that haircutter trained at Sassoon’s.


Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times,, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.