The Stealth Revolution in Male Hair

From our Coiffure in Chief to Joel Embiid's twists, what's fueled the liberation in locks.

Illustration by Charlie Layton

Earlier this year, my husband came home from the barbershop with a quarter-inch-wide strip of white scalp along the line where he customarily divides his dark hair. “What is that?” I asked sensitively.

Doug put his hand up to touch the stripe. “It’s called a Hard Part. What do you think?”

I considered. We don’t have the sort of marriage where I consult him before I change my hairstyle, though, so I shrugged. “It’s fine. It’s … different.” What I wanted to say was: What the hell got into you? You’ve been wearing your hair the same way for the past 30 years. Why in the world would you suddenly decide to change it up?

Then I got to thinking. Back when I was a kid, in the 1960s, men’s hair was a major topic of cultural dissension. I could not begin to tell you the number of shouting matches that went on between my big brother and my parents when he — a straight-A student, member of the high-school track team, drum major of the marching band — wanted to let his locks dip below the collar of his button-down shirt like the other kids. (Boys wore button-down shirts to school! Every day!) From Jimi Hendrix to Arlo Guthrie to Upper Darby’s own Todd Rundgren, popular culture was full of radicals resisting the predominant crew cut as steadfastly as they did the Vietnam War.

Doug was a little young for all of that. Maybe now, just brushing past 60, he was regretting missing out on his chance to be a rebel with a cause.

But then I watched a Phillies game, and I saw that Maikel Franco and Aaron Nola and Odubel Herrera all had amazing outgrowths peeking from beneath their caps. I was sent a Wall Street Journal article headlined “Your Haircut Is (Probably) Too Cheap” by my brother-in-law, whose $20 coif was featured in it. I recalled the worldwide outrage generated when news broke that former French president François Hollande paid a barber $10,000 a month for his haircuts. I read a torrid online argument about white guys appropriating dreadlocks. And I concluded: There is something male and hairy in the zeitgeist today.

Somewhere in my house, stored amidst forgotten memorabilia, is a lock of my son Jake’s hair from his first haircut. It’s short and straight, but plenty of other moms have similar keepsakes of their sons that are long and curly, remnants of the gender-ambiguous start of life, before we begin enforcing social norms.

When it comes to guys’ hair, historically, those norms have been all over the place. In ancient Sparta, young boys wore their hair short until they hit puberty, when they all grew it long and put it up in man-buns. In ancient Athens, boys wore their locks long until manhood, when their heads were shorn. The so-called barbarians of the Dark Ages let their hair grow wild while they bore down on Europe; some early Christians faithfully got shaved every Easter. In the 1600s, the Manchu invaders of China enforced a single haircut on their male subjects, a high-shaved forehead with a long queue; the punishment for defiance was death. Across the continent of Africa, tribes were distinguished by differing hairstyles featuring shaving, coiling, braiding, beading, knotting … the variety was enormous, but the result signaled: I belong.

That’s what the neat male crew cuts of my childhood indicated as well: I am a solid citizen of these United States. My dad headed off to work every day wearing one of the snappy fedoras he stored in our hall closet. It was part of the uniform of a professional man, along with cropped hair, an overcoat, and a handkerchief and tie.

Even in those conformist years, though, rebels were tinkering at the edges. In 1939, Philly barber Joe Cirello, after experimenting on a blind boy who hung out in his Society Hill shop, invented the duck’s-ass cut and rode it all the way to Hollywood, where his clients included James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra. Elvis Presley raised a ruckus with his “pompadour,” named for a mistress of Louis XV. In retrospect, it didn’t take much to get hair’s cultural watchdogs agitated. There’s a famous photo of Elvis getting his hair cut in 1958 as he enters the Army. The barber took a whole inch off the sides. Still, girls wailed.

If you want to know how much the world has changed, consider the report earlier this year that an Army commander granted the request of a soldier to retain his beard for “approved religious accommodations.” This particular accommodation, the official memo said, was made “in observance of your Heathen; Norse Pagan faith.” Said soldier worships the thunder god, Thor.

It used to be that women went to the hairdresser and men went to the barbershop, and they were wildly different. The ladies’ salons offered a plethora of services — coloring, cutting, curling, straightening, facials, massages, waxing. Barbershops offered haircuts, with male bonding on the side. Salons today are mostly unisex, but recent decades have seen a spate of openings — Nic, 2B Groomed, the Art of Shaving, Duke Barber Co. — of salons for men, with luxe services and personal pampering that would have left Joe Cirello scratching his head.

It’s possible the new attention to male hair can be traced to our nation’s Coiffure-in-Chief. Among the shocking revelations in Michael Wolff’s recent Fire and Fury were the following facts about our fearless leader’s ’do (don’t?):

  • He’s completely bald up top.
  • He’s had scalp reduction surgery (yikes).
  • He brushes the remnants forward across the wasteland, then cements them in place with hair spray.
  • He uses Just for Men but doesn’t have the patience to leave it in long enough for it to take its intended effect.

And Trump’s then-personal physician, Harold Bornstein, thoughtfully revealed that to preserve his wisps, the President takes a drug, finasteride, that has side effects including breast enlargement, impotence, decreased sex drive and depression.

I’ll admit it: I myself am a little thin on top these days. Unlike the President, I’m not devoting all my resources to fighting that fact. I read in the Washington Post that Trump wears his hair the way he does on the advice of boxing promoter Don King, who, if you’ve seen his hair, wouldn’t seem the obvious guy to take grooming advice from. But what King told Trump struck a chord: Bizarre hair makes you stand out.

And it’s true that unique hair has long served to signal superiority. Picture Albert Einstein, or Philadelphia Orchestra maestro Leopold Stokowski, or Game of Thrones star Kit Harington. “I don’t think you would find many bankers or lawyers with those haircuts,” Anne Kreamer, author of a book called Going Gray, told the New York Times last year. “It’s a mark of individualism: ‘We are not of the ordinary rank and file.’”

Trump evidently sees his hairdo as akin to the tail of a male peacock or the lush mane of a lion (a critter that, you’ll recall, lives in “prides”). In his book Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life, he wrote:

The women I have dated over the years could have any man they want; they are the top models and the most beautiful women in the world. I have been able to date (screw) them all because I have something that many men do not have. I don’t know what it is but women have always liked it. So guys, be cocky, confident, smart, and humorous and you will be able to get all the women you want. …

This worldview gave me a moment’s pause in light of Doug’s new hair aberration. But not as much as having him start to take finasteride would.

One could view the increased focus by men on their follicles as simply part of the current emphasis on what’s become known as “self-care.” According to this movement, we can’t truly minister to one another unless our pumps are properly primed by personal indulgence. At Gwyneth Paltrow’s third In Goop Health conference in June, actress Meg Ryan detailed her daily two-hour self-care ritual. It must be splendid to be in a position to devote an eighth of one’s waking hours to what Ryan describes as “imagineering.” Me, I’ve got laundry. Still, I do think guys are less inhibited these days about claiming space for personal grooming. The two I live with take three times as long in the bathroom every morning as I do.

But perhaps the most interesting theory I’ve come across regarding current male hair fashions connects them to the growing American popularity of, of all things, soccer. Coverage of tresses at this year’s men’s World Cup included the Guardian (“Hair We Go: The Best World Cup Haircuts in Pictures”), People (“World Cup 2018’s Most Fashionable Hairstyles”), Esquire (“All the World Cup 2018 Haircuts, From Acceptable to Just Appalling”), and Racked (“The Best Part of the World Cup Is All the Soccer Hair”). According to this thesis, players forced to all dress alike in uniforms use hair to differentiate themselves from their teammates. (Columbus Crew forward Gyasi Zardes has famously — and touchingly — explained that he bleached his mohawk blond so it would be easy for his grandparents to spot him on the field.) And unlike participants in more traditional American pro sports — baseball, football, ice hockey — soccer players don’t wear headgear for games, lending their customized knots and twists and fades and stripes that much more visibility. The same is true of basketball, which has seen its own hairstyle revolutionaries. (Here’s looking at you, Joel Embiid.)

Doug’s a huge soccer fan (Liverpool, since you asked), so I can’t dismiss this trend as the impetus behind his changeup in ’do. And, as I remind myself, as midlife hair crises go, his could be worse. Much worse. In February, the town of Kurri Kurri in Australia staged something called Mulletfest 2018, a competition to celebrate the favored hairstyle of 1980s rock bands. Competitors swarmed from all over that nation. The top winner was one Shane “Shag” Hanrahan, who delivered an acceptance speech that would have warmed Jason Kelce’s heart: “I dunno what to say, I’m fuckin’ pissed! Rock on! Fuck you! Fuck youse all!”

Shag’s eloquence raises another possibility: that the current fad for innovative male coiffing might be a knee-jerk reaction to #MeToo, a last-gasp grasp at reasserting dominance by frightened, threatened men. In nature, after all, it’s guys who have the fancy plumage. For women to have usurped the spotlight over the centuries — to have made elaborate hairstyles and footwear and fashion their bailiwick — was a radical, incendiary act. As humanity slouches ever closer to gender equality, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a backlash, an attempt by guys to reclaim ostentation as their own. Look at what they’re willing to pay for their sneakers these days.

But there’s another, happier possibility. Follicular diversity is making it much harder to pigeonhole people — to sort them into neat categories of straight or gay, geek or jock, artist or engineer, even female or male. As hoopster-of-a-thousand-’do’s Jeremy Lin wrote for the Players’ Tribune in an essay called “So … About My Hair”:

I liked how the process of changing my look actually made me feel more like myself again. … I had spent a lot of time in a box, worrying about other people’s opinions on what I should and shouldn’t be doing. I wanted to stop basing my decisions so much on what strangers or critics might say about me. It was cool how something as simple as how I wore my hair could pull me out of my comfort zone and make me feel more free.

Sociologist Raewyn Connell has defined hegemonic masculinity as the “most honored way of being a man.” In our society, that norm has spurred men to stoicism, thrill-seeking, competitiveness, violence and aggression. It elected dick-swinger Donald Trump. It’s kept gays closeted and women subjugated; it underlies catcalling, hate crimes, sexual assault and bullying. Is a guy less likely to express it if he’s just gotten a shoulder massage, a hot-towel shave and foil tip highlights? I can’t help but think so.

This much is sure: The amazing spectrum of contemporary men’s hairstyles puts the focus squarely on a given individual and not on the tribe in which we’d like to place him — or he’d like to take refuge. Women have long enjoyed the luxury of creating their own image. Now that the automatic default of male identity is splintering, men must define themselves, too. Chances are they’ll find that’s really the Hard Part.

Published as “Hair Piece” in the October 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.