The grand hair experiment


The Native Americans believed long hair was the growth of the spirit. Samson was nothing without his. And Sartre: he could date his existential crisis to the moment in childhood when his grandfather, disapproving of the lush golden locks nurtured by his mother, marched him to the barber shop for a proper tonsure.

But have we, the great unshorn of the UK, embraced the freedom of cultivating long and wild hairstyles after another three months of the salons being closed? Been scribbling Romantic poetry while twirling our lockdown locks? Or eyeing up the kitchen scissors with intent?

When a cultural historian is looking for a trait to define a generation, what happens with hairstyles is a useful visual reference point. From the flapper’s bob in the emancipated Twenties to the great shag piles of the Sixties — the slow rebellion of growing one’s hair long — you can hang a lot on hair.

After Trump won the election in 2016, New York Magazine reported tales of women arriving at the city’s snippers in droves, enraged. “When you see that much blonde hair on the floor, you know something is going on,” said one hairdresser.

Unlike clothes, which can be changed daily, hair grows at half a millimetre a day. Every cut, style and dye is a commitment in itself: you can’t chop and change that many times. So as a statement of long-term intent, the hairstyle you choose carries some weight.

But this is where the cultural historian strokes his beard and wonders: what conclusions can you draw when all are equal, when you’ve complied with lockdown laws and the hairdressers’ scissors are locked in the drawer?

An interesting sociological experiment occurs when you can no longer distinguish between a usually well-groomed fellow yearning for his barber and the hipster intentionally growing out his forelocks to resemble Highland cattle.

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Sartre experienced his existential crisis in his childhood shearing but the opposite can also be true. That there is a crisis without a good snip. Unless there’s someone handy with a pair of scissors in our household, we are now hostages to our true hair — perhaps also our true ghastly selves.

As those who’ve been working from home will have noted, it is not just one’s hair that has lost its shape. Our very outlines have become blurry as we don leisurewear for yet another day, and linger at the open fridge door.

Who are you if you can barely distinguish yourself from the other unkempt blobs on the Zoom screen? Yes, ideas, intellect, voice matter.

But, as Oscar Wilde put it, your first duty in life is to assume a pose. Tricky when there’s no one to do the styling. And discomforting to discover that you were, in fact, so reliant on the services of others — the clothes sellers and beauticians as well as the snippers — to make you who you were. Your identity is somewhat like a blancmange without their definition.

There is still a week before you can get a legal haircut in the UK — who knows that has been happening in the back alleys in the interim. “It is a new D-Day,” is how one friend described the significance of April 12, the proposed reopening of her favoured salon, and the day she’s bagged an appointment.

We will regain some control of how we choose to fashion ourselves. But what will we choose? I asked my friend what haircut she’s getting. “The same as usual” she replies, as though that were utterly obvious.

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However much we’ve tried to convince ourselves there is a “new normal”, that slouching around with floppy fringes and big barnets could be reworked as a style statement, we are not going to persist, are we?

My friend will not be alone. What most people will ask for is a haircut like the one they had in February 2020: a reset and an eradication of the memory of much of the last 12 months. My own desire to get a haircut has assumed a violent ideation of lopping off six inches, like the young Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, furious at the burden of her hair.

So the grand experiment will be over. Those who cannot live without tidy hair will revert to normal. Those trying to look “different” with their Viking mullets will finally reclaim their space in the visual hierarchy yet again. And the cultural historian will stroke his beard and say “what was all that about, then?”

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