February 14, 2011
Like everyone else, I grew up watching the Vidal Sassoon ads of the 80's, like the one above, dreaming of swishing around my long, lustrous, shiny hair. Unfortunately, I had curly hair that never did anything like swishing or swinging, and would just explode into a frizzed-out disaster if I brushed it too much. Products like mousse and volumizing shampoo, which were really desirable in the ads, were clearly made for those who weren't embroiled in a never-ending battle against volume.
So when I went to a Vidal Sassoon salon while living in London as a student in 1994, I was ready to see if the famous "If you don't look good, we don't look good" slogan held up. I volunteered to have one of the stylists cut my hair as part of a demonstration for Japanese hairdressing students. They could do whatever they wanted to my hair, and I got a free Vidal Sassoon cut.
That 1994 haircut was transformative. My stylist was a man named Henrich. He had a shaved head and wore a skirt. He cut my hair dry, which was immediately obviously the best way to cut curly hair, yet no one had ever done it before. He gave me a really cool haircut that made my curls look fantastic -- like they were meant to be there, instead of a genetic accident that I had failed to correct. The Japanese hairdressing students all took pictures of my head.
So when a new documentary about Vidal Sassoon, the man, came out this weekend, with the title Vidal Sassoon: How One Man Changed the World With a Pair of Scissors, that subtitle struck me as a perfectly reasonable assessment of his impact on hair, and the world. In the NY Times review, Stephen Holden writes that statements like "It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of Vidal Sassoon" are "all too much". I totally disagree.
Though I didn't realize it in 1994, Vidal Sassoon essentially liberated women from the weekly beauty parlor visits that were the norm in the mid-20th century. By focusing on the cut as the primary means of styling hair, he made the weekly ritual of curling/straightening, setting, processing, and ironing your hair or sleeping in curlers unnecessary. As described in a Time Out interview with Sassoon, his goal was to "create looks that were tailor-made to a person's features, beautiful shapes that were as eye-catching as they were unique--and, most of all, easy to maintain."
Sassoon's own transformation from a poor Jewish boy raised in a London orphanage to the world's most famous hairdresser is pretty compelling, too. He's still alive, and in his 80's. Here's the trailer.
There's one giant asterisk, here: the Vidal Sassoon architectural method mostly applied to white women, or women with non-kinky hair. Almost all the women swinging their glossy hair around in those 80's ads (or hair products ads today) have swishy white-lady hair.
Which brings us to Chris Rock's 2009 documentary, Good Hair, which is without a doubt the most eye-opening documentary I have ever seen. Post-Sassoon, many black women follow the same kind of weekly hair regimen that white women abandoned in the 60's. Chris Rock made this movie out of concern for the future of processing, straightening, and weaving that probably awaits his own daughters. He interviews dozens of black women who have straightened hair, weaves, and a few with natural hair, and the men who love them (and Al Sharpton!) There's lots of interesting stuff about cultural expectations, economics, racism, and the realities of what women go through when natural hair doesn't fit within the social mainstream.
Once Vidal Sassoon is out on video, that movie and Good Hair would make a great double feature.
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