examining fashion's complicated relationship with the bowl cut
Plucked from cultural idiocy and elevated to elegance, the story of the bowl cut’s makeover speaks to the present times, or dare I say, end times.
Marc Jacobs autumn/winter 18. Photography Mitchell Sams.
A world can end with a haircut. Or at least that’s what it felt like when my father plopped me, wriggling, into an unforgiving chair in my childhood garage, dull scissors in one hand, a stainless steel bowl in the other. Thirty minutes and a bad case of daddy issues later, I emerged with a bowl cut, any scraps of confidence and self-worth sliced off, follicle by follicle. The bowl cut, that bygone villain who descended into our lives to remind us that we were not yet sufficiently mature to tend to our tresses, exemplifies childhood disempowerment.
For me, all those kindergarten horror stories were triggered by the autumn/winter 18 runway showings from Balenciaga and most notably Marc Jacobs. Yup, you may have heard, but it’s confirmed now: the bowl cut is back with a vengeance, and it’s got something more to say this time than just, ‘Never touch my hair again Dad!’
In contrast to Vogue’s dismissal of any political critique present in Jacobs’ show, I smelled something fishy when the bowl cut, a hairstyle favouring function over form, was wedged in a collection that nods to metropolitan money-maker style. Burly shoulder-padded coats layered with anonymising scarves, trousers cinched by belt or fanny-pack (bumbag if you’re British): 80s corporate cool marched down Marc Jacobs’ runway. His timely reworking of the Wall Street styles from the Trumpian 80s excess was injected with a polychromatic proletarian plot twist, the iridescent bowl cut. In the autumn/winter 18 collection, duelling dualisms reign: caesious furs and acerbic trench coats, cinematic noir and glistening sci-fi, corporate clothes and utilitarian haircuts.
Requiring nothing but shears and a round piece of dishware, or perhaps just a very steady hand, the bowl cut simplifies hair care in every regard, from offering a standardised trimming technique, to eliminating the need for a brush, to unifying people’s aesthetic into a literal cookie-cutter look evocative of Vulcan conformity. Traceable to medieval peasants and 18th century Russian serfs, as seen in Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, the cut was sported by men of limited means.
"The circular cut leapt from modest utility to the bourgeois feminist empowerment of mod fashion in the 1960s, with demigod hair stylist Vidal Sassoon’s five-point cut, which was the inspiration for Palau’s work with Jacobs."
The bowl cut today is the mark of uncultured heathens. Marc Jacobs, with the hand of hairstylist Guido Palau, makes the latest intervention in a lineage that picks up the bowl cut from its culturally-destitute position, employing its stigmatisation to imagine the next mutant couture.
The circular cut leapt from modest utility to the bourgeois feminist empowerment of mod fashion in the 1960s, with demigod hair stylist Vidal Sassoon’s five-point cut, which was the inspiration for Palau’s work with Jacobs. Styling an early rendition with the definitively-mod fashion designer Mary Quant in 1964, Sassoon premiered the five-pointer with model Grace Coddington in an iconic 1965 photograph and shortly thereafter updated the cut with an asymmetrical slant on avant garde model Peggy Moffitt. A "snug, sleek helmet with a W cut at the nape of the neck and a pointed spike in front of each ear," Sassoon’s cut is the connective tissue between the bowl cut’s lowly peasant beginnings and its haute couture renewal.
Coddington swears by the “extraordinary cut; no one has bettered it since. It was liberating. You could just sort of drip-dry it and shake it.” Freeing straight-haired women from the time-hoarding up-dos of the 50s, Sassoon primed women’s scalps for the Women’s Lib movement by interpreting an unsightly cut associated with the financially unfortunate into the next hot thing for women.
The hairstyle feminism that Sassoon pioneered in the 60s has been re-invigorated on the catwalk in the past decade. In Saint Laurent’s autumn/winter 08 collection, an army of oil-slick bowl cuts, sliver-thin Matrix shades, and black-lacquered lips strutted the runway. The hair, particularly with its chic black angles, is reminiscent of Moffitt's 50-year-old (and-counting) bowl and the 60s women’s-lib style.
"Plucked from cultural idiocy and elevated to elegance, the story of the bowl cut’s makeover speaks to the present times, or dare I say, end times."
In his autumn/winter 09 collection, Phillip Lim finished out the noughties with Beatles-esque mop-tops, a direct antecedent of Sassoon’s five-point cut. Model Tao Okamoto’s Sassoonian hair inspired French hair stylist Odile Gilbert’s use of the mushroom cut for Lim’s collection. For Okamoto, the cut was an expression of differentiation: "My hair was really long, but I wanted to cut it because all Asian girls have the same hairstyle."
This is yet another reversal on the cultural meanings of the bowl cut. From Sasson’s conversion of class domination into women’s glamorous empowerment, Okamoto updates what a bowl cut can mean for Asian women. She departs from the stereotyped Asian female hair, "long, black, straight hair," instead wielding a cut that is frequently conflated with East Asian men. Okamoto transgresses Asian femininity through a bowl cut that is simultaneously bound up with the emasculation and desexualisation of East Asian men. Here, the bowl cut is a feminising force on an Asian man and a masculinising motion on an Asian woman.
The bowl cut further side-steps normative femininity in the Alexander Wang autumn/winter 17 collection. Vogue’s consideration of Guido Palau’s hairstyling to be “boy cuts” speaks to the masculinity associated with bowl cuts, albeit when they are on a white scalp. Ukrainian model Irina Kravchenko, who sported a strawberry blonde cut, noted, in the same vein as Grace Coddington, the mop’s low maintenance: "Yesterday when I washed, I just put conditioner. And today, I didn't brush it!" Already known for utilitarian tendencies, Wang braids together a collection that makes a brooding feminist night at the club easy -- slip into a leather jacket, run a palm through the locks, and you’re all set to pepper spray any cat-caller.
Plucked from cultural idiocy and elevated to elegance, the story of the bowl cut’s makeover speaks to the present times, or dare I say, end times. The unfashionable are made fashionable, just like the excluded are exceptionally included in institutions from which they were formerly barred. Like the university and employment gates lowering for the marginalised on the condition of respectable docility, the bowl cut is admitted into couture with a contractual obligation to be cool. But let’s be real, the bowl cut is still stained with childhood anxiety. Think Will Byers from Stranger Things, wide-eyed and lost in The Upsidedown. Try as one might to bleach out youthful mortification and reimagine it as sophistication, the bowl cut speaks to a collective trepidation regarding the present moment’s accelerating class stratification, violent policing of arbitrary borders, and the gosh-darn Sixth Great Extinction. The bowl cut is bewilderment incarnate. With Marc Jacobs’ corporate coats storming past, the bowl cut started from the bottom and is now... there -- the catwalk, the Upsidedown, the hellscape that is late capitalism? Quivering at what is to become of the world.