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Sinead O'Connor

A cultural history of the buzzcut

The most popular hairstyle of spring 2020 has a very powerful cultural history

In lockdown, there’s one hairstyle that’s become a new trend for the ages: the buzzcut. With a lack of salons and little to do, people of all genders are taking to shaving their hair down to the bare minimum.

Right before the quarantine in mid March, Willow Smith was seen with her boyfriend shaving her head. Tallulah Willis was also given the buzzcut by her father, Bruce Willis. But the humble buzzcut is not just limited to celebrities. This democractic hairstyle is one that anyone can do at home, and if you’ve been online lately, you’ve likely seen at least one of your peers in your Instagram feed convert to the crop.

Nathan Sweet, a New York photographer and stylist started buzzing his hair in lockdown, and has been coloring it different hues. “I’ve buzzed my hair before, and I was actually trying to grow out my hair right before this started but then I figured since quarantine is happening, I might as well use this time to buzz my hair and try out different colours and patterns as I love coloring my hair,” he explains. “I also feel like the buzzcut has made me look older or more mature which is something new.”

Still, while it’s clear that the buzzcut has become the most popular hairstyle of spring 2020 (everyone from Vogue to New York Times and CNN has created guides for at-home tutorials), the buzzcut has a very powerful cultural history that resonates with political movements, iconic figures and more. Standing as a dramatic cut (especially transformational for those with long hair), the buzzcut may have last been at peak popularity in the 1990s.

Though the idea of shaving one’s hair goes back to prehistoric times, the buzzcut is not to be conflated with a simple shaved head. The buzzcut is a very specific style. It’s an extremely short haircut, usually done with electric clippers that do not have any guard in place. Simply put, it’s going as short as you can go without going bald. Traditionally, the sizes are cut closely and the top of the hair is cut in a geometric, short shape so that it stands up slightly from the rest of the hair. But today’s iterations of buzzcuts are less rigid and are more about the pure shortness of it all.

The earliest known buzzcuts were first seen on soldiers of the Roman Empire (established in 27 BCE), according to The Encyclopedia of Hair by Victoria Sherrow. Contrary to other ancient soldiers around the world, such an Scandinavian Vikings or Celtic warriors who wore long hair in battle, the Roman Empire soldiers wore “short hairstyles like those of other men in their society.”

In the 1800s, the buzzcut emerged again in the military, as inductees into the French Foreign Legion, founded in 1831, were required to have their hair cut extremely short  about one-half millimeter in length. Officials required the hairstyle as a method of cleanliness and to prevent lice, but after training was completed, soldiers were allowed to wear longer hair if they wanted.

However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the buzzcut would remerge again. In the 1950s, the US military began requiring induction cuts, according to The Encyclopedia of Hair. Done in the traditional buzzcut style with shaved sides and a slightly longer top, the buzzcut became a stark contrast to the hair of American civilian men, which continued to grow longer and longer from the 1950s on through the 1970s. For women in the US military, there were also special requirements for hair – if they did not wear their hair up in a ponytail, bun, or pinned back, they too would get a buzzcut. Similar requirements followed in countries such as Australia, China, Russia, and the UK.

The buzzcut was forever marked culturally when Elvis Presley received his GI haircut at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, when he entered the US army in 1958. The performer reportedly commented, “Hair today, gone tomorrow.” The cut was commemorated in 1999, with a collectible Mattel doll called “Elvis Presley Goes to the Army”.

At the same time, in the 1950s and 1960s, the subcultures of the world started reappropriating the buzzcut in different forms. “Historically, the skinhead subculture displayed this type of hairdo in response to another subculture of the past: Teddy boys. Skinheads, with their tough leather look were mostly male, they gave the impression they were ready for combat and propagated fear,” explains trend forecaster Marie-Michele Larivee.

“By the time the 90s came around, more women were using the hair style as a form of feminist activism.”

Once the 1980s began, the buzzcut exploded in popularity all over again. People became more open and experimental with the trend. Two of the pioneers of the buzzcut hairstyle for women were Grace Jones and Annie Lennox, who each sported their own version of the buzzcut, with Lennox’s version a vivid orange hue.

By the time the 90s came around, the buzzcut became more mainstream in pop culture and more and more women were using the hair style as a form of feminist activism. Susan Powter, the Australian-born American motivational speaker, nutritionist, personal trainer, and author, was known for her bleach blond buzzcut.

In 1997, the film G.I. Jane starring Demi Moore was released, in which she became the first female member of the Navy Seals. In order to get into character, Moore got a buzzcut for the role. And who could forget Sinéad O’Connor? Rising to fame in the 1980s, she got a buzzcut as a way to rebel against the way record executives wanted her to conform. “They wanted me to grow my hair really long and wear miniskirts and all that kind of stuff because they reckoned I’d look much prettier,” she said. “So I went straight around to the barber and shaved the rest of my hair off.”

As the early 00s approached, the buzzcut came to symbolise significant moments in celebrities’ lives. Britney Spears shaved her head after leaving a rehab clinic in 2009. Mainstream media perpetuated the idea that it was a reckless act and a sign of a star unraveling, while others proclaimed buzzing her hair was a form of taking back control. In 2009, Solange also buzzed her hair, in response to how much time and money she realized she was spending on upkeep. Likewise, in November 2015, Rose McGowan shaved her long hair into a buzzcut. “My hair had always made me uncomfortable. It felt like I had a plant on my head and a sex target on my back. It made men en masse look at me while the real me disappeared,” she said.

Today, the buzzcut is more wide span than ever and seems to be having a cultural renaissance of sorts. “Buzzcuts have primarily been associated with men’s haircuts, but they have definitely evolved into a gender-neutral cut,” explains celebrity stylist Sally Hershberger. “Initially popular among men wanting a quick and short cut, as well as those in the military, more and more woman have opted for the style as trends have shifted to a more androgynous look. This shift began with women getting undercuts, which involves shaving the back and sides while the hair is kept longer on the top. Today, both men and women sport the buzzcut, making it a hassle-free style for anyone.”

The haircut has also become a symbol of expressive rebellion. “In recent years, the buzzcut became trendy with social media celebrities and models like Ruth Bell wearing it,” adds Larivee. “Today’s buzzcut doesn’t belong to any gender. It is a plain canvas for self-expression. The short hair is here again freedom to stereotype or rejection of any classified boxes.”

Women who wear the buzzcut today make some of the most powerful style statements. From model Adwoa Aboah to Jazzelle Zanaughtti. Kristen Stewart and Cara Delevingne have also worn the buzz cut.  In recent pop culture, the Netflix series Unorthodox also shows the main character Esther Shapiro has her head shaven for religious reasons. After moving to Berlin, she embraces the style as a powerful act of rebellion. Millie Bobby Brown also wore a buzz cut in Stranger Things.

“Self-expression is encouraged now more than ever, so people are able to show their own sense of style through their hair,” adds Hershberger. “Whether you’re a man that wants a buzzcut for a clean-shaven look, or a woman that wants to accentuate her facial features, it’s an easily accessible yet fashion-forward style that can easily be done at home with a pair of clippers.”

Still, we can’t ignore the reason why the buzzcut is trending right now. “In a situation we have near zero control over, in a global pandemic, the human brain does not like that,” adds Larivee. “It likes to have control. The act of cutting one’s hair short and taking back control of the situation gives great power to the ego. It resolves the situation and steps behind the wheel to navigate the end of confinement with power.”