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Close Shave
Photography Lydia GarnettCourtesy of Close Shave

What butch queer identity has to do with hair

A new exhibition, Close Shave, celebrates and pays tribute to butch dyke identity and style through the lens of haircuts

When the musician k.d. lang came out as a lesbian in 1992, country music stations in the US banned her music and she faced protests outside the Grammys. In the Summer of 1993, Vanity Fair put her on the cover of the magazine. Dressed in a waistcoat, crisp white shirt and tie, she sits back in an old-school barber’s chair for a close shave from supermodel Cindy Crawford

The cover is what we might call “dykonic” – a breakthrough moment in lesbian media representation; it sent out the message that butch lesbian identity and style is not just to be celebrated, but to be seen as sexy. 

The image is one of the inspirations for the new exhibition Close Shave, opening at the hair-salon-slash-gallery Sunbury in East London this week. Inspired by the butch barbershop experience, the portraits in Close Shave explore themes of butch-on-butch care, love and trust, explains curator Lucy Nurnberg. The portraits in the show, taken by the photographer Lydia Garnett, capture (in her words) all that butch is; “classic, stylish, intimate, intriguing, confident, a bit moody, romantic.”

Along with the Vanity Fair cover, Garnett was inspired by Catherine Opie’s famous portraits of leather communities from the 90s, and the photographer Phylis Christopher’s photos of dyke culture in 90s San Francisco. Close Shave as a title “makes me think of a close encounter and it’s also a hairstyle choice,” says Garnett. “It’s quite a camp, romantic name for a show that features mainly very short haircuts.”

The relationship between butch dyke culture and hair styling goes back much further than the 90s. Take the painter Gluck, who sported a short masculine haircut in the 1930s, or Gertrude Stein’s short moppish cut. Zara Toppin, co-organiser of Close Shave, founder of Sunbury Studios, and the hairdresser who styled the models in the portraits, explains that the goal was to pay homage to the long relationship between hair styling and butch identity.

While having short hair and identifying as butch don’t necessarily come as a pair, for butch people, haircuts can be transformational – getting your hair cut off brings you closer to your gender identity. This was the case for Toppin who cut their hair short at 21. “Before I did it, I was tying my hair up, putting a cap on, I had such a strong desire to cut it off. That’s not the only way to be butch of course – and it’s nothing like top surgery, for example – but it’s an act of removing something to get to this visualised state of being that you are, and not just through clothes.” 

Gabby, 32, from London, who works in tech and does drag on the side, and appears in Close Shave feels similarly: “I cut my hair short about a year ago. I never had long hair but I was always too afraid to cut it short in case people treated me differently, I was worried people would see butch as unattractive,” Gabby explains, referencing the societal expectations around femininity. “But it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. My journey with my hair has huge links with my gender, expression and how I feel about myself – I’ve never looked more like me. I don’t think I’ve stopped taking thirst trap selfies since.” 

Before Toppin cut their own hair short, they thought about doing it for eight months. “With hair, you have to give control over to someone else to transform it into the next phase. Probably the reason I was taking eight months was that I wondering who could do that for me.” The rise of LGBTQ+ barbers in the UK speaks to this need for queer and trans people to feel understood and also safe at the salon. While Toppin’s salon is not only catering to LGBTQ+ people, they have given many people their “first butch haircut” and hope that they are “able to understand how much that first short haircut means beyond an aesthetic choice in a way that others might not.”

In this sense, it makes sense to show the photos in Close Shave at Toppin’s salon, and also because “in portraits there’s the same intimacy that goes on as with the haircutting experience,” Toppin observes, “where you’re giving yourself in a vulnerable way to someone else to be taken care of, or seen, or captured,” says Toppin. This intimacy links back to the idea of butch tenderness. Often we think of butches as tough – a stereotype that is born out of the necessity to self-preserve and self-defend. Garnett and Toppin wanted to portray things differently. “There’s something special about butch-on-butch care and validation and the series is as about butch-on-butch trust and love as much as it is about style and how we express ourselves,” says Garnett, who was having her hair cut by Toppin when the idea came up. 

When asked whether there are cultural or visual references of butch hair Toppin thinks about when giving people cuts, they say “not really” – the references come more from male hair salon imagery, that’s why it felt important to create those references, to build a catalogue of contemporary butch culture as well as a new hairstyle catalogue for a more gender fluid age (and as the series grows with more photos in future, this will continue). The series shows what kind of butch haircuts are possible, the spectrum of options on offer; 90s boyband heartthrob, classic 30s masculinity, shaved head or skinhead look. Garnett shot in black and white “to reference the barbershop, and for the exhibition to reflect that experience of being looked at by all these strong portraits when you’re in the barbershop chair.”

When butches have been obfuscated in culture historically due to prejudice (and patriarchy) adding to the canon of butch representation still feels politically relevant. “Reference points remain quite niche,” says Toppin, pointing to Opie or Christopher’s work. Yet Garnett is hopeful that there is a butch renaissance happening: “I feel like there’s supercharged energy around the butches in my life at the moment and I love it. I think while perhaps butches have been overlooked or misunderstood widely, now there seems to be a feeling of people stepping into their queer power and being more visible.”

Gabby agrees: “I love the term Butch! Growing up I was very afraid of being seen as a butch. Even once I came out as queer, I would find myself trying to style myself in a way that I didn’t look too much like a butch. This all changed once I cut my hair short. Butch for me, means freedom of expression and identity – the biggest compliment for me now would be someone saying I look very butch today.”

Close Shave ultimately aims to represent as broad a church of butch looks as possible, from faded t-shirts to sportswear, to vintage suits, ties, white vests and boxers. As people discover their nonbinary or trans-masculine identity, sometimes the word “butch” or “lesbian” can feel too gendered; Garnett and Toppin wanted to include nonbinary, trans and lesbian people in the show for a mix of butch representation. Toppin goes between using all of these terms at different times, unsure of whether they even want to or need to decide on one. Amidst the pressure to self-label, hair becomes even more relevant, they explain: a hairstyle is a visual language that conveys meaning, one that breaks away from the limitations of words. 

Close Shave will be open Wednesday-Saturday 21st October to 17th November at Sunbury, book a visit here.