"I called Vidal Sasoon and I asked if I could visit the salon to watch them cut hair. It was like watching someone make a thatched roof," remembers the Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake who used to come to London in the 1960s to visit the Vidal Sassoon salon on Bond Street, to study the cutting technique. He was mesmerised. "I used to stay for a couple of hours at the time and I always had my own hair cut there."
This admission demonstrates just how influential Sassoon was on the creative scene in the 1960s and how far his reputation reached. Because Sassoon didn't just reinvent the hairdressing profession, acquiring celebrity status along the way, he engineered hair to perfection. And for the first time he brought hairdressing in line with the modernist ideals that by now had infiltrated every other aspect of society.
Not surprisingly, Sassoon's pioneering designs drew their inspiration from the language 1920s and 1930s modernism; the Bauhaus, the International style, and geometric abstract painting. "Had I gone to college, I would definitely have become an architect. That would have been my dream," said the then 81-year-old Sassoon in Craig Teper's laudatory documentary on his life and career from 2010.
The architectural impulse is evident in his most innovative designs; The Shape, The Five-Point Cut, the clean bobs. "No fuss, no ornamentation, just a neat swinging line," as he said, when describing the haircut he originally gave British fashion designer Mary Quant in 1963. Or similarly, in a phrase that would not have seemed out of place in Adolf Loos' great proto-Bauhaus text, Ornament and Crime: "I wanted to eliminate the superflous, and get down to the basic angles."
Spearheaded by Mary Quant, the fashion of the sixties also seemed to echo certain staples of interwar modernism. The clean geometry of A-line mini skirts and dresses and the decade's penchant for block colours seemed adapted from the grids of De Stijl, or, when less rigid, the weightless assymetry of Wassily Kandinsky's constructivist painting. When Sassoon speaks of the Bauhaus in Teper's documentary, he shows images of Sassoon's models (wearing Mary Quant outfits, of course) fitted into a grid pattern with bold contours, overlaid with Mondrianeqsue primaries.
Yet this doesn't seem to be a question of mimicry as much as feeling that certain modernist principles resonated with socio-cultural reverberations of the sixties. In particular, the emphasis on function over frillery chimed well with women's desire for emancipation. Sassoon's approach was to cut shapes that held their own -- without reliance on curlers, perms, products, or backcombing. He liberated women from the tyranny of weekly salon visits and the feeling that they somehow served as decoration. Vidal Sassoon's haircuts were cathartic as was his rise to fame.
In his role as swinging London's hairdresser de rigueur he shared the same trajectory as photographers David Bailey and Terence Donovan. That from rags to riches and becoming a trendsetter and taste leader in a society that up until that point had been ruled by the upper echelons of society. Born into a poor East End family, Sassoon was partly brought up in an orphanage and was taken out of school to work from a young age and it was the liberating effects of 1960s pop culture that enabled Sassoon's success story, as much as his own business sense and innovation.
Stylistic eras spill out across the decades, bleed into one another, and cross-pollinate in ways that will never fall neatly into any totalising narratives. Sassoon might have been looking at Bauhaus, but he was also a visionary of his own time, and his designs were pioneering in their own right, especially as his medium, hair, was a previously unexplored territory for modernist ideas.