This story was originally published on 3rd February 2017.
Short on the sides, and long on top: the undercut; the Macklemore — it’s the slicked-back hairstyle any Brooklyn barbershop worth its salt specialises in. In cities and blue states, we tend to associate guys who sport them as fashion-conscious — urban hipsters who were closer to Ryan Gosling than Mel Gibson in ideology. They were popular with women who like their men culturally aware and with a progressive slant.
Not anymore. There were signs that the haircut was about to be problematic last year when The Washington Post ran a story about the way the Alt-Right had taken up that style — renamed the “fashy,” as in fascist — as their signature look. It picked up steam during the inauguration when white nationalists convened in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the new Trump presidency. But the coup de gras was the viral video of Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer getting punched in the head (twice!). Now, a haircut that was once associated with sensitive professionals has been appropriated by the conservative extremists, which has led many women who date white men to start swiping left, indiscriminately. Even Macklemore switched haircuts over a year ago.
“After Richard Spencer got punched, I sent my friend a text — ‘I’m literally so afraid of every man on Tinder now,'” joked Allison Davis, a writer based in Brooklyn. “She laughed at me, but the fear is real. I never know now if it’s a white guy who’s trying a little too hard to be hip, or an actual neo-Nazi. I swipe left now. It’s changed for me.”
The undercut, as the haircut is widely known today, first cropped up in the Edwardian era and lasted throughout the ‘50s. It was the dominant men’s style during much of the 20th century, particularly among working class communities. But the most infamous example of the haircut was that it became the distinguishing style among Wehrmacht officers in Nazi Germany, and teenage men — the Hitler Youth — who participated in paramilitary youth clubs.
But that’s not why it became popular again in 2010. It’s most recent reincarnation was probably due to Don Draper’s neat hairstyle on Mad Men and Jimmy Darmody’s slicked-back coif in Boardwalk Empire, two TV shows with protagonists who desperately want to be “good men,” but are weighed down by machismo and existential angst.
“People would ask for for that haircut,” says Josh Boyd, cofounder of Blind Barber, the Brooklyn-based barbershop chain many credit with popularising the undercut style in the early 2010s. “[They’d say,] ‘I want the Michael Pitt. I want the Jimmy Darmody.’ That was the tipping point.” His business partner Jeff Laub points to those cultural touchstones, and not the fascist origins, as their inspiration: “In all honesty, we didn’t know the exact reference of the undercut.”
Then came Macklemore, David Beckham, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, and the undercut became a bonafide thing. It was hard to enter any hipster bar in a hipster neighbourhood without being surrounded by men from all ethnic backgrounds sporting the style. Says Laub, “I’ve seen this across the board, from our Asian clientele, to Caucasian, to Hispanic; even curly or textured hair works. Women have been asking for it, too.” And before Famous White Guys got to it, fades and other variations on the undercut have long been popular contemporary haircuts among black, Latino, and Asian men (and women, too).
For women who have spent time dating online, learning how to identify the possibility of unpleasant encounters before they happen is an important skill. There are a preponderance of stories that suggests that straight women spend a disproportionate amount of time deflecting and minimising sexual harassment from straight men on dating apps, rather than establishing romantic connections. Additionally, The Pew Research Centre found in a comprehensive study about online bullying that 1 in 4 young women aged 18 to 24 were the targets of online sexual harassment, and that young women are more likely to be stalked, sexually harassed, and suffer sustained harassment than their male peers or internet users in general.
Sometimes, it’s not worth delving deeper into a connection, when the consequences for misjudging can be annoying, embarrassing, or in some cases, dangerous. “As a Black woman on Tinder, I’m trying to mitigate any possible pitfall, considering we only have visual information to tell us what a person might be about. That haircut means something to me other than, ‘my barber tries too hard,’” says Davis.
I never know now if it’s a white guy who’s trying a little too hard to be hip, or an actual neo-Nazi.
“I don’t want to learn the hard way,” agreed Shabnam, a 34-year-old Persian woman from Minnesota who has started swiping left on undercuts. Shabnam found that changing her online name to “Sara” invited less “racist bullshit.”
“On some level, I know it’s wrong [to judge] because I’m not giving them a chance. But, when I was more ‘equal opportunity,’ I’d go on dates with men who would tell me I was pretty, that I was so ‘exotic,’ and that they bet I was a freak, but I wasn’t what they were looking for. I’ve had less bullshit and sexual harassment since not swiping right on men who look like 100% white American males.”
It’s not just on social media. For women who interact with straight male strangers on the regular, the ability to ID those who might be antagonistic toward them is a big concern. The undercut is one of the most obvious ways to spot them. “Since Richard Spencer’s gained visibility, the haircut has turned my stomach,” says Chloe Saint Blaze, a 31-year-old writer and stripper in Nashville. “In my line of work, I come into contact with lots of different types of men. I am privileged as a sex worker to be surrounded by bouncers and cameras constantly, so I feel safe, but I avoid dudes in general with this hairstyle.”
Of course, not all men with an undercut are Alt-Right, and not all neo-Nazis have an undercut. In fact, white supremacists have historically appropriated some of their most enduring iconography from non-whites — like British skinheads with Jamaican rudeboys or German Nazis with the Indian swastika. But when women have limited tools for recognising dangerous encounters, and the consequences of “just talk to them to find out!” can be unpleasant and demeaning; sometimes the only course of action is making a value judgment about a white guy with a trendy haircut, and not interacting in the first place.
But while it seems that while images of the fashy might be going viral online, it hasn’t translated into haircut appointments, at least not in the same establishments where progressive urbanites get theirs. Blind Barber canvassed its barbers in Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Brooklyn and confirmed that they haven’t received any customers who deliberately want a fashy by name. “No barber has heard the term before," insists Laub. "But if it was requested by name by a client, our barbers would ask them to get the fuck out of the chair. This is a stupid attempt at a hurtful rebrand of a popular haircut."
If [the fashy] was requested by name by a client, our barbers would ask them to get the fuck out of the chair.
Dan H., who works at a media company in Brooklyn, and prefers not to give his full name, has had a version of an undercut for the past five years. “It’s practical — I can go about four or five weeks between haircuts. It also looks professional for what I’m doing. I had no concept of the history of the haircut itself when I first got it. It’s only recently where I saw that clip of Richard Spencer when I realized, Oh shit, this is associated with some really bad people." Dan also notes that women in his life are making the connection between his haircut and the white supremacists. “There’s this person who I dated a couple years ago who I met up recently. She asked, ‘Oh did you get a haircut? You look like a neo-Nazi.’ That was the first time I realised that that was the vibe it was giving off.”
On the flip side, the likelihood of false positives might not be much of an issue anymore; after five years in the limelight, the undercut is considered less and less a cutting-edge trend (as a sign of the times, the current Bachelor Nick Viall sports one). “Its popularity is dying out and giving way to a looser style of that side part and slicked-back look,” says Laub.
But until then, many women will err on the side of safe rather than sorry. “If Macklemore didn’t kill this haircut, it might be okay to let Nazis kill this haircut,” posits Davis. “Maybe it’s time for bowl cuts. That seems safe.”