I haven’t had layers since I was 11 years old and with good reason: the thick, outward-flicking hair running down my head like the tiers of a Christmas tree haunts me to this day. With no fringe to shape my round face, this once ultra-sensitive, hyperaware kid swore off layers for life. So why in God’s name, at 26, would I revisit that personal hell? Well, folks, I’ve fallen for the shag – and hard.
What’s the shag, I hear you cry? The answer is both a haircut and – I’m not being dramatic here – a state of mind. Let’s get the technical bit out of the way first: the shag is comprised of layers cut into various lengths, where the hair is often feathered, making it full-bodied around the crown of the head, getting thinner around the face and nape of the neck. What the end result looks like is totally dependent on your hair type. It was barber-to-the-stars Paul McGregor who cut the first shag, with his inaugural model none other than Jane Fonda. The actress was married to Barbarella director Roger Vadim at the time and, according to her autobiography, it was in McGregor’s salon that she had her “first deep hair epiphany”:
“Hair had ruled me for many years. Perhaps I used it to hide behind. The men in my life liked it long and blonde, and I had been a blonde for so long that I didn’t even know what my own colour actually was. I simply said to Paul McGregor, ‘Do something’ and he did. It was the haircut that became famous in Klute [the 1971 neo-noir thriller Fonda starred in], the shag. I didn’t look as if I were trying to imitate Vadim’s other wives anymore [his previous wives included Brigitte Bardot and Annette Vadim]. I looked like me! I knew right away that I could do life differently with this hair. Vadim sensed immediately that my cutting my hair was the first volley in my move for independence.”
Cutting my hair into a shag was the first volley in my move for independence.
If that’s not rebellion and liberation in a haircut, I don’t know what is. Don’t believe me? One sweep through hair history and you’ll see that some of the world’s coolest women exuded insouciance via a shag cut at some point in time.
For Jane Fonda, it was the cut she wore during the peak of her activism in the ’60s and ’70s – just look at old photos of her on the picket line opposing the Vietnam War, or in support of the civil rights movement. With other famous shaggers (will I get sued for this?) Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett, their layered cuts are as much a part of their image in our collective consciousness as their smudged black liner and tight leather trousers. Sure, they may have looked cool wielding guitars on stage with any hairstyle, but that could-have-cut-it-over-the-kitchen-sink look embodied the ‘give a fuck’ attitude for which those women became icons.
The (longer) shag is Stevie Nicks twirling on stage in one of her many vaulted shawls; it’s Patti Smith and PJ Harvey and David Bowie – but don’t think this means the cut should be cast into the well of the past, never to be celebrated again.
On the contrary, ’00s model Freja Beha Erichsen ’s androgynous shag was part of the appeal that earned her the ‘Queen of Cool’ title. Now Gucci’s Alessandro Michele has been championing a granny’s-attic-meets-kids-dressing-up-box aesthetic since his appointment at the brand back in 2015, and with it he’s explored retromania in a number of ways, including casting models with shaggy cuts to feature in both campaigns and catwalk shows.
Outside of fashion and beauty, in 2019 the shag cut is alive and kicking on the music scene. Look at Courtney Barnett, Sharon van Etten and Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming, some of the coolest women in music – and all with feathered cuts that exude the same nonchalance as Chrissie and Joan. Models Cheyenne Maya Carty, Mica Argañaraz and Roberta Pecoraro are all currently sporting curly shags. Am I making myself clear? The shag is where it’s at.
But is it for everyone? Or is it just for models and rock stars and women with cheekbones that could cut glass? Usually experimental with colour and cuts, I’d let my hair grow dull and long without much thought over the past six months, so, a willing guinea pig in need of a hair (or life?) refresh, I headed to the best man in the business: Sam Burnett at Hare & Bone.
“When you think about how to cut this style, you want to think about the parts of the face you want to accentuate, and parts you want to draw the eye away from,” Sam tells me as I sit nervously in his Soho salon. I’d gone in with references I’d found on Instagram, which featured short fringes and long lengths. “If I cut a line across your forehead, that would accentuate the roundness of your face, whereas if we keep the fringe sweeping down in a 1970s curtain style, it draws the eye down the centre of your face.”
Sam’s not being blunt – the salon’s renowned consultation service is the reason I came here. “Our whole philosophy is about cutting hair to its natural fall and texture, because it makes home maintenance so much lower,” he explains. “If you have no time to dry or style it, it’s always going to sit in a great shape.”
I’m concerned I’ll look more like a throwback Rod Stewart than Joan Jett.
So far so good, but I’m still concerned I’ll look more like a throwback Rod Stewart than Joan Jett. To kick things off, Sam cuts my lengths to halfway between my collarbone and my chin. I’m apprehensive, as I assumed this would only draw attention to my round face shape, but he assures me that with a longer, sweeping fringe, we can afford to go this short. “It’s good to get the length off first thing, as that’s the initial shock over with!” While I sit back and let him sculpt those layers in, he tells me more about the shag.
“This haircut really suits naturally wavy hair. With very curly hair it’s really just down to the quality of the cut, but with poker straight hair it will just sit flat. You need to introduce a lot of layers for it to really work, so if your hair is fine, it’ll get really sparse around the bottom. Medium to thick natural wavy hair is perfect.” What about upkeep? We’re all familiar with the cuts that look amazing in the salon but as soon as you’re left to style it at home, you are hit with regret. “Honestly, this sort of style is ideal for someone who doesn’t want to spend hours styling their hair each morning, as you can let it air dry and go.”
When the cut is nearly done, my hair has half dried and Sam applies a layer of leave-in conditioner, then salt spray to keep movement but avoid stiffness.
Once I’m out of the salon, a hair wash and a few days on, I’m still hooked on my hair change. First up, it’s as easy to style as Sam assured me. I wash with bumble & bumble’s Surf Foam Wash Shampoo and Conditioner, before towel-drying, rubbing a coin-size amount of Rahua’s Leave-In Treatment in my palms and working through the hair. Next, I shake my head from side to side (like a wet dog) and voilà! My hair falls into place. I spritz a liberal amount of Ouai’s Wave Spray all over, before leaving it alone while I have coffee and get dressed. By the time I’m ready to leave the house, it’s nearly all dry. I spritz more Wave Spray and add a little of Rahua’s Smoothing Hair Balm to keep the ends separated (rather than fluffy like Farrah Fawcett’s style.)
Unexpected result – this cut has transformed my outfits. Before The Shag, a T-shirt, jeans and boots looked fine, don’t get me wrong. But now? I feel effortless, more daring: I sweep on the bright orange lip shade I’d bought and never had the gumption to wear, because The Shag calls for boldness, it eggs you on. I look at the shot of Argañaraz in Juergen Teller’s Saint Laurent SS19 campaign. With long, blonde, Insta-friendly swooshy hair, this look would be dripping with hyperfeminine Jerry Hall glamour, but with her curly shag, it oozes rock’n’roll. Once you have the shag, there are no half measures – you have to lean all the way in. It’s given me a new attitude and, boy, is that fun.
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