ON A CRISP, promisingly bright New York morning a few weeks ago, I slid on a pair of running shoes, grabbed a baseball hat, adjusted my mask, and walked 50 blocks uptown.
I’d just returned to Manhattan from a family quarantine upstate. My first order of business, even before a proper trip to the grocery store, was telling: a haircut. It had been nearly six months since I’d stepped inside the sweeping second-floor salon owned by Oscar Blandi, the perennially smiling Neapolitan charmer I’ve faithfully seen every six to eight weeks for my entire professional life. I met Oscar when I was 22 and he had just opened his original space at the Plaza Hotel, a sumptuous little jewel box where one could imagine Eloise hiding out in the cloakroom. Oscar gave me my first grown-up haircut: a look we fine-tuned together over the years, eventually arriving at a wavy blonde flapperish bob with a cascade of curls that shot up the back of my neck in a tapered wedge.
It was just a haircut, but thanks to it, I liked to think I could not easily be mistaken for anyone else. It became an expression of my style greater than any piece of clothing or shade of lipstick I might wear. Even if everything else was going wrong, I could usually count on my hair.
So, stepping off the elevator 171 days since my last visit, I stunned myself by wondering, Could it be time for something…else? Witnessing my most defining attribute gradually settle into a fluffy, shapeless shadow of its former self had imposed daily angst, but the accumulated extra inches were now presenting me with a thrilling opportunity: I was facing, for the first time in a long time, real change.
One could argue that there are many more important things to be contemplating currently than, say, the shape of a bob, but how we feel about our hair is inextricably tied to how we operate in the world. For many, it is our power, our armor. Ask Nancy Pelosi. Ask the owner of the straw-colored three-step comb-over we see all too often. Hair is everything. It is the most defining feature we have, and we have the ability to change it as we change. Shouldn’t it telegraph not only who we are but who we are becoming?
“People always mark chapters in their life according to haircuts. Breakups, jobs—you can really chart a timeline through your hairstyles,” muses George Northwood, the London stylist who caters to fashion royalty (and actual royalty) at his Fitzrovia salon. “I think people want to come out of this changed, and hair sends a message on a daily basis of who you are. I wonder how many people in the future will say, ‘Yeah, that was post-COVID.’ ”
Change was certainly in the air. “No one’s coming in here saying, ‘I want the same as last time.’ Not one,” notes Ashley Javier, the editorial stylist who sees clients at the Parlor, his one-on-one atelier in downtown Manhattan. “It’s, ‘What should we do? Go shorter? Cut bangs? Go platinum?’ One client with long Malibu-blonde hair sent me a picture of Mica in the Saint Laurent ads—all of a sudden she wants a curly shag.”
Succession actress Annabelle Dexter-Jones has just been in to see Javier the day I call, and though she had been growing out her back-grazing, wheat colored hair, she opted for a sharp-angled jaw-length bob instead. “She wants to look in the mirror and feel excited. With Zoom and FaceTime, it’s a very neck-up silhouette right now,” he explains. If we’re not dressing up in as many new clothes, at least we can dress up in new hair. “Normally I’m the one pushing for change,” adds Javier. “Now there isn’t much of a push.”
The same is holding true across the Atlantic. David Mallett—who, in addition to an outpost at the Ritz in Paris and his Notre-Dame des Victoires flagship (a French Girl Hair hot spot famously presided over by a taxidermy ostrich), also operates a chic hair hideaway at The Webster SoHo in New York—reports many a Parisienne easing away from her formerly nonnegotiable “lifetime look” and embracing rather radical change.
“All of a sudden they’re coming in with three months of regrowth, roots, and gray, and they’ve started to think about variation and possibilities,” said Mallett. “I’ve got women I’ve known for 20 years blowing my mind saying, ‘What do you think if we just cut it off?’ The result is a wave of soft pixies and short, textural crops peppered across the French fashion capital. “Not sharp. Not Sassoony. Soft, bohemian,” underscored Mallett. “They’re a little bit bowly, not punk at all. I’ve done four of them today.”
Northwood goes as far as to proclaim “the return of the haircut.” After a particularly extended period of “long, swishy hair,” he explains, “women who would never have gone for a chop are going for it. They’re bored of having long, grown-out hair. They want it off their necks. They want shape and lines.”
Indeed, the long-hairs—who, over the course of spring and summer, became much-longer-hairs—are going short in exhilarating “If not now, when?” fashion, while the short-hairs, who, like me, had been stranded in lockdown’s dicey hair limbo, are exploring their options anew, too. I realized I’d been in a sort of stasis for years: I always looked pretty much the same. Quarantine had gotten me halfway to somewhere. It wasn’t that much of a stretch to keep going.
Sitting in Oscar’s chair, we locked eyes in the mirror, both grinning beneath our masks. I held my breath while he evened out the back, erasing the last remnants of the wedge that had defined me for so long. He worked the below-the-ear length into a swingy, graduated bob, with longer pieces creating movement in the front, a few subtle layers adding bounce to the back. It was not a vast departure—we only had a few extra inches to play with so far—but it was the beginning of something new.