Why The Wild Fringe Is A Young Man's Game

Alexis Petridis on why the out-of-control fringe is a young man's game

Most Popular

It’s not entirely clear to me where my obsession with what the Americans call “bangs” started.

I suspect it was something to do with a black-and-white photo of The Velvet Underground’s guitarist, Sterling Morrison (on the right), that I must have seen in my early teens. You never hear that much about him: he was very much the George Harrison of the band, crowded out of the picture by Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico and Andy Warhol.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

But there was a point, about mid-1966, when Sterling Morrison looked like the coolest human being on Earth: engineer boots, black jeans, black turtleneck sweater, and, especially, a huge fringe sweeping over black sunglasses. You can see it in Nat Finkelstein’s mid-Sixties shots of Warhol’s Factory and its denizens. Morrison’s never the focus of any of them, surrounded as he is either by astonishingly beautiful women – not all of them female – like Nico or Edie Sedgwick or Candy Darling, or by people who just look bizarre, the bewigged Warhol among them.

Most Popular

But somehow, lurking in the background, slightly out of focus, he manages to exude a kind of impenetrable insouciance and hauteur. He looks like nothing would phase him. If someone had walked in the room with a monkey, and the monkey had not only started talking, but summarised the arguments put forward in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Morrison might conceivably have raised one eyebrow a little, but you’d never have known, because his fringe covered his eyebrows.

At 15, fazed by everything and under the impression that insouciance and hauteur were places you went on French exchange, I decided that was how I wanted to look.

I’m not sure why Sterling Morrison in 1966 struck me then, and strikes me to this day, as the absolute embodiment of rock’n’roll cool, rather than the usual names that append themselves to that title, like Keith Richards, Elvis or Jimi Hendrix. It’s not as if you could even argue he held the role for very long. At some point in 1967, he made the catastrophic decision to grow a droopy moustache and blew it: he started looking like the medieval English literature student he had been before he joined the Velvets and would become again when they broke up.

I suspect it might have been compounded by the fact that by mid-1966, men in rock bands were really starting to put the hours in when it came to their personal appearance — they were exquisitely primped, draped in paisley and satin and extravagant hats – and Sterling Morrison clearly wasn’t making any real effort at all: this was not a guy with an account at a shop in Carnaby Street, or whatever New York’s equivalent of Carnaby Street was. He looked like he wasn’t trying, he looked like he didn’t give a fuck, which meant that his coolness was somehow innate, it hadn’t been bought in.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Somewhere in my mind, his haircut must have come to embody that, perhaps because – as I quickly learned, while attempting to do things like learn to drive, or sit my GCSEs with 75 per cent of my vision obscured by hair – growing your fringe over your eyes was a quite spectacularly impractical way to wear your hair.

It suggests a certain bohemian contempt for the humdrum and the mundane. There’s something decadent about it, as if you’re deliberately retreating from the everyday, cutting yourself off like the guy in Huysmans’ À rebours, hiding out behind a kind of tonsorial wall. Less pretentiously, it confers a degree of emotional impenetrability on its owner because no one can actually see what’s happening with the top of your face.

All these things appealed to me enormously, but after a few years, the fringe started to wear me down a little. Perhaps revealing a certain lack of commitment to life on the bohemian margins, I found myself craving the petty bourgeois comfort of being able to see what I was doing.

In addition, there were moments when the degree of insouciant cool the haircut was supposed to confer upon me was severely compromised, not least when I was forced to sit my A-levels with my hair held back from my face using my mother’s kirby grips. Besides, I’d started going out to raves, where, in fairness, no one cared what you looked like — such are the effects of prodigious ecstasy intake — but I nevertheless started to feel a bit out of place rocking a haircut locked in the mid-Sixties.

I had a crop, and cropped – at various lengths – my hair stayed for the next 20 years or so. But the idea of the thick, impractical fringe as a kind of ultimate men’s hairstyle, a cut that comes with all kinds of intriguing resonances attached, stayed with me.

You often put your teenage obsessions to one side as you grow up, becoming increasingly mortified by what you thought and liked and wore, but I’ve still never seen anyone that I think looks cooler than that photo of Sterling Morrison. Eventually, I decided to grow it out again, intrigued as to what it would look like flecked with grey. To my horror, it wouldn’t grow, or at least not in the way it once had: the fringe was weirdly threadbare. 

It’s hard to know these days exactly when one becomes middle-aged – we do such a good job of putting it off, of blurring whatever boundaries used to exist between youth and adulthood – but this was definitely a pointer to the fact it was happening to me. I couldn’t do what I wanted with my hair any more, just as one day, I would look at myself in a pair of skinny jeans and find the words “Oh, for Christ’s sake” involuntarily springing to my lips, and the realisation that some clothes were now just too young for me slowly dawning.

Perhaps, I consoled myself, it was for the best.

Perhaps, like skinny jeans, the thick fringe was a young man’s game, one of the things you have to give up in exchange for what you might call the consolations of middle age.

You no longer have to have a haircut that you think makes you look like you don’t give a fuck, because you’ve got to a point in life where you genuinely don’t give a fuck any more, at least about things that don’t really matter: Twitterstorms and other forms of howling online opprobrium; music, films, books or telly that you’re not particularly interested in, despite the fact that you’ve read somewhere that “everyone” is talking about them; the kind of articles that claim that “everyone” is doing something when they’re patently not; social events that you don’t really want to go to but would previously have felt obliged to attend etc.

And yet, there’s still a small part of me that feels a twinge when I see a kid walking around with that kind of latter-day thick fringe, swept over to one side in a style pioneered by Justin Bieber.

Look, I feel like saying, that haircut self-evidently took you hours to sculpt and gallons of product to keep it in place – it’s meant to look like you don’t care. You’re doing it all wrong.  

Alexis Petridis is The Guardian’s head rock and pop critic and Esquire's music editor. The Big Black Book Spring/Summer 2015 edition is on sale now in selected newsagents and direct from Apple Newsstand.

***
MORE GROOMING:

5 Spring Haircuts And How To Get Them
The 12 Habits Of Impeccably-Groomed Men
How To Look After Your Moustache
***