The subversive buzz cut is back by popular demand. Here’s how to get the look from home

Written by Marianna Cerini, CNN

As lockdowns continue across the world, social media is being inundated with images and stories of people rediscovering one particular old friend (or fiend) in the realm of manes and tresses: the buzz cut.

Men, women, and even celebrities are having a go at shaving their own heads, using razors or electric clippers, and a good dose of nerves.

But the bold look is not just a haircut of convenience, meant to keep our locks under control while salons and barber shops remain closed. Outside of the army, where it originated, the buzz cut has long been the preserve of counterculture — a symbol of rebellious aesthetics, empowerment, event political dissent.

At a time when the world seems to be spinning out of place, it’s a powerful, personal way to reclaim ourselves. But before you reach for those clippers, why not learn about the origins and symbolism of the simple buzz?

From symbol of wholesomeness to hallmark of punk

Developed with the advent of manual clippers first (at the end of the 19th century) and electric clippers later, in its early days the style was mostly worn by young boys. In countries like the US, Russia, the UK and China, the style was also common among military recruits who had just started training — hence its other name, the “induction cut,” which is still used today. The reasons were pretty obvious: the style was clean and easy to maintain, prevented the spread of lice and, in the army, helped create a sense of uniformity.

In its straightforward minimalism, the buzz signified a simple, standardized, youthful masculinity — or so it was until the 1960s, when the Vietnam War changed things dramatically.

Annie Lennox in 1983.

Annie Lennox in 1983. Credit: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Suddenly, a shorn head no longer felt like a symbol of wholesomeness. Instead, it became the look of the Establishment, of blood-stained combat and politics. The post-war generation that was increasingly embracing beatnik and hippie culture turned their back on it, flaunting long hair as their new badge of pride.

Indeed, the late 60s look was anything but a buzz cut. You could have beads in your hair. Dreadlocks. Braids and flowy manes. But to cut your hair short felt like conforming to old and staid social norms.

Then, in the mid-1970s, punk began to take hold. In its basic principles the subculture, which originated in the UK and the US, shared the hippie ideology of anti-establishment views, promoting individual freedom and condemning anti-consumerism. Yet, in the way it presented itself, it emerged as a wholly contrary response to the mellowness of the “peace and love” philosophy.

Punk was loud, aggressive, generally progressive and eager to shock. Its aesthetic couldn’t have made it clearer: tie-dye dresses and flower crowns were out; leather jackets, spikes, pins and shaved heads in.

Sinead O'Connor in 1988.

Sinead O’Connor in 1988. Credit: Paul Greaves/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Sported by anyone from Sid Vicious to Siouxsie Sioux, who paired hers with slicked up devil horns, the buzz cut made a comeback, becoming one of punk’s most recognizable hallmarks — and its most blatant expression of rebellion against the system that had endorsed the style in the first place.

More than a look

Buzz cuts — which, by then, were also referred to as butch, crew cuts, and flattops — remained popular throughout the 1980s, and not just because of punk. Many women embraced the look as a stance against gender norms and heteronormative ideas of beauty. Among them were some of that era’s icons: Sinéad O’Connor who allegedly shaved off her hair in defiance of record executives who wanted her hair long; Annie Lennox, who once rocked a vibrant tangerine version of the style and still keeps her hair short today, told Interview magazine years later that “appearance is just temporary, and I want to be as strong as a man.”

Grace Jones in 1987.

Grace Jones in 1987. Credit: Angelo DeligioMondadori/Getty Images

The short cut has also been used by many notable black women as a means to comment on societal injustice. Supermodel Pat Evans proudly sported her hair cropped short to defy the fashion sector’s pressure on black models to conform to white beauty notions — i.e. straight hair. Grace Jones’ tight crop became a symbol of androgynous prowess.

In the 1990s and early to mid-2000s, female buzz cuts continued to be worn as a token of empowerment. Hollywood helped fuel that image: from Sigourney Weaver in “Alien” to Demi Moore in “G.I Jane,” the hair style became the quintessential tough woman trope. Outside of film, other celebrities adopted the look: Amber Rose, Erykah Badu, Cate Blanchett all went super short at the turn of the 21st century (Rose still rocks a shaved head today).

Demi Moore in "G.I. Jane" in 1997.

Demi Moore in “G.I. Jane” in 1997. Credit: Buena Vista/Getty Images

At the same time, men in limelight leaned into the hairstyle, parading it through popular films and culture. Leading the trend were two of the biggest male stars at the time: David Beckham and Brad Pitt. But let’s not forget Keanu Reeves in “Speed,” Ewan McGregor in “Trainspotting” and Kevin Costner in “Bodyguard” before them.

When Britney Spears infamously shaved her hair off in 2007, the gesture became one of those moments in celebrity culture people still remember today: an act of defiance and liberation no other haircut could have ever matched.

Britney Spears halfway through her infamous buzz cut in 2007.

Britney Spears halfway through her infamous buzz cut in 2007. Credit: X17online.com

After a short hiatus, the buzz cut surged in popularity once more around 2016 — think of Kristen Stewart and Cara Delevingne, Robert Pattinson and Nick Jonas.

And once again, the buzz returns. Whether in search of convenience or a radical look to match these unprecedented times, everyone from your work colleague to Héctor Bellerin seems to be reaching for the clippers. And social distancing means the bold move is now low risk — if the look doesn’t suit, you can wait for your hair to grow back in the privacy of your own home.
Looking for an expert guide to shearing your own hair? Watch the video above or here.

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