Remembering Vidal Sassoon, An Iconic Hairdresser

Originally published on May 23, 2012 10:47 am

This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 10, 2011.

The British hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, who created some of the most iconic hairstyles of the 20th century, died on May 9 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84.

Sassoon's creations included the geometric, the Wash-and-Wear, the short bob Nancy Kwan wore in The World of Suzie Wong and Mia Farrow's famous pixie cut for Rosemary's Baby.

In 1957, Sassoon developed one of his most singular looks — the asymmetric five-point, a modified version of the classic bob that came to define 1960s fashion.

"I had an idea that If I work on those angles [of the head] properly, I should get something special," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2011. "It was geometrically the hardest thing I'd ever done."

Fashion models regularly flew from Paris to London, where Sassoon had his shop, to get the five-point cut. And a few years later, the director Roman Polanski approached Sassoon and asked him to develop a hairstyle for Mia Farrow, who was set to star in the film Rosemary's Baby. Sassoon replied that he had recently cut Farrow's hair — because she was one of his clients.

"[Polanski] said, 'Well, there will be something to take off.' I said, 'Yes, I guess you're right,' " Sassoon said. "Now Mia had cut into her own hair. She came to the salon and said, 'What can you do for me?' And I said, 'Take it very short. It's the only way. I can't pull the short hair long, but I can make the long hair short.' And we did it, and it suited her marvelously because she had a shaped face and bone structure that was just perfect."

Both Farrow's haircut and the asymmetric five-point were copied not just in Sassoon's salon, but in salons all over the world. Sassoon said he was flattered by the imitations.

"You either create something and you keep it a secret and you die with it, [or] you can benefit the craft," he said. "And in essence ... you're doing something for fashion worldwide. I think that's so much more important — it's something that you leave behind that you probably will be remembered for."

Interview Highlights

On going to a vocal coach for three years to lose his Cockney accent

"I couldn't get a job in the West End. They would say, 'Learn the language. And by the way, the language is English.' It was that kind of thing. Georgia Brown, who played Nancy in Oliver, we grew up together. And she said, 'Vid, take some elocution lessons. It will be very good for you. Especially if you will be speaking in the future.' I went to [a voice coach], and she looked at me and said, 'I don't take hairdressers. I work with actors. But be at the Old Vic at 2 o'clock on Thursday.' ... For three years, when we weren't on the road doing shows, I was [taking vocal lessons] twice a week."

On giving Nancy Kwan her signature look for The World of Suzy Wong

"She had almost 4 feet of hair, and being rather small, she almost sat on it. So you had to be very careful when you put your hands through her hair; otherwise, you'd be feeling parts of her bottom, and that would not have done.

"But [she] was making a new film in London. And [the producer] wanted a whole new look. ... I looked at her bone structure, and I thought we could do almost anything with Nancy. And I started to cut at the very back of her head and I said, 'Great neckline; I'll go shorter.' And I went short in the back and graduated into more length at the sides, and I suddenly realized we had a bob that could be international. It was a very professional cut in the sense that it was layered beautifully — and it had to be layered, not just from the back to the front, but when she shook her head, it had to fall back naturally."

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Vidal Sassoon, the hairstylist who changed the way women looked in the 1960s, died last week in Los Angeles. He was 84 and had leukemia. Though says so style the hair of jet-setting movie stars and models, he grew in a family so poor that his mother put him in a Jewish orphanage for several years.

Sassoon is remembered for popularizing short haircuts that went with the miniskirts of the 1960s and for geometric and asymmetrical designs that complemented his subject's facial features. He's also known as the stylist who gave women simply wash and wear styles that freed them from lacquered hairdos and wearing curlers to bed. Sassoon also created a chain of beauty salons and a popular line of shampoos and conditioners.

Terry spoke to Vidal Sassoon last year when he published a memoir and was featured in a documentary film. Terry asked him about his first really famous haircut, which he gave to actress Nancy Kwan after she made her movie "The World of Suzie Wong." She had long straight hair.

VIDAL SASSOON: You know, I never looked at beauty as beauty. I always looked at bone structure and the way the face was created; it's quite fascinating for me. And I thought: We could do almost anything with Nancy. And I started to cut the very back of the hair and I said, great neckline, I'll go shorter. And I went short in the back and graduated into much - into more length at the sides. And I suddenly realized we had a bob that could be international. And it caught on. It caught on to the extent that people were coming in and asking for it over time - not only with us, with many hairdressers. It had to be not only layered from the back to the front, but when she shook her head, it had to fall back naturally. So...


Now did you set it at all or was it just in the cut that it fell that way?

SASSOON: Oh, never set those kind of heads. We, you know, setting was going out at the time - far out...


GROSS: So, what did you think when The Sassoon spread to people like me, who got their hair cut in the neighborhood, you know, in the neighborhood salon and it wasn't the work of art that you had done, but it was a very popular haircut, very, you know, easy to take care of, look good. How did you feel about the neighborhood cuts?

SASSOON: We were totally flattered, you see. It was, you either create something and you keep it a secret and you die with it - what's the point? If you can benefit a craft, and in essence from that benefiting of the craft, you're doing something for fashion worldwide, I think that's so much more important. It's something that you leave behind that you probably will be remembered for.

DAVIES: When you started cutting hair, what were the hairdos that were popular?

SASSOON: Oh, flips and lots of lacquer...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SASSOON: ...which was very difficult, updos, you know, the ladies that lunch, those updos. But, well, the cutting wasn't there, number one, as it should've been. It was early.

GROSS: You mean it was mostly about setting and spraying?

SASSOON: It was setting and spraying. Yes.

GROSS: And the hairdos?

SASSOON: Look, some of them looked very, very pretty but I wasn't after pretty. I was after bones, getting into that bone structure, making it work.

GROSS: And the teased hair and the...

SASSOON: Well, it was a joke, really. Teasing people's hair like that and making it look very presentable for the day, but what do they do the next day, you know? From '54 to '63, when I went into my own first salon, I just said we're not doing any of that old stuff anymore. It's very pretty and nice, but...

GROSS: When you started doing hair professionally, you went to a vocal coach, a speech coach, because you grew up poor.


GROSS: You grew up in an orphanage part of the time. You had a Cockney accent, and you wanted to lose it. So you went to a teacher who actually worked with theater actors.


GROSS: Why was your accent important enough to you to study for three years?

SASSOON: I couldn't get a job in the West End. They would say, go and learn the language. And by the way, the language is English. I mean, it was that kind of thing. And...

GROSS: What did you sound like before?

SASSOON: Bit like that, then darling. 'Ello. 'Ow are you, love?


SASSOON: It was a bit Cockney.

GROSS: Now, you became a shampoo boy when you were 14. You say in the documentary about you that it was your mother's idea for you to become a hairdresser. She had some kind of dream or...


SASSOON: Premonition.

GROSS: ...premonition or something that you should be a hairdresser.

SASSOON: Premonition. Yes. Absolutely.

GROSS: How old were you, and how did she say to you, I've had this dream, son, you should be a hairdresser?

SASSOON: I looked at her in horror. My response was no, never. Well, what do you want to do? I don't know. But at 14, to become a hairdresser...

GROSS: Why was that horrifying to you at the age of 14?

SASSOON: It just wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to play soccer and I wanted to - I was always into - you know, I won the school championship in running, and I was into all that kind of thing where sport was concerned. I was useless as a student, absolutely useless.

GROSS: Had you...

SASSOON: I never could learn anything that I didn't like.

GROSS: So when she took you to a hairdresser for you to apprentice and you became a shampoo boy at the age of 14, what did you like about it? What changed your mind and made you think, yeah, this is for me?

SASSOON: The pretty girls.


SASSOON: It's the truth.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SASSOON: There were so many pretty girls coming into the salon as clients, and others working in the salon. And I thought, hmm. This is rather nice. But I was a very average shampoo boy, in the sense. I could shampoo, but, I mean, I was a very average apprentice. I wasn't any better than anybody else.

GROSS: So, when did you realize you wanted to make this your life?

SASSOON: Well, I was politically involved with the anti-fascist group, 43 Group. And that meant that sometimes you got into a little trouble. At the age of 20, I joined the Israeli Army. I was in the Palmach, which was one of their great groups and founded by, actually, Rabin and Orde Wingate and a whole bunch of marvelous people.

I spent a year there, came home, had nothing. The only thing I knew what to do was hairdressing, and I was really quite bad at that. And then I decided, well, if I'm going to have to be in hair, let me change my attitude. Let me see if I can do something worthwhile. And, well, things started to happen.

DAVIES: Vidal Sassoon died last week at the age of 84. He spoke with Terry Gross last year. Coming up, we remember Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.