Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hair Piece

Valerie says:

In all the years I’ve asked the question “Do you like your own hair?" in my ongoing informal poll of countless women, I’ve only met two who have answered ‘yes’, and Jean is one of them. I am not the other.

This is not to say that my hair does not have admirable qualities. It does. For one thing, it comes in several natural shades of gray, all of them nice.

(Jean says: I find it fascinating that we spell the G-word differently! While Valerie prefers hers with an "a" as in "gray matter" or brain cells, I much prefer mine with an "e" as in "greyhound" or the "greying of America".)

Additionally, I’ve never had to use curlers, and when all my friends are in their 80s and buying wigs, I will probably be the one supplying the hair for them. (To the left you can see both the streaks and the French braid that Dominick, my hairdresser at Astor Place Haircutters, often makes for me.)

(Jean says: It is true. Valerie has more hair follicles per square inch and the individual strands themselves are twice the circumference of mine. She has a fabulous mane of hair. It's a very good thing that she likes grey. She has a wider variety of differing shades of grey distributed over her skull than I. While my top layers, especially those framing my face, are much lighter than the under layers, Valerie's is more uniformly shades of salt and pepper all over, with the exception of the nape of her neck. Her distinctive "w" at the nape has a dark streak, providing an exclamation point to her unique hairdo.)

Having said that, however, when long straight blunt cuts with bangs were all the rage in the 1960s, my hair would never lie flat. If left to its own devices, it frizzed out into a very uncool sort of Bozo look. For many years, we had a kind of parent-child, master-slave relationship, with my hair always the dominant partner, and me always in the submissive role: making do, doing without, attainment of my own desires always out of reach and beyond my control. (Jean sez: Now, this is getting really interesting!)

I did finally find a hairdresser who felt inspired by my hair, and convinced me to let him work with it. So for a short time my hair looked kind of like this, and I was happy with it. (Jean says: I recently unearthed an old Newsweek magazine with Patty Hearst on the cover, in her Tanya phase. Valerie's look in this photograph conjures up that same era.) [Valerie says: Oh dear!] Then I moved to Japan, and provincial hairdressers were intimidated by it (unlike the intrepid Japanese hairdressers today).

The cuts they gave me were dreadful, and the summer heat made my long hair unbearable, so I cut it all off, and for the next twenty years had short spiky hair, more or less like what you see here. My long-time Ukrainian hairdresser, Sara, at Astor Place, tried to convince me to change it, but to what?

(Jean says: I've always thought that at certain times at certain angles, Valerie looks like a younger, prettier version of Judy Davis, the Australian actress. I rest my case. Judy Davis' photo courtesy of

These days, the old master-slave metaphor no longer applies. I have more control over my life, and more confidence in my own choices. I see my hair and me kind of like Siamese twins Eng and Chang: joined together for eternity, but with independent thoughts and needs.

If we were dogs, we would not be the alpha and beta dogs. We would be the two alphas, forever vying for top dog, and never coming to any conclusion.

We are, to use another old cliché, uneasy collaborators in an artistic partnership. My hair does what it wants to do, and I do what I want to do.

We are exactly like Gilbert and Sullivan, as described in Wikipedia: "Gilbert and Sullivan sometimes had a strained working relationship, partly caused by the fact that each man saw himself allowing his work to be subjugated to the other's, and partly caused by the opposing personalities of the two." You can see this conflict played out in the wonderful movie Topsy Turvy. (Jean says: OK, class, can you spell p-s-y-c-h-o-l-o-g-y?)

Finally, several years ago I found myself drawn to the beautiful long gray hair of a slight acquaintance of mine. She piles it on top of her head like a Gibson Girl (think Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen). I decided that I might never get my hair that long, and I might discover that my hair was too heavy to pile on top of my head, but I would never know if I didn’t at least try. So two and a half years ago, I started growing my hair.

Many women will tell you that growing one’s hair takes a lot of patience. There is that extended period when your hair is like an awkward teenager. It’s neither long nor short. You can’t trim it because that defeats the purpose of trying to grow it, and you can’t hide it under hats or scarves every day. So you have to put up with odd or dowdy hair for a very long time. When I started to get that Bozo look again as my hair grew out, my solution was to shave it at the sides like a mohawk to reduce the volume, while going for length by growing it in the center.

The theory was that once it got long enough, I could part it down the middle (the way we all did in our youth – remember Ali McGraw in Love Story?), and let the shaved sides grow in. Trouble was, I no longer like the way I look with my hair parted down the middle, and there was so little on top that I had no side to part it down. So I was stuck with the lengthening mohawk look.

Some women actually like what I’ve done with my hair, and will compliment me on it. Many others, I suspect, are too polite to bring it up. When asked, I explain that my hair is in transition, which it is. What it is transitioning to is a mystery to me. The hairdo I have now derives from the problems that come with this hair.

I had my hair cut yesterday at Astor Place, and Jean took these pictures of the process:

The very short patch is what Dominick has just shaved off; next to that is the past six weeks of growth, which Dominick will remove in a moment; behind that is what I've been growing for the past two and a half years.

This is what two and a half years of growth looks like loose. I can't wear it untied or people will simply wonder who cut my hair, instead of asking me who cut it. Tied, there is some method to the madness. Untied, I wouldn't want to have to explain it to anybody. It really is a work in progress.

This is how it looks in the back before Dominick works his magic on it. When it was very short, it ended in a wedge in the back. What you see here is the wedge slowly growing out. (Jean says: I took this photo to really highlight the sexy black streak in the middle of the nape of her neck.)

Dominick has to heave all my hair to one side in order to work on the other. Here he starts working on the right side of my face, having finished the left. When I first started growing my hair out, on a whim I asked Dominick to leave the two small tufts at the forehead, thinking the cut might look too severe otherwise.

My formerly shaggy neck now has a sharp W shape at the nape.

I like really sharp points at my ears, and Dominick obliges. (Jean says: It is essential that customer and hair dresser speak the same language. It is obvious that Valerie and Dominick communicate quite well. When Valerie asked Dominick to make sure her vampire points were really sharp, he didn't blink an eye and knew exactly what she wanted.) (Valerie agrees: Jean's right. No hairdresser should have to guess what the customer wants. Dominick would probably like to do my hair differently, but he follows my instructions wonderfully. He's a jewel!)

When wet, my hair is easier to shape, so prior to twisting it into a pony tail, Dominick sprays it thoroughly.

With the long hair all pulled back, Dominick uses scissors to precision-trim the bits that are too close to the long hair to trust to the shaver.

Used to be that when I looked at these, I'd try to calculate what percentage was gray. Now that they're all gray, they measure how much longer the uncut part of my hair has gotten. (Jean says: Valerie's cut hair looks just like metal shavings. Dominick used clippers for 90% of the cut, creating little piles of 1/2" long strands like shiny haystacks of thin metal wires. Very cool.)

Some little bits inevitably land on my face and cling to my foundation, so Dominick whisks them away.

Jean says: Valerie's hair cut is a true collaboration. Dominick executves Valerie's vision. (Unlike some customer-hairdresser relationships in which the latter imposes a look on the former, or even more dreadful still, when all of the customers' cuts look alike, in this situation, Valerie is most definitely in the driver's seat.

Dominick does exactly what she asks, which is no easy task. I have never seen anyone else with this cut or anything remotely resembling it. Her look is truly one-of-a-kind. And only Valerie can get away with it!) (Valerie says: And still I yearn for the day where I can get away with something utterly prosaic. The grass is always greener, even if the hair isn't.)

Ready for another adventure. It was a pity to put the hat back on afterward.

(Jean says: I have a confession to make. Although I said in my own hair cut posting on 2/7/2010 that Akiro had been cutting my hair since 1983, I lied. Bless me father, for I have sinned. I was unfaithful. Once, when Akiro was in Japan for an extended period of time and my hair was growing out and my bangs were in my eyes, I cheated. I admit it. I snuck down the stairs to Astor Place Hair Cutters for a trim. Just to tide me over. When I accompanied Valerie for her latest cut yesterday, it was like returning to the scene of the crime.)

Many of you will be asking what Jean was wearing. She has cameos in a number of the photos above, but since all of the photos are obstructed by moi, we need at least one unobstructed view of Jean, particularly because she's wearing a pair of jodhpurs she got in the 1970s, and can still get into. OH, envy, thy name is... What the heck IS thy name, anyway?

Jean is wearing a vintage black straw flamenco dancer's hat (label reads: G. Gox & Co., Est. 1847 Hartford), August Silk giraffe print cardigan, DKNY turtle neck, vintage black cotton twill jodhpurs (label reads: Merkins Riding Apparel, 113 S. 13th St., Phila), Dansko clogs, Moss Lipow frames, vintage black bakelite cuff and cube ring, charm necklace and Angela Caputi black alligator cuff.

Valerie is wearing a vintage 1980s Chisato Tsumori hat topped by a vintage 1950s(?) feathered veil; jacket by Spitalnick, industrial felt pins by Maria Boggiano, purchased at the Museum of Modern Art, camisole from H&M, Issey Miyake pants and Lands End shoes.

This week we had our first visitors from Poland, Finland and Vietnam. Thanks for visiting us!

If you would like to see what Idiosyncratic Fashionistas looks like in Polish, paste this link into your browser. It's so exciting to see ourselves in translation!

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