John Lyttle's Column - Life and Style - The Independent

John Lyttle's Column



Going back to our roots: I return from having what's left of my hair cut - scissored short, much shorter than usual - and bump into David by the fax machine. David says - nothing escapes those eagle horn-rims - "You've had your hair cut." I'm primed to fire off a personal favourite ("No shit, Sherlock"), when my dear, close, and tragically single friend idly adds, "That hair cut makes you look like a gay man." Actually, I look more like Tin Tin, that authentic Belgian tragedy, but this still leaves me one up on David, who has more than once been mistaken for Snowy.

But - loth as I am to admit it - he's both rude and right. The rape of my locks is indisputably the sort of look popular with those whose hearts belong to squaddie, and homosexuality and hair are tied together, invariably with pink satin ribbons and bright plastic kirby grips, from the unwavering stereotype of the camp hairdresser - doesn't everyone know one? - to the current vogues for bleach boys, waxed butts (the ever- creeping and ever-creepy influence of American porn) and Absolute Yul Brynners: those gay men who equate masculinity not with the abundant presence of thick, shiny, healthy hair styled in myriad amusing fashions, but with its almost total absence. These chrome domes shave from the crown towards the feet, into the armpits, then over the chest, banishing the tough tufts, down, down, down. Right to the dangly bits, there to denude aesthetically offensive fluff. And it's all to seem well hard, mate: a massive waste of effort and a major abuse of Immac, for everyone knows that the only creature on earth with that few follicles is a baby (or a Chihuahua) - babies being the polar opposite of butch, not to mention the pre-pubescent opposite of adult. Which might explain why some otherwise totally smooth operators sport, eek, goatees, even if it makes them look as if they've got their heads on the wrong way round; it proves they can still grow their own, hence they must be grown-ups.

It's also a high-maintenance operation masquerading as a low-maintenance operation; the latest in male vanity. This wasn't always so. Once we bright young things lived for blow waves and peroxide geometric cuts, otherwise known as "lemon wedges"; big and butch wasn't in it. Big hair was. The whole point was to be pretty - a word which then automatically summoned the "feminine" - and pretty fussy: why take one bottle into the shower when you could take two, three or four? The inordinate time and attention lavished on one's "riah" - that's your actual ancient gay backslang - told the tuned-in who and what you were.

That's why the first marcel wave of male-orientated hairsprays - remember Dry Look and Cossack? You do? Pretend not to - were marketed at the dye- hard dancing queen (gel, volumiser and styling putty would later be similarly pioneered) who thought the ozone was a club in Earl's Court. Toting a spray-on bullet-proof helmet told its own story, just as the beard on the contemporary Daddy Bear tells its particular cropped or bushy tale, informing those with a penchant for father figures that the Daddy Bear will play his assigned role (namely, "Who'll be sleeping in my bed?"). That's why Daddy Bears have it better than most heterosexual men of the same age, forced to sing endless choruses of "Let's all meet up in the Grecian 2000": Daddy Bears are glad to be grey.

The DB's whiskers have evolved from the clone's moustache. The clone's moustache is a pivotal - dare I say Seventies and seminal? - moment in the history of gay hair; a symbolic rejection of sissyhood, its appearance was intended to liberate gay men to become their own "tall, dark stranger" - as, arguably, a decade later the Jimmy Somerville-Mr Potato Head trend took and shook the skinhead image until it yielded new meaning: "Mess with me and you'll get a good kissing."

The arrival of the clone moustache more or less coincides with the date that the love that dared not speak its name finally screamed its pecs off; no wonder this clipped metaphor rode the upper lip, right above the mouth. The clone's moustache was an ideological act, even if its owner never attended a Pride march or went on a "zap" (a "zap" is ... a zap is basically a bunch of queens bursting into Boots to liberate the lubricants). That's when gay hair first got shorty, paving the yellow brick road for flat tops et al. And as the head shed, hirsute hit the rest of the body politic; mossy arms, chests and backs were unveiled and celebrated.

But what they were celebrated for is different from the values of the current stripped crop. If hairlessness is meant, on some level, to denote youth - fur grows more fulsome with age - then hairiness is a mark of maturity, as grey hair is, nominally, a sign of experience. To remove one's hair, be it from the head, or places further south, to turn yourself into something close to a walking, talking, living phallus - is, perhaps, to erase experience. Or more, to deny it. Now this could be viewed as stalling tactics, or as a gesture towards hopefulness in a period painted black. For, shorn of experience, you're ready for permanent renewal, no matter life's - and death's - harsh lessons. Like a young person - even if you're old. Like a dumb person - even if you're not. Which only goes to show that these dark days it's nigh impossible to know when to keep your hair on.

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