It’s been a big year for beauty changes, particularly when it comes to hair. Over the past few weeks alone, celebrities including Demi Lovato, Cardi B and Emma Watson have all decided to freshen up their look with a super-short pixie cut. In fact, the pixie has emerged as one of the most directional cuts for 2021, but this style also has an interesting history.
A brief history of the pixie cut
One of the first examples of European women embracing short hair dates back to the early 1800s in France, when women wore the Titus haircut, which was thought to have been inspired by the way a person’s hair was cut before they were put in the guillotine. Unsurprisingly, the trend didn’t stick and long hair remained the dominant look, with the exception of the 1920s and its introduction of the bob—a subversive cut popularised by the flappers.
In the 1930s and 1940s, as flapper style faded, there was a return to longer lengths. Fast-forward to the 1950s, and the pixie cut as we know it today—though not quite as short—was born. Popularised by the actors Audrey Hepburn and Jean Seberg who boldly rejected the long waves and coifs of their silver-screen counterparts, the pixie became a symbol of nonconformity and empowerment.
“Hepburn went a long way to making short hair mainstream and got a lot of credit for popularising the pixie cut, particularly in her 1953 movie Roman Holiday,” explains hair historian Rachael Gibson. In the film, Hepburn is seen hacking off her own hair to mark a new beginning for her character and a newfound sense of freedom. After that, the pixie was fully integrated into modern culture. The youthquake and sexual revolution of the 1960s brought with it ideas of gender fluidity, which meant icons such as Twiggy and Mia Farrow could go even shorter with their cuts.
As fashion ebbed and flowed, the 1970s marked a return of long hair, but then came the 1980s and 1990s and the pixie was back. “When the pixie cut surged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was demanded that it be very feminine,” says Michael Angelo, stylist and owner of New York’s Wonderland Beauty Parlor. Think Cyndi Lauper, Linda Evangelista and Princess Diana—these cuts were softer than their 1960s counterparts, but nonetheless impactful.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the pixie had become less about gendered rebellion and more a statement of individuality and a celebration of alternative beauty. Take Toni Braxton, Halle Berry, Monica and TLC’s T-Boz. “The pixie cut will always remind me of cool, alt 1990s girls who wore a much more DIY take on the cut. Chloë Sevigny in Kids , [model] Jenny Shimizu and Winona Ryder are all amazing examples,” says Gibson. These were women who chopped off their hair as a means of empowerment, free from the shackles of the narrow beauty ideals that were dominant at the time.
The pixie cut as a symbol of individuality
Today, the pixie feels just as poignant. Stylist Amber Maynard Bolt, who chopped Demi Lovato’s recent pixie, tells Vogue: “It was about her owning herself and choosing to do a look that represents what she feels on the inside. For many, hair represents a curtain of safety. There is a lot of fear with chopping your hair off. But once you do, you are able to own yourself in a way you never thought possible.”
Unsurprisingly, there’s a reason why the pixie happens to be trending. The early 1800s, 1920s, 1950s and 1960s were all big periods of change and uncertainty. In 2021, with an ongoing pandemic, global social tensions and more, it’s no surprise that many people are regaining a sense of control and reclaiming their identity through their hair. In this sense, today’s pixie has come to represent the kind of freedom that people have been craving after more than a year spent working from home, not seeing friends and minimal travel. “A radical shift like long to short, a shedding of the old ways, feels really fresh and exciting,” says Angelo.
“I’m definitely seeing an increase in pixie cuts,” says Aura Friedman, a creative director at Sally Hershberger’s Los Angeles salon. “After a long winter at home, people are seeking a fresh ‘lighter’ look, and the pixie is a great way to shear off dead strands and start new for the season.”
Others put the rise of today’s pixie cut down to an increased sense of nostalgia. “The appearance and discussion about Princess Diana is at its peak right now with two documentaries on Netflix, the recent interview with Meghan and Harry, and the Netflix series The Crown,” explains trend forecaster Marie-Michèle Larivée
The influence of the gender-neutral beauty movement has also been undeniable in the pixie cut’s comeback. “The pixie cut for 2021 says ‘take me seriously’, not ‘look how pretty I am’, while still being incredibly flattering,” explains Angelo. “Today, our views on gender are paving the way for haircuts that can be as feminine or masculine as the person wearing it wants it to be.”
How will it evolve?
So, what will the future of the pixie cut look like? Gibson predicts, “Post-lockdown, we’re in for a 1920s style return to glamour and dressing up, and hair cuts feel like the perfect accompaniment,” she says. “Rather than just an inch off the ends and a nice blow dry, it’s really exciting to feel that people are going to embrace cuts that have structure and shape, and are technically complicated. It’s great news for hairdressers and it’s going to be really impactful on fashion, too.”
Modern pixies look great with chunks of fun colours or in soft blondes or bold reds—you can create an entirely different, but equally as bold look once you add colour to the mix. Tastemakers such as Zoë Kravitz, Halsey and Teyana Taylor prove that you can wear a cool pixie with little effort. But the runway is where we’ve really seen the pixie go experimental with colour: at Dolce & Gabbana’s AW21 show, for example, hairstylist Guido Palau painted pixies all shades of cotton-candy pink and blue.
Ultimately, though, how you want to wear your hair is up to you. As Friedman says, “Hair is such a personal choice and can be a true representation of your identity. So, have fun with it and don’t be afraid of change.”