What do Grace Jones, Duke Nukem, Simon Cowell and Paul Phoenix from Tekken have in common? Well, aside from the fact that they could probably all kick your arse (although we’d take our chances with Cowell), you’d be forgiven for thinking not a great deal.
However, cast your gaze hair-wards and you’ll notice a common theme emerging. All four are follically equipped to carry their pints from bar to table in handsfree mode thanks to their rather fetching angular haircuts.
Jokes aside, flat tops often get a bad wrap. The mere mention of their name tends to conjure up images of either stern-faced 1950s US military officers or, on the total opposite end of the spectrum, Will Smith wearing his high-school blazer inside out, circa 1992. There’s no in between… or is there?
Well, yes. With the right approach, you can sport this throwback cut without your style credentials falling, er, flat. So get your spirit level at the ready and discover how to embrace one of barbering’s most interesting and challenging creations.
It should be fairly self-explanatory but just in case you’re a tad slow on the uptake, a flat top, in the broadest sense, is any haircut where the hair has been cut or styled to look flat and level across the top of the head. This can include anything from traditional military crew cuts, right through to the high-top fades of the eighties hip-hop community.
Flat tops are usually taken short on the back and sides, narrowing and elongating the shape of the face, meaning that If you’ve got a peanut head, this classic cut may just be your new best friend.
Granted, this approach hasn’t quite worked for Kim Jong Un, but we can probably all agree that he’s a fairly extreme example.
Created for the military, the flat top crew cut quickly became one of the most popular armed forces trims in the United States. Its shorn back and sides offered all the practicality of a buzz cut while the patch of hair on top enabled it to sidestep the ‘white trash’ connotations that a fully shaved head carried with it at the time.
So, when and how did this practical, military cut make its way out of the forces and into the subcultures?
“I think we can safely say from the end of the Second World War,” says Joe Mills, owner of The Lounge Soho and long-time lover of flat tops. “A lot of normal guys were conscripted into the forces and got used to seriously short hair. When they were demobbed many of them kept it short, especially stateside.
“[The style] doesn’t really pop up in the UK until the later 1950s, but if you look at a lot of photography from the states during that period it’s particularly prevalent.”
From here, the flat top was picked up by various subcultures, which wore it proudly as a symbol of rebellion. From rockabilly guys with their baseball jackets and creepers, to early hip-hoppers and their sky-grazing high-top fades, it was the youth tribes that were responsible for turning this sensible, military hairstyle into the bold fashion statement it is today.
To the casual observer, it may seem as though all you might need to create the perfect flat top would be a pair of garden shears, but in reality, it requires laser precision, an eye for detail and a skilled, steady hand.
“The difference with a flat top as opposed to almost any other style is it doesn’t follow any of the traditional rules for cutting hair,” says Mills. “It’s totally visual.”
There are several techniques commonly used to get the style right, but Mills explains that this varies a lot from barber to barber.
“Generally, It’s all about standing the hair up with a dryer, then spraying and shaping it with hair clippers,” he says. “There’s no easy way to do it and that’s why it’s not an easy cut to deliver. I don’t think a lot of barbers have ever been shown or would know how to approach it… but personally I think it’s a great look and when I cut in the shop the whole team wants to watch and get involved.”
If you’re a busy man on a tight budget then a flat top may not be the trim for you. Its precise styling means that it grows out very quickly and will require a touch up every week or two in order to stay looking fresh. Obviously, this isn’t going to be easy on the wallet, not to mention it will be extremely time consuming.
Another thing to bear in mind is your face shape. We mentioned that a flat top – height dependent – can add length to the face, meaning you might want to give it a miss if you’re keen to avoid any “why the long face?” jibes from your hilarious mates.
People with square faces should also err on the side of caution when thinking about getting a flat top, as its angular appearance will only exaggerate the boxiness of the head.
There’s more than one way to cut a flat top. Here are a few key variations and some tips on how to get them.
A look favoured by American teens in the late sixties and later by rockabilly revivalists, everywhere from Hoxton to Harajuku, the flat top boogie is a cut with serious attitude.
“It features a flat top from the crown, graduating to longer length at the front, with enough length on the sides to be brushed or blow-dried back into a DA [duck’s arse], and tapered short into the nape of the neck,” says Joth Davies, owner of Savills Barbers and Savills Academy.
“Ask your barber for a ‘flat top with fenders’ or, to those in the know, a ‘flat top boogie’.”
This cut takes stringent maintenance and careful styling to keep it looking sharp. Davies suggests working a small amount of paste into damp hair and blow drying back with a vented Denman brush for the smoothest possible finish.
“Certain hair types may require straighteners to style,” adds Davies. “Haircuts are also required at least every few weeks, with some flat top wearers sitting in the chair as often as once a week.”
The cut that started it all. This style is the flat top in its purest form. Simple, clean and tight – it may sport all the characteristics of a basic trim, but the military flat top is anything but.
“The typical characteristics of this style are the tight, skin faded sides, which give this style its military feel,” says Adam Harant, senior stylist at Pimps And Pinups. “In conjunction with this, it is completely square on top. There is some length left at the front, which elongates the face, but the severe structure of the haircut creates a more square and masculine face shape.”
Harant suggests asking your barber for a high and tight skin fade on the sides and a flat, square top. “The length can then be customised to your preferences. Just make sure you don’t have it too long in the fringe area, as too much weight can cause the style to droop.
“In terms of styling at home, I would advise clients to blow-dry, if possible, all the hair in the fringe area straight up and away from the face. Finish with a strong, matte styling wax or clay to ensure the style stays stable and fixed throughout the day.”
This striking flat top variation was brought into popularity by funk/early hip-hop band Cameo, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as a ‘Cameo cut’ or ‘Cameo afro’.
The style’s defining features are plain to see: “Tight sides and a high and flat afro,” says Adam Gore, founder and chief barber at Barberology.
“Ask your barber for a clean skin fade and smooth flat top that’s fully lined up around the edges to create a solid outline.”
In order to keep this look sharp it’s going to take quite a bit of work, so don’t take it on unless you’re willing to commit. Styling at home can be achieved with a bit of pomade (for a healthy shine), an afro pick and a bit of tapping, but if you want to keep things looking on point, Gore warns that weekly trips to the barber will be unavoidable.
The flat top is one of the defining elements of the rockabilly subculture’s signature look. So much so in fact that the movement has put its own stamp on the style. Here’s how you can get it for yourself.
“When that top is flat and cleanly cut it is one of the most striking shapes in the entire hair world,” says Tom Chapman, founder of the Lions Barber Collective and ambassador to The Bluebeards Revenge grooming products. “There are a lot of variations, and it doesn’t have to be skin short on the sides. However, it does have to be flat on top.”
This style may look great but it’s very niche and so conveying to a barber exactly what you want using mere words can be a bit of a challenge. Luckily, Chapman has a solution: “I would say take a photo with you. It’s so easy to do these days.
“This cut isn’t for everyone,” warns Chapman. “A strong hairline and growth pattern will make life much easier. To style, use a good pre-styling product for added control and volume, then blow dry and brush up at the same time.” Finish with a strong-hold hairspray to keep your hair in place all day long.
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