It was only a generation ago (give or take) that a basin-cut was still a legitimate men’s hairstyle for some barbers. Before the barbershop renaissance in the 21st century, the trade often amounted to a hairy half hour in the chair as someone with minimal training took a hack-it-and-hope approach to your head.
A lot has changed. These days even high-street barbers are capable of creating haircuts akin to artwork, using tools that wouldn’t look out of place in an operating theatre.
Case in point: the taper fade.
This modern haircut element is the perfect mix of classic and contemporary, providing the ideal foundation upon which to build almost any style. As sharp on a LinkedIn bio as it is on a Tinder one, it’s a next-level barbering technique and one that will get you noticed. But just what exactly is it?
The first thing to understand about the taper fade is that it is actually an amalgamation of two different barbering tricks – somewhat unsurprisingly, the taper and the fade.
These two cutting methods are similar in that they both offer a way to graduate smoothly between differing lengths of hair. The distinction between the two is that a taper deals with longer hair and sculpts using both scissors and clippers, while a fade is performed with clippers only and is much shorter, right down to the skin usually.
Leading barber Joe Mills, of The Lounge Soho, has a handy analogy to make it clear.
“Think about trousers that taper, says Mills. “They gradually get narrower. So, in haircut terms, a taper is not down to skin but the hair gradually gets shorter. A fade is similar but fades away entirely, hence the term ‘skin fade’. It’s more extreme than a taper.”
Combining a taper with a fade allows barbers to neatly transition from hair of a significant length, right down to a skin fade with – quite literally – razor-sharp precision. This creates the sort of modern, polished look that would have had the hairdressers of yesteryear scratching at their butchered barnets in astonishment.
Both tapered and faded styles have had a huge resurgence over the past few years, thanks in no small part to certain period dramas opening men’s eyes to a new (or old) style of grooming.
“It descended from the old days when hair clippers were hand powered and you could only go short,” explains Mikey Pearson, director of Manifesto barbershop. “They would cut along the hairline to create a kind of wedge then blend it in with scissors. If hair flicked out from above the ears you would be classed as ‘scruffy’.”
The taper fade harks back to this, while keeping one foot firmly planted in the here and now, making it the trim of choice for so many contemporary, style-conscious gents.
“It’s a clean, crisp look,” says Pearson. “And thanks to the likes of the Peaky Blinders we’re seeing more and more men asking for it.”
The taper fade is a versatile trim, because it’s essentially a boss-level version of the short back and sides. It can be worn with anything from a short crop to an all-singing, all-shiny pompadour on top. Because of this versatility, it’s a cut that can be adapted to suit most face shapes.
However, if you’re cursed with a boat race longer than Seabiscuit’s and want to try this style, you’re best advised to steer clear of anything with too much height. The close-cut sides and length left on top mean that the taper fade naturally lends the face some additional length. Which, unless you’re deliberately going for the equine vibe, is probably something to avoid.
“The taper fade is suited to most as you can adapt the height and shape of the fade and weight of the blend to suit any client,” explains Tom Chapman, founder of the Lions Barber Collective and ambassador to The Bluebeards Revenge. “If you have a more daring client in the chair you can take the shortest grad up pretty high and leave a heavy blend. You can also leave more weight at the sides behind the ear by creating an arch as your base shape instead of the usual straight shape.”
Before you buzz off to the barbers for one of the decade’s defining chops, take a look at some of the style’s most popular variations for a bit of follicular inspiration.
They say less is more and, looking at the minimalist styling of this particular trim, we’re inclined to agree. It’s perfect for the kind of guy who wants something smart and low maintenance that won’t leave him wincing at old photographs 10 years down the line.
“This style has a very graduated skin-fade from the base up to a longer layer,” explains Mark Woolley, founder of Electric Hairdressing. “The top layer is slightly disconnected from the back and sides.”
Think this might be the cut for you? Woolley always recommends taking a photo along with you to avoid any awkward, post-trim mirror moments.
“You ultimately want to ask for a fading cut with a slightly disconnected top layer which gives you a nice, choppy texture,” he says.
Apply a salt spray or matte clay/paste roughly with your fingers to increase separation and help emphasise the natural, care-free texture created on top.
If Johnny Cash had been born 60 years later, there’s no doubt that this would be the do he’d be rocking. A perfect blend of old and new, the pompadour is a nod to one of the defining styles of the last century, while the taper fade on the back and sides brings things right up to date.
So, how can you get the look? Again, you’ll want some inspiration.
“A picture is worth a hundred words,” says Mills. “This is doubly true when getting a cut. Take an image in so at least your barber knows what you are thinking. The terminology we use can be confusing and for me the consultation with the client is key.”
Mills adds that the trick to getting the cut right is to know how close you want to go at the back and sides. “Ideally the top should be at least four or five inches longer than at the back and sides,” he says.
“To style it you will need a decent hair dryer and a Denman vent brush,” advises Mills. “This isn’t a wash and go look.
“I recommend a styling mousse on clean damp hair. Evenly distribute a tangerine-sized amount through the hair and then using your brush and dryer, style it back away from the face creating height and direction.” Finish with a strong-hold hair spray if you find your style loses its pomp after a couple of hours.
Generally speaking, the graduated back and sides of a taper fade is geared towards shorter haircuts. However, with some clever, asymmetrical styling, there’s no reason you can’t embrace your inner grunger at the same time.
“The key characteristics of this cut are the low fade on the back and sides with a disconnected top,” says Pearson.
“Ask for a low fade, something like a five into a four. Keep the top disconnected, cutting short to long to keep length at the fringe. As always I would recommend taking a photo with you.”
In terms of styling at home, Pearson suggests using a volume spray in damp hair and blow drying upwards. Once dry, he recommends finishing off with a matte clay to add texture.
A few short braids or dreads thrown into the mix adds a nice touch of personality to a taper fade, while remaining clean and smart enough to dress up or down. Highly-experienced barber Joseph Lanzante, who runs his own barbering academy, is certainly a fan.
“A taper fade finished with short dreads on top has become a very popular haircut as it provides a clean and stylish finish to the overall style,” he says.
“To create a clean-cut taper fade, you will need to ask your barber for a grade one cut on the back, fading up to grade two and three. Make sure you keep your hair long on top long to ensure you can create the short dreads that are key to this style.”
Another plus point for this particular style is that management at home couldn’t be easier. Lanzante recommends nothing more complex than coconut oil. Rub the oil through the hair to keep it nourished and moisturised but be careful not to use too much or it could wind up looking oily.
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