Snap Shot: Edward Steichen and Louise Brooks

Poet of line and shape, Steichen pictured Brooks, in New York, in August 1928. She’s leaning across the back of an armchair, looking down to her left, not so much averting her gaze from the gazer but turning inwards, to study herself. The depths of the picture’s meanings are in its surfaces – the straight and curving lines of the actress’s face, clothes and maquillage. Eyebrows, finely trimmed, darkened with kohl – like two horizontal slashes of a sure-handed artist’s charcoal stick. Sharp crease ironed into the arm of her baggy sweater. Lips like New Year’s Eve, around 2am. And that haircut: black and rich, part simple frame, part warrior queen’s helmet.

Image: Louise Brooks, August 1928, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast

It was the haircut of the century – one of them, anyway. It was the modernist moment in women’s hairstyling. As Le Corbusier’s Villa Jeanneret (1923) was to domestic architecture so Sydney Guilaroff’s Louise Brooks (1928) was to women’s hairdressing. Guilaroff originally wanted to be an architect and I really don’t think it’s stretching things too much to see that young dream and ambition in what he did with Louise Brooks’ hair.

Over time, that bob of a cut became a symbol for a particular kind of female sexuality – assertive and self-knowing but also inevitably tragic. Far more women have probably had their hair cut to that shape than have seen Lulu – or even heard of Louise Brooks. Ken Tynan, the English writer who rediscovered Brooks for the world in the late 1970s, would appear at fancy dress parties in a Louise Brooks wig. He’d wear a Louise Brooks dress, too. And he’d get involved in a little spanking. It’s that kind of haircut. In Something Wild, Melanie Griffith – whose character reflected the film’s title – wore a wig of it. And, of course, Liza Minnelli sported a version of Guilaroff’s masterpiece as Sally Bowles in Cabaret

© Peter Silverton 2022

*This is an extract from the book London Calling, New York, New York by Peter Silverton to be published in 2023.

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