Supreme Haircuts of the Universe


As the world trembles before the latest North Korean threat to nuke anyone dissing them, Daniel Kalder wonders whether he who controls the style of hair, controls the world.

The other week,, a website run by Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV network, reported that there are 28 officially acceptable haircuts in North Korea – 10 styles for men and 18 for women, a story that was picked up by fascinated media across the world.

Unsurprisingly, the styles are pretty conservative – dye jobs are out; nothing spiky is permitted (nothing too long either, even on women) and definitely NO MOHAWKS.

Looking at the styles, however, I think the figure 28 may be an exaggeration. For instance, female cuts 13 and 17 look almost identical, while the first four male cuts look like the same style photographed from different angles.

Naturally this has inspired much mockery around the world, but I’m always a bit suspicious about stories like this: How do we know this isn’t just a photograph from a North Korean barber shop? For instance, in 2004 the Turkmen despot Turkmenbashi was widely ridiculed for banning beards, but when I visited the country in 2006 my guide – an ethnic Russian who despised the dictator – was adamant that no such ban existed.

Even so, Turkmenbashi definitely didn’t dig male facial hair. But that was less eccentric than it sounds: Like his fellow dictator, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, he feared the beard as a symbol of political Islam. Even without a legal ban, his people got the message – other than my own beard and that of my friend, I didn’t see a single hairy face in the entire month I spent in the country.

But it’s not just North Korean and Central Asian despots who are concerned about male grooming. Enver Hoxha, the Albanian communist dictator, also banned beards, while Lee Kuan Yew, the authoritarian founder of modern Singapore, strongly advised his nation’s young males against growing out their hair. He hated hippies you see, denouncing them as “…permissive, escapist, drug-taking, self-indulgent, promiscuous people.” Even the anodyne Barry Gibb was too much for Lee Kuan Yew and the Bee Gees were banned from playing in Singapore; foreign males could be denied entry at the border if their hair was too long.

Then there are those interpretations of Islam which teach us that God is very concerned about hair. In conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia or Iran women are expected to hide theirs under a scarf, and face harsh penalties if they disobey. In some countries men also have to abide by strict rules: In Afghanistan under the Taliban, a dude could land in a lot of trouble if he didn’t have a lush facial forest.

But some men can’t grow beards, and so what happened to them? Was there an illicit trade in chin wigs? Inquiring minds want to know. Meanwhile, this week I have been reading “A Poet and Bin Laden,” a fascinating book on the rise of radical Islam in Central Asia. Its author, Hamid Ismailov, reports that in the 1990s he met several members of the Taliban who were hiding Leonardo DiCaprio style dos under their turbans – “Titanic” had been hugely popular in the country, apparently. And so we may also wonder if some Afghan ladies weren’t rocking Kate Winslet’s fiery red tresses under their chadors.

Nah, probably not.

And yet hair control is not even exclusive to nutty communists, brutal dictators, Singaporean technocrats or conservative Muslims. In Old Russia, many believed that a man could not enter heaven without face fuzz. “God’s image is in the beard, and his likeness in the moustache,” the saying went. Indeed, beards were so universal that the Russian word for chin, podborodok, means “under the beard,” and it applies to women also. When Peter the Great set about modernizing his country, he immediately reached for the clippers and started shearing the nobles, while taxing peasant beards in Saint Petersburg. Like Turkmenbashi and Karimov, he thought that a long, shaggy beard signaled the wrong attitudes.

Actually, let’s not kid ourselves. The hair police have always been active all over the world. Ray Kroc, the man behind McDonald’s, banned his male employees from wearing beards. And have we already forgotten the outrage that erupted when pampered middle class boys started growing their hair out in the 60s? Mick Jagger’s hair wasn’t very long at all, but it was considered scandalous back in the day. Things are more relaxed now, but wander into a fashionable vegan eatery in San Francisco dressed like a Mormon missionary with a buzz cut and you’ll still raise eyebrows.

And then of course many professions impose coiffeur codes. All modern militaries, except possibly the useless Dutch hippy force, control hair. The purpose is to maintain order and discipline and to foster a group identity. And that’s the key – old hippies signify their clan affiliation with their ratty gray ponytails as much as a soldier does his with his shaved scalp.

And this is why neither Kim Jong-un’s weird shaved-sides/center-parting style nor his dad’s crazy bouffant can be found on the North Korean list of officially approved hair. Their unique tastes in male grooming place them above everyone else in the country: No clan, no group, nobody is permitted to rock the Dear Leader’s look. Theirs are the supreme haircuts of the universe.

A version of this post previously appeared at RIA Novosti.
Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at
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Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at

14 thoughts on “Supreme Haircuts of the Universe

    April 3, 2013 at 12:22

    It was P.J. O’Rourke who observed that communist styles can make women strangely attractive. Whether that was before or after he discarded his leftism has escaped me.

    April 3, 2013 at 12:33

    “All modern militaries, except possibly the useless Dutch hippy force, control hair. The purpose is to maintain order and discipline and to foster a group identity.”

    Well, yes, and also to simplify field hygiene. The latter concern, by the way, led the US military to develop an obsession with circumcision after the campaign of North Africa–a matter some would consider more intrusive than haircut enforcement.

    At my high school, the Christian Brothers (FCS) fought a battle to keep haircuts short–it might not go past the collar or the bridge of the nose. I see by the class pictures at my son’s old high school that Benedictines preferred to save their energies for academic struggles, and I think they made the right choice. Most men who are not in the entertainment business will eventually get tired of pushing hair out of their eyes, or simply of its maintenance.

    The late Kim Jong Il’s haircut had from the proper angle the silhouette of a cap, say a bus driver’s–he could look strangely like Jackie Gleason playing Ralph Kramden.

      April 3, 2013 at 16:03

      That’s a fascinating snippet (pun intended) about the US army and circumcision. In the US they still circumcise baby boys more or less as a matter of course, and not opting for it is a minority position, though one growing in popularity. nothing to do with religion, I always wondered where the custom had come from… is this the source?

        April 3, 2013 at 17:50

        So it was implied by a publication for expectant parents that a co-worker was reading long ago. Wikipedia suggests otherwise, and that the US/UK discrepancy comes from a National Health Service study that discouraged it.

        But the US military’s one-time passion for it is apparently true. Another co-worker professed to know of naval aviators called in for the procedure during the Korean War, Evidently the Department of Defense cared not all that conditions of service on an aircraft carrier–which cannot navigate, let alone launch aircraft, without the capacity to heat a great deal of water–differed from those of ground service in North Africa.

  3. Worm
    April 3, 2013 at 12:43

    “the Russian word for chin, podborodok, means “under the beard,” and it applies to women also” did make me laugh. Poor old russian ladies.

    My south african ex-brother in law used to tell me about how they subverted their army beard rules (no facial hair allowed below the corners of the mouth) by growing ever more ridiculous curly moustaches

    April 3, 2013 at 12:53

    I remember in the sixties finally silencing my father’s incessant rants at long hair and beards by pointing out that the popularity of short hair and shaven faces was first inspired in the late 19th century by the German army.

    As a Boomer, I of course believe that state regulation of hair and beards is an outrageous denial of human rights, but I might welcome a new Peter the Great taking a little direct action on tattoos.

  5. Gaw
    April 3, 2013 at 22:31

    I remember a wise old person telling me when I was a boy that a beard was a sign the wearer was trying to hide something. Apart from a weak chin, I’m not sure what this might be.

      April 4, 2013 at 02:02

      Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics is definitely hiding something with his, quite possibly a weak chin.

    April 4, 2013 at 08:25

    I have a view, shared by nobody, that the ‘Swingin’ Sixties’ (they didn’t, by the way) was a reaction against the fact that a man visiting a barber would have no involvement in what he might look like after the operation – this in spite of the b/w pictures of teddy-boys festooning the windows and walls.
    This grey world, pre-dating unisex (there are two, by the way) and yogurt, was populated by butchers masquerading as ‘stylists’, operating out of early versions of porn-shops, usually near railway stations.
    Mine was in Coventry, and called Dan’s – but neither of the thugs that worked there were called Dan. The ‘salon’ was a bench covered in black vinyl and two ‘operating chairs’ with gas-pumps. The ‘decor’ was mirrors and cupboards containing packs of Durex held together with rubber-bands. These were offered to men who, unlike myself, wore long trousers and sported tattoos – and yes, the phrase employed really was ‘something for the week-end?’ The literature was either National Geographic, which fell open at African native girls with bare breasts, smiling….or, if you were lucky, a battered copy of Reveille, with a picture on the cover of a girl in a one-piece bathing costume who looked like a younger version of your best-friend’s mum.
    When your turn cranked-around you were not asked by either of these neanderthals what you might want – they just started cutting, after asking ‘square or tapered?’. When ‘the buzzy thing’ was unleashed, I would always point out a tiny wart that grew above my collar at the back, but nothing I said ever seemed to register, and the result was that always, always, the buzzy thing nipped the top off my wart, and the salon turned into an abattoir. This was treated as a mere bagatelle and would be the signal for this creature from pre-history to produce from his top pocket a ‘styptic pencil’ (how do I remember this stuff?) to stem the flow of gore.
    I returned home looking like an extra from Trainspotting or Scum – but I suppose, in a round-about way, my character was being formed against my will.

    • Worm
      April 4, 2013 at 09:10

      ha! That was certainly a proustian rush, hadn’t thought about that for more than 30 years – The Styptic pencil certainly carried on into the 80’s in Cornwall, as, due to extreme ticklishness, the barber sliced my ears every time I visited, and the pencil was produced as I sat snivelling in the chair.

      April 4, 2013 at 19:50

      How similar our childhoods, at least as regards tonsorial experiences, seem to have been. The styptic pencil, now rejoicing in the name ‘Cutoline’ is available from a very trendy (read expensive) shop in Spitalfields, whence my wife, noticing my ever more shaky hands’ increasing ability to produce cuts when shaving, procured me one. It is wonderfully efficacious, and, I think, is possibly made of the same substance as ‘cut men’ use for boxers. As for Reveille, my saloon (hard by the flying buttresses and gargoyles of Lincoln Cathedral) offered Giles annuals and something called Parade, which, inter alia, displayed the lubricious delights of a feature entitled ‘Ferrier’s Funfare,’ devoted to a drawn version of that which intermittently filled the remaining pages. I think the word I am seeking is ‘saucy’. That or ‘spicy’. And I may have mentioned before that Mr Elsom, for such was the barber’s name, occasionally forgot himself and, going through his ritual, offered me ‘something for the weekend’ too.

    John Halliwell
    April 4, 2013 at 09:40

    So evocative, MM. I winced when I read of the cavalier approach taken to your wart. I got so fed up with our local Dan, I asked the even more local Rod (he lived at No 18) to have a go at my mop. He was 18 to my 16; looked great: best looking lad for miles, trimmed his own using a combination of mirrors, snappy dresser, carrier of soft porn mags: “Have a butchers at this; I’m goin’ to show it to the girlfriend – see if she’s willing.” He examined mine and concluded “I can give you the Tony Curtis front bit, but the duck’s arse is beyond me.”

    I once carried an ambition to look like this:

    But was concerned that in time I might look like this:

    I then thought, I can’t rule out this:×7.jpg

    With the passage of time, I concluded I’d probably end up looking something like this:

    I must get started on the moustache.

    April 4, 2013 at 19:04

    Tyneside, late fifties, a local authority sponsored training school was established for people with disability, polio victims, some of whom had club foot were advised to take up gents hairdressing. An excellent idea, well run, it became popular. The local manufacturers, employing tens of thousands of people (yes, honestly) participated and allowed the trainees to set up during works hours and practice their art. The Tony Curtis ducks-arse was in vogue at the time as was the Buddy Holly curly jobbie. Grown men were to be seen trotting along to the booth, colour magazine under the arm, “like that please” The poor chap, trained in the dark art of the ‘threepenny all-off’ became confused, many exited the booth with the Doris Day bobbed look.

    Fast forward to the early seventies, Red Robbo time, a friend manufactured equipment for metal-finishing, used by the automotive trade. Keen to export he had the Bosch people interested and arranged a visit to Longbridge to show his stuff in action. Picking up the Germans at the airport he taxied them to the plant. At the gate they were met with “yow can’t come in here mate, we’re on strike” The Germans, bemused, returned home. Some time later, after much hard convincing, the Germans returned, walking towards the equipment, housed in a large room, they noticed a queue at the door. Making enquiries my friend was told “never been used for donkey’s mate, it’s the unofficial barbers”

    April 5, 2013 at 15:28

    Don’t know what the cut-off point is in the JG household between trendy/expensive and workaday/I’ll take one, make that two – but checking out Cutoline online just now I discovered that the Alum/Potassium compound can be mine for Euro 1.9 + postage. Begob, it’s almost worth cutting yourself.
    More revealing still is the view that your comment has afforded us into the secret world that you and Mrs G enjoy, trolling about Paris and London’s East-End in a seemingly fruitless search for an unusual love-token, an expression perhaps of mutual affection? I have just taken Mrs Mahler (Alma, or The Cockatrice) out for luncheon here on the Iberian Peninsula and, over a few more glasses of her favourite Verdejo than I normally countenance, it was agreed that we probably need to get a bit more zip into our 45 year dalliance.

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