Let's get this out of the way first: on August 9, 1969, members of the Manson family murdered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four friends in cold blood. You know the story. It sent shockwaves through the nation that can still be felt in our culture today, decades later (see, most recently: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood). As Joan Didion famously said, it was the day the '60s ended. Charles Manson and his murderous followers became mythic boogeymen, but as their roles in American culture were cemented, the lives and legacies of the victims faded away.
One of those four other victims was Jay Sebring, who you probably don't know anything about except how he died. Tragedy has a way of eclipsing everything else, and one of the sub-tragedies wrapped up in the story we all know so well is that Jay Sebring is now famous for the wrong thing.
Sebring's legacy, a topic explored in the new documentary Jay Sebring...Cutting to the Truth, streaming now, is little-known but lasting. So lasting, in fact, you're probably part of it without even realizing. The haircut you have right now, and the place you go to get it, are direct descendants of Sebring's life and work as the first celebrity men's hairstylist.
Even without his close relationship to Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring was a fixture of 1960s Hollywood in his own right. He was born Thomas John Kummer but changed his name to Jay Sebring after the famous racetrack; he alternated between driving around a Mustang and a motorcycle (sometimes in full leathers); he wore hip-hugging jeans and chambray shirts he bought at Fred Segal; he was a party boy known to work hard and play even harder, usually with a beautiful woman on his arm and some drugs in his pocket. His staff idolized him and his customers, most of them celebrities themselves, were in awe of him. He was such a well-known figure that rumor has it he was part of the inspiration for Warren Beatty's character in Shampoo (Beatty has never commented on this, but he was a client of Sebring's).
His larger-than-life personality isn't the story—it's the starting point. When Sebring opened his eponymous salon in West Hollywood, he did something revolutionary for the time: He brought hairstyling to men. "Pre-Sebring, men only went to barbershops, women only went to beauty salons, and never the two did mix," says Anthony DiMaria, Sebring's nephew and the film's director. "Jay realized he wanted men to be able to be groomed and taken care of the same way that women were." A Navy barber who later went to cosmetology school, Sebring created a salon that catered to men, but featured things like wash stations where he shampooed his client's hair before cutting. He imported small, handheld hair dryers from Europe to replace the big, sit-under versions that were common in women's salons, but were never found in barbershops. This doesn’t sound like a big deal now, but in the 1960s, people’s mouths were on the floor. "What’s the big deal with a unisex shop?" asks DiMaria. "Well, at the time, they didn't do that."
It was such a strange idea that Sebring caught flack from the Barber’s Union, which tried to shut him down several times. "They tried to squash him because he wasn't fitting into barbers' guidelines," says DiMaria. Since he went to cosmetology school where he learned to cut hair on women, and not barber school, they claimed he couldn't legally cut mens' hair. His response? Hair has no gender. The clashes between Sebring and the Barber’s Union even got violent a few times, says DiMaria, since the union was rumored to have mob ties. "But Jay had friends, too, in Las Vegas and Detroit." Eventually Sebring founded his own union, the Hair Designers Guild of America, and even participated in passing legislation that did away with the "cosmetologists are for women, barbers are for men" delineation.
Still, it was his hair-cutting technique that brought in the clients even more than his personal mythology. He called himself a hair designer, not a hairstylist, because "he knew that hair was the frame for the face," says DiMaria. "He cut it free flowing and he used his techniques to help express the individual." Walking into an appointment with Sebring meant you weren't going to walk out with the same barber cut that every other man in your office was sporting. You were going to get something completely personalized to you and, in most cases, a little longer and a lot cooler. People, especially celebrities, were willing to pay big bucks for that experience. While a barber cut ran around $1.25, Sebring charged $50 and sometimes more. His was said to be the most expensive men's haircut in the country.
He was the man behind Jim Morrison's iconic shaggy mop and the Rat Pack's sleek quaffs and Steve McQueen's effortless crop both in real life and in movies like The Thomas Crown Affair. He worked on Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Dennis Hopper, Paul Newman, and Henry Fonda. Bruce Lee was a client (whose hair he cut in exchange for martial arts lessons) and also a friend who is credited with helping Lee get his big break. Truly, name a male movie star in the '60s and they were probably a Sebring client. His technique and signature styles were in such high demand that before his death he was laying the groundwork to expand his salon into other cities including New York and London, had created his own men's-specific product line, and had even developed a series of educational training videos to teach his specific cutting technique. It's easy to wonder where he might be today if he hadn't died so tragically.
Even without speculation, it's clear Sebring's impact on men's grooming can still be felt. "His approach to men’s hair was visionary," says hairstylist Martial Vivot. "The styles he did are our everyday inspirations [now]. Think of Jim Morrison and the Rat Pack—you've just covered the entire spectrum of men's hair styling from classic to edgy, longer, and curly. He embraced the hair, respected the hair, followed how the hair moves." Chances are, the barber or hairstylist you see today for your cut is influenced by Sebring, possibly without even knowing it. What we take for granted—from the types of tools our hairstylists use to the types of products we put in our hair to the fact that we might be sitting at a salon station next to a woman (and that it's okay)—is all thanks to Sebring.
"Jay created something out of nothing that went on to become a billion-dollar industry, elevating thousands of professionals and artists," says DiMaria. "I've always felt that he really, in his way, changed the world." Like many other visionaries, he burned bright and fast. "He is really like the Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain of hair," says Vivot. And while it's impossible to say what he would have accomplished if he'd lived longer, or whether we'd know his name for his work instead of his death, next time you walk out of the barbershop with a fresh cut, pour one out for Jay Sebring. We owe him.
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