On the Best-Tressed List : Clues in the Search for the Perfect Haircut

Today, there's no single hair style that's setting a trend or giving direction--no Vidal Sassoon geometric, no Farrah Fawcett fling, no Dorothy Hamill wedge, not even an anonymous shag. Without a role model, women have been forced into an independent mode, with only their own hair and hair stylists to determine the perfect haircut.

Many women question the existence of such a cut. Every woman wants one, but most remain on the quest for a reliable style with scissored-in good looks. Most say that they look great when they leave the salon but after a night's sleep or the first shampoo, the style--and their spirits--have fizzled.

"By definition, the perfect haircut doesn't disappoint a woman," says Allen Edwards, who coifs such celebrities as Mary Hart, Dustin Hoffman and Donna Mills in his Encino and Beverly Hills salons. If properly clipped, the stylist explains, hair should fall into the proper shape without extra fuss. "A good haircut is balanced and works with the texture of the hair." If it doesn't, Edwards says, a change of hairdressers is probably in order. "A stylist with good technical skill analyzes the texture and cuts accordingly."

For a growing number of haircutters, the most technically accurate cut is the dry cut. Rather than shampooing and conditioning the hair first, which weighs it down and temporarily straightens it, the stylist cuts following the natural direction of the dry hair. "Every time a client shampoos and towel-dries her own hair, it will fall into the right shape and line," says Manhattan's John Sahag of the John Sahag salon.

Another benefit of the dry cut, explains Eric Lintermans of La Coupe Lintermans in Beverly Hills and Eric Lintermans in Studio City, is that "the client can see exactly what the hair looks like before the stylist does anything else to the hair." A dry cut should be completely wearable without the addition of mousses, gels and sprays. Such fixative substances merely add variety to the style, says Lintermans, who has been dry-cutting hair since 1966.

Proponents of the wet cut say that the method gives the hairdresser control and allows for precise contouring. "The problem," Lintermans says, "is that if the cut requires a great deal of maintenance every morning, many women just don't have the time, patience or skill. If they can't handle their hair the next day--or four weeks later--that's not their perfect cut."

Like Lintermans, many stylists say that low maintenance is the main criterion of a good cut. But Richard David of the Jay Walters salon in Fullerton points out that it must suit a woman's life style, too. "An athletic cut doesn't work for a society lady, and a complicated style is a problem for a women who swims laps every morning," he says. Lintermans concurs. "That's where the communication comes in. A customer has to tell her stylist how she lives, what she wants from her hair and how she wants to look. Then he must discuss his opinions and recommendations with her."

"You've got to let a new stylist know who you are and how you fit in to your community," adds David, who also cautions, "Never let a stylist start the cut until he or she has made an analysis of your hair and explained it to you. If you don't like what you hear, speak up."

For the woman with a head full of luxurious waves or thick, straight hair, an occasional bad cut is a problem but not the major disaster it is for those less well-endowed. "For the poor woman who has terrible hair--thin, limp, do-nothing hair--a bad cut is a catastrophe," says Scottish hair stylist Rita Rusk. "With a bad cut, she is out of luck until it grows," says Rusk, who with her husband, Irvine, was named "Best Hair Stylist in the World" by a French fashion magazine. Gels, mousses and sprays were created for women with problem hair, she explains. "With the foundation of proper balance and proportion from a good cut, plus a few products, even someone with dreadful hair can have a fabulous style."

For many women, finding a manageable, flattering haircut is such a coup that they resist straying from the style. For years. Edwards grimaces at the thought. "There's never a need to be trapped into wearing one hair style. Any woman can wear her hair at several different lengths as long as the balance and proportion are right. In fact, I encourage my clients to change their cuts every two months so that their hair styles become accessories, not limiting factors."

Such obviously dated styles as the once-ubiquitous '70s shag "become a security blanket of sorts for women; they forget that times have changed," Irvine Rusk says. "You can't blame the woman totally for looking old-fashioned. It's a stylist's job to keep her abreast of changes and show her how to look modern while still feeling comfortable."

If the perfect haircut means an up-to-the-minute look, nothing is prettier or more popular right now than a head full of flowing waves. The new super-soft, feminine perms, a la Katharine Hepburn and Kathleen Turner, are in keeping with the return of the curvaceous figure. Rounder hips and bosoms demand shapely, gentle hair styles that are the polar opposite of angled geometrics and spiky dos that looked dangerously uninviting.

Rita Rusk wears her short-short platinum hair with waves at the crown. "It's dated to think that only long hair is feminine," she says. "Naturally wavy hair comes in any length. The right cut accents the beauty of the waves." Edwards says his favorite style right now is bobbed, slightly shorter in back and gently waved all over.

Salons are achieving the uncurly perm with alternatives to plastic perm rods. Mad Matts is the brand name for flexible strips of sponging on which hair can be wrapped for a gently undulating shape. Some salons are wrapping hair on the adapters of 45-rpm records, while others are using wooden tongue depressors. All in the quest for the perfect wave.

Women who have balked at perms for fear of the damaging effects may want to investigate the newest chemical treatments and techniques used in salons. Some new perms are pH balanced to maintain the hair's natural moisture. Others are touted as safe to use the same day as a color treatment. But, warns Louis Licari, chief colorist of La Coupe in New York: "It's still safest to wait at least a week between perm and color treatments."

What's the going rate for the perfect cut--that is, one that looks good, functions well from trim to trim, fits your way of life and doesn't look dated? "You can't judge a cut by its price," Rita Rusk says. "Some women get a great cut at chain salons for $10." The Rusks charge the equivalent of $27 for a cut in their salons in Scotland. Chic Manhattan salons charge about $100 for a cut and styling, while Beverly Hills rates are about $60 for the same services--though a few well-publicized stylists in Beverly Hills will put scissors to hair for no less than $100 to $150. Generally, perming will add another $50 to $150 to the price, depending on length of hair and type of perm.

Professionals agree that finding the perfect haircut isn't easy. It's often a case of trial and error, which can be draining on both the pocketbook and the psyche. But they also agree that the great cut does exist. They repeat an important caveat, however: Don't expect the same cut to endure as your needs, mood and activities change. As Edwards explains, "Hair is a purely emotional matter. One cut may work for you now and not later. What's important is what works now."

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