HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ sparks demand for men’s retro haircut

Los Angeles Times

If the twentysomething guy from the mailroom, your waiter at Mozza and hipster music moguls all seem to be sporting the same haircut — trimmed buzz-cut short on the sides, left long on the top and swept back from the forehead — it’s not your imagination. It’s “Boardwalk Empire.” Or, more precisely, it’s a throwback haircut from Prohibition-era America, reintroduced in all its dapper disheveledness by Michael Pitt’s James “Jimmy” Darmody character on the Martin Scorsese HBO series.

Darmody met with an untimely end on last month’s Season 2 finale, but those who ply the tonsorial trade report that the show helped make the retro-flavored ‘do the coif du jour among millennial males.

“It’s been a popular cut for a good nine months to a year now,” says J.P. Mastey, founder of the Baxter Finley Barber & Shop on La Cienega Boulevard. “It started getting popular here around the middle of the [show’s] first season. A lot of guys will kind of know who the character is even if they don’t know his name.” But, Mastey says, “We know exactly who they’re talking about.”

Supercuts’ senior artistic director Melanie Ash has noticed the same thing over the last year and a half. “Most places around the country, the style is slightly less exaggerated,” Ash says. “And the more severe James Darmody look is one we’re seeing stronger in our major metropolitan areas where there’s a little more high fashion.... [Men in] Los Angeles, New York and Miami seem to prefer more of an extreme look, where it’s much shorter through the sides and longer and more artsy on top.”

The style perfectly suited Pitt’s character — and for good reason, says the cut’s creator, Francesca Paris, who is in charge of hair at “Boardwalk Empire.” For the character of Jimmy Darmody, “I wanted to create something that was a little edgy, sexy and a powerful look, and when I was researching men’s hairstyles of the day, I noticed that the popular style was shorter on the sides and longer on the top,” Paris said. “I wanted him to have a James Cagney-esque look about him. But Michael [Pitt] has a natural boyish quality to his look and his hair is naturally wavy, and wavy hair tends to project a softer demeanor. So I immediately knew I’d have to straighten his hair to toughen his image.”


Mastey and Ash give the show — and Pitt’s character — props for bringing the style to the public consciousness, but they, and other industry observers, say there are also other factors at work. One is the current pop culture embrace of all things 1920s and ‘30s, as exemplified in films such as “The Artist” and “Hugo” and fashion for spring.

Another is simply where men happen to be in the pendulum swing of personal grooming. “I think part of the appeal is that for the last couple of years we’ve really been seeing a trend toward longer lengths and a little more of a scruffier look,” Ash says. “And this is a very tailored, exact cut. It’s very clean and sharp so it’s a nice change.”

It’s also a haircut that can cover all the bases. “It’s slightly risky and aggressive-looking to cut it so short on the sides,” Mastey says. “It’s not exactly military, it’s not exactly punk, but it’s somewhere in between. You could put on a suit and tie and still pull it off. If my banker looked like that I wouldn’t be taken aback by it.”

Angel Gonzalez, master barber at the Art of Shaving flagship in Beverly Hills, points out that it’s also popular because, with a minimum of effort, the hairdo can do double duty. “During the day you can get a debonair, sophisticated look by using a little bit of pomade,” he said. “And at night, you can wash out the pomade and put in a little bit of matte texturizer to get a more rocker look.”

That versatility conjures up images of the cut’s shirttail cousin, the “business up front and party in the back” mullet, which was essentially a variation on the same silhouette that didn’t cut as close on the sides, was full on the top and once past the ears cascaded down the back of the neck. But, where the mullet falls flat by its insistence on having it both ways, the Darmody (also referred to as an undercut) seems to succeed, in a gentlemanly way, at compromise.

It’s not a coif every guy can pull off. “You’ve got to have the head shape and hairline for that [cut],” Mastey says. “If your hair is receding it’s not the same look and you won’t be able to slick it back the way [Pitt] does.”

When twentysomething Kim Jong Un stepped into the limelight as North Korea’s ruler a few days before the new year, it was hard not to notice his haircut: The sides were clipped short and the longer hair on top was slicked back a bit, and according to published reports, the barbershops of Pyongyang are abuzz with requests for what the North Koreans are calling the “youth” or “ambition” hairstyle.

Then again, perhaps they’re all just fans of “Boardwalk Empire.”