If there was ever a haircut that exemplified coolness, it has to be none other than the fade.
The hairstyle originated in the U.S. military around the ‘40s and ‘50s. Since the military is known for having strict grooming standards, it’s no surprise to learn that the fade haircut was and still is popular among military men, as the harsh lines and angles signaled you meant business.
Naturally, new times usher in new trends. Over the decades, Black folks experimented with different hairstyles, whether it was the afro or the infamous Jheri curl. By the time the mid-80s rolled around, a reworked, edgier version of the fade was emerging thanks to Black barbers. It would soon become a standard in hip-hop culture during its golden era.
We’re talking about the hi-top fade a.k.a. the flattop. Before Cameo, Big Daddy Kane, Eric B & Rakim and others made it their signature look, Grace Jones rocked one on her 1980 Warm Leatherette album cover. Because Queen Nefertiti’s crown closely resembles the hi-top, many believe it derived from Ancient Egypt.
“Hip-hop impacted the way we dressed and how we wore our hair especially,” says Greg Cooper Spencer a.k.a. GregTheGroomer, a New York-based master barber and hairstylist with 20-plus years of experience. “Before this period, we relied heavily on Black leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali who sported afros, to influence how we engaged in society in addition to our look.”
“Just as hip-hop emerged, so did the artists who made sure their hair and wardrobe stood out, along with their music,” Spencer continues.
Helping to push the flattop into further notoriety was the popularity of rappers, including Kid ‘n Play and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, along with the box-office success of Do The Right Thing and Lean On Me. Though most common among men, a few women took the hi-top out for a spin, including Queen Latifah as seen in her “Ladies First” video.
Trends come and go with the hi-top fading out in the early ‘90s. With the exception of Black celebrities, including Nas, Kanye West, Usher, will. i. am., and Kendrick Lamar, modernizing it in the 2010s, the hi-top has gradually evolved back into a more tapered look much like how it started.
There are different types of fades with the low and high fade being most popular. “How you determine one or the other is simply where the demarcation is placed in relation to the temple or occipital bone of the head. Above is high and below is low,” Spencer says. “If it goes too low, it becomes a blend and lower than that becomes a taper. Higher than that becomes a high and tight, which is client specific depending on their face and head shape.”
Anyone with a fade knows it’s only as good as the barber. So, how do you know when you’ve found a skilled barber? “A good barber will ask lots of questions when cutting a client’s hair for the first time,” says Waunie Neal, owner of Classic Cuts Barbershop in Rockford, Illinois with nearly two decades of barbering experience.
Even more crucial than assessing the client is having the proper equipment on hand. According to Tone McGill, Andis educator and owner of the Ultimate Barber Lounge in Charlotte, North Carolina, not using clippers designed for a client’s natural hair texture can ruin a potentially good fade.
“It’s all about the seamless progression of hair, the transition from lighter to darker,” McGill says. “For straight hair, I’ll go with a rotary motor clipper like the Andis Supra ZR. A magnetic motor clipper like the Andis Master is better suited for coarse or textured hair.”
While many barbers shy away from revealing their exact technique, Neal insists that the key to a perfect fade is all in the wrist.
Taking it a step further, McGill says, “The best fades are executed by not putting a hard line in the hair. Not all barbers understand this concept, but it’s maybe the most important part of getting a great fade.”
A well-executed fade can instantly make anyone appear cooler, edgier and pulled together. Plus, fades generally require low maintenance depending on how fast the client’s hair grows.
“The fade will never go out of style because it’s multidimensional,” Spencer says. “You can dress it up or down, which makes it easy to wear in the corporate world.”
Although the fade stems from the military, the Black community elevated it with the hi-top, which helped to revive the original fade years later and make it more appealing to someone who may have never considered wearing it as an everyday style. In recent years, fades and undercuts have been adopted by many non-Black men. Think Brad Pitt, Justin Timberlake, Adam Levine, David Beckham, and Zayn Malik.
More universal than it was maybe 15 years ago, the fade is officially back. But, as we’ve seen in several past incidents, the trendier something becomes, the more its history gets lost in the process, especially when the trend is prominent in Black culture.
For instance, a 2014 BuzzFeed article featuring 27 predominantly white men with undercuts failed to give Black barbers their props when they’re the ones who spent years perfecting the technique when fades and undercuts were no longer considered “in.”
More recently, Cosmopolitan received backlash when they referred to an undercut worn by singer Madison Beer, who is White, as a hair tattoo and credited Allure for discovering the trend. Newsflash: Black folks, particularly women, have been rocking undercuts since forever. Take Salt-N-Pepa, Rihanna, Cassie and Kelis, for example. As expected, Cosmo’s original post was later removed.
Even dating back to the success of Vanilla Ice’s hit, “Ice Ice Baby,” many Black folks accused the rapper, who donned a hi-top fade, of appropriating Black culture as hip hop was slowly becoming more mainstream.
Are certain hairstyles off limits to certain people? No. Can anyone wear what they want? Certainly. But, there’s a difference between admiring an element of a group’s culture and taking that same element, slapping a new name on it and selling it to the masses as something new. That’s not how any of this works.
Princess Gabbara is a Michigan-based journalist whose work has been published in several national publications, including Jetmag.com, Essence.com, HelloBeautiful.com, BET.com, Huffington Post Women, and Sesi Magazine. Visit her site or follow her @PrincessGabbara.