The Unkindest Cut: A History of the Bowl Cut
Moses Horwitz dreaded going to school. It was 1903, and the 6-year-old Brooklynite found himself at the mercy of cruel children who would tease him ruthlessly. Their taunting was directed at his hair, long and finger-curled by his mother before class. It was a style deemed more appropriate for girls of the era, and the boys made sure Moses knew it. Even the girls thought it strange. He was heckled before, during, and after school.
This went on for years. One day, at age 11, Moses decided to do something about it.
Over at a friend’s house, he impulsively grabbed a pair of scissors, closed his eyes, and began trimming his hair in a blind circle. When he opened them, his friends were laughing. Moses had crafted a bowl cut—a straight line around his entire head. It was not exactly flattering, but it reduced the number of bloody noses he had to endure.
The cut would eventually prove useful for Moses, who later took on the stage name Moe Howard and formed The Three Stooges comedy team—all while maintaining that trademark hairstyle.
The origins of the bowl cut extend far beyond Moe Howard. The style was common among European men in the 12th through 15th centuries as well as Russian serfs in the 18th century. The appeal was simple: It was a style that could be achieved with no skill, no brushing, and at virtually no cost. It also straddled the line between the longer styles that went in and out of vogue in the Middle Ages and the shorter cuts favored by soldiers and religious leaders. Men of greater means often accessorized the cut with elaborate hats.
While the style persisted, it’s not clear when it adopted the names bowl cut or soup bowl cut, or whether anyone actually used a bowl as a guide. But by the time the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s and '30s, an economical way of trimming hair at home became a popular choice for households trying to conserve funds. Sitting a child in a chair and snipping in a circle was something virtually anyone could do.
The bowl cut, it seemed, prospered wherever haircuts were prohibitively expensive. In 1951, Vancouver residents balked at barbers raising the price for a cut to 85 cents by buying trimmers and electric clippers to shape bowl cuts at home.
The bowl cut experienced another surge in the 1960s, though this time it owed more to fashion than the economy. When the original members of the Beatles—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best, and Stu Sutcliffe—went on tour in Hamburg, Germany, in 1960, they befriended a group of art students including Astrid Kirchherr and Jürgen Vollmer. Kirchherr and Sutcliffe fell in love. When she agreed to give Sutcliffe a haircut, she emulated the bowl style popular among art students at the time. Harrison requested the same thing. Later, when Lennon and McCartney visited Vollmer in Paris, they got similar cuts.
By the time the Beatles arrived stateside in 1964, the group—now minus Sutcliffe and Best, but having added Ringo Starr—was sporting what TIME magazine dubbed the “mushroom” haircut. The band’s fanatical followers emulated the style.
Though the group's hairstyles would later mirror the long hair of the late 1960s and 1970s, the bowl cut had at least earned some level of respectability. It was a common feature of child stars in the 1970s, including Adam Rich of Eight is Enough fame, and later got a featured spot when actor Jake Lloyd grabbed the look while playing young Anakin Skywalker in 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But adults adopting the style was often shorthand for imbecility or mental disturbances. Jim Carrey sported a bowl cut in 1994’s Dumb and Dumber. So did Javier Bardem, as philosophical hitman Anton Chigurh, in 2007’s No Country for Old Men.
More recently, the bowl cut has taken on some sinister connotations. The style has been used in memes advocating far-right and white supremacist beliefs after Dylann Roof was seen with the cut following his 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine people. In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League added the bowl cut to its list of hate symbols. It's a rather ignoble fate for what was once simply a silly haircut, one which may never again have the respectability and dignity afforded to it by Moe Howard.