Review: Vidal

The world’s favourite hairdresser recalls bleak beginnings, daring exploits, glamorous days and no sign of a split end

By Jan Shure, October 7, 2010
Vidal Sassoon: from fighter of fascists and Zionist volunteer to top tonsor

Vidal Sassoon: from fighter of fascists and Zionist volunteer to top tonsor

By Vidal Sassoon
Macmillan, £20

What this entertaining and inspiring autobiography makes startlingly clear is that Vidal Sassoon, now 82, belongs to that generation of Jews whose career path might have taken them in a totally different direction if poverty had not early on forced them out of education and into work.

If the young Vidal had received those educational opportunities, however, the world would have been a decidedly less glamorous place. Yet the man who is still the planet's most famous crimper and whose revolutionary cutting techniques in the late 1950s and '60s changed the relationship between fashion and hairdressing, took up his career with the greatest reluctance.

Born in 1928, the son of a Greek-Sephardi father and an Ashkenazi mother, his childhood was marked by severe hardship, graphically described in the early chapters. After his father deserted his mother, Betty, she, three-year-old Vidal and his brother, Ivor, aged six months, moved in with his widowed aunt and her three daughters, all of them occupying a two-room tenement in Wentworth Street, in the heart of the Jewish East End, part of what Sassoon describes as a "vast, gloomy rabbit-warren of ugly little flats".

A few years later, with the tenement no longer able to accommodate all of them, Vidal was sent to an orphanage in Maida Vale, where he spent the next seven years, a period described with pathos but refreshingly little self-pity.

"Though I've been told many times that I must have had a terrible childhood, in fact that was not always the case," he recalls, before listing the benefits of life at the orphanage, which included regular baths.

Wartime saw the family reunited and his mother remarried, to a man known as Nathan G. After a period in Wiltshire during the Blitz, they moved back to London's East End where Sassoon became an apprentice to Adolph "Professor" Cohen in Whitechapel, learning the crafts of cutting, setting, perming and bleaching, as well as a sideline in fighting the fascists as a member of the 43 Group. By 1947, Sassoon was being pulled in another direction - Palestine. His mother, a long-time Zionist, had nurtured in her son a passionate desire for the creation of a Jewish state.

"On 29 November 1947, the newly created United Nations had voted in favour of an Israeli state. There was elation in the hearts of Jews worldwide… Once the British Army had left, volunteers streamed to Israel and I was one of them. Nothing and no one could have stopped me signing on."

He joined the Palmach, serving with a combat unit which took a strategically important hill a few miles from Gaza in the northern Negev. He writes of the 17-day campaign: "Of the 42 who had taken the hill, 25 walked away from it. The rest left on stretchers, and seven of them were dead… Though the enemy we faced greatly outnumbered us, I knew after taking the hill that we would not lose this war…"

Back in London, he salon-hopped for a few years before a former client offered him the finance that allowed him to open his first salon in 1954.

While Sassoon's revolutionary hair-cutting techniques, based on architectural shapes rather than the backcombing and bouffant that were the staple at the time, and the stark, minimalist design of his New Bond Street salon brought him some press attention and a busy-enough appointments book, it would be almost a decade before Sassoon would rock the world of fashion and photography, capturing the zeitgeist alongside iconic names from the era - Mary Quant, Twiggy, David Bailey, Emanuelle Kahn, Nancy Kwan et al.

Anyone looking for gossip in the book will be mildly disappointed. Lots of names are dropped - Taylor, Stamp, Connery, Keeler - and there are lots of parties, wives and divorces, but all recounted with generous reticence.

Anyone who lived through the '60s and wishes to be reminded of the decade's tumultuous social changes or those who wish to see the Mad Men era from a London perspective, Sassoon's charming and heartfelt autobiography is a gentle, at times naïve, but always enjoyable meander through a world-shaking era.

Jan Shure is the JC's fashion editor

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011