November 10 2010
The way one wears one’s hair speaks volumes. If a ponytail conjures images of perky cheerleaders, and a sleek, razor-cut bob projects sex appeal of an artsy, intellectual bent, a bun summons sharp-tongued maiden aunts, bespectacled Calvinist schoolteachers, Edith Wharton characters – all their unspoken desires quelled into tight knots of hair. The hair bun, for better or worse, has a lingering reputation as a signifier of deep uncoolness, redolent of a killjoy librarian’s spirit. In short, it has had a bad rap.
But then, manna from heaven, came Mad Men with its incumbent joys: the midcentury modern furniture, the martinis, the clothes, and, of course, the (sleekly pinned-back) hair. Its women reminded us that there was untapped – barely contained – glamour in the chignon du cou. These were high-voltage, grown-up, ultra-feminine dos that spoke of Eva Perón’s distinctive upsweep, or of Liz Taylor in her Richard Burton vintage – all that luscious, dark hair looped atop her head, exposing her pale neck and cleavage, strung with glittering diamonds.
The fashion world, as ever, was quick to capitalise on the retro-mania, and for the past two seasons the bun has been reincarnated all over the catwalks. Miuccia Prada matched her prom dresses and A-line skirts to a contemporised beehive. Oscar de la Renta’s models channelled Grace Kelly’s prim wedding-day chignon; at Yves Saint Laurent an oversized, sculpted swirl of hair which sat midway on the back of the head was nicknamed the “cinnamon bun” for its heft; and Calvin Klein’s minimalist sheath dresses were paired with super-sleek, side-parted hair that gathered neatly at the nape of the neck – control made sexily manifest.
But as in the fashion world, this time around, so in the real working world as well. The bun has arrived at a time when the shift in social attitudes to long hair and its age-appropriateness are echoing into the workplace. Women are wearing their hair long for longer. In business, a short, sharp bob isn’t the only way to be taken seriously – Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet and Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts all have shoulder-length or longer hair.
All of which means there’s a greater need for a way to wear long hair that engenders feelings of, and projects an image of, professionalism and control. Superflat, ironed tresses are the domain of teens and early-20somethings; blow-dries are time consuming, and cascading hair in the boardroom is a distraction. The bun in its current incarnation is sleek and chic – reasonably contained for work, and feasibly seductive for nighttime. (Kate Moss has for years favoured a déshabillé chignon for evening.)
Stephanie Haynes, a senior level manager at property developer Candy & Candy, attests to the bun’s ability to confer confidence and poise at work. “I first started wearing my hair up when an older colleague commented on my habit of playing with my hair. Now I wear it in a low bun, which I pin loosely. It makes me feel at ease and, by default, in control since I am free to concentrate on my work.”
Fiona Leahy, 38, who runs her successful eponymous company organising events for (among others) Stella McCartney and Louis Vuitton, also favours the bun.
“At work it definitely denotes a certain seriousness. At night I move it higher on the top of my head, like a giant pincushion. I think it looks incredibly chic, fragile and ballerina-esque. In fact, I am thinking of investing in a hairpiece to add more bun. You can’t have a skimpy bun – it has got to have volume.”
One City lawyer’s reasons for wearing her hair in a bun are more practically minded: “I wear my hair up to feel professional, but it also has to do with how much it is bothering me having it down and around my neck. That in turn depends on such important factors as the weather, and the collar of my shirt, and whether I took the tube that morning, and whether I’m carrying a bag with a shoulder strap that means I have to move my hair out of the way to put the bag on. Of course, the fact that it makes me feel streamlined and smart helps enormously.”
When set into place with L’Oréal’s Elnett hairspray (from £1.99 for 75ml), and some kirby grips (buy ones that match your hair colour – Boots has tipped wavy hairpins, £1.70), the bun also happens to be a hardy hair style – another pro for the working woman. I know of several cases of professionally done chignons that withstood airline flatbeds on red-eye flights and were still meeting-ready the following day. I had my own experience of the bun’s staying power when I had a plaited, low knot done for my register-office wedding; it survived a whole weekend in Paris intact, and looked so elegantly tousled on the Eurostar home that I was loathe to take it out. Somehow the more a chignon is slept on, the more relaxed – and youthfully sexy – its effect.
In fact, there is a distinct cosmetic quality to the bun. “All buns and chignons have the effect of ‘lifting’ the face,” says stylist and Redken creative consultant Guido Palau. It’s also a democratic style, without age limitations, and suitable for different hair types – from curly to poker-straight – and face shapes. (High buns – just below or at the crown – suit oval or heart-shaped faces, while buns closer to the nape of the neck are good for rounder faces.) The fact that one doesn’t require a hairdresser to make a perfectly good, considered-looking bun is a compelling reason for working women to adopt the style – as is the fact that it suits thick, unruly hair, slightly dirty hair, or, with a few strategically placed pins, hair that’s foundering in that tricky, growing-out phase.
Achieving the bun of the moment is gratifyingly simple: “Rake your fingers through your hair, twist it up and secure with pins,” says stylist and Wella Professionals global creative director Eugene Souleiman. But that doesn’t mean the bun is boring. Side buns give off an aura of Left Bank chic; tousled chignons suit casual dinners or country weekends; precise, polished buns (use a bristle brush in lieu of your fingers) work for the office, and high topknots have an artful appeal.
A centre or side parting is businesslike, whereas hair pulled straight back from the forehead and twisted into place, is more evening in effect.
For all of these, furnish yourself with the right tools. Souleiman and Palau both recommend liberally applying an amplifier or a mousse to the roots of wet hair before blowing dry (Souleiman likes Wella Professionals’ Velvet Amplifier Spray, £8.99; Palau advises spraying the hair with Redken’s Guts 10 Volume Spray Foam, £12.25 for 300ml). If the sleeker, more “done” path is taken for a morning meeting, the style can be softened for night by pulling down centremetre-wide sections of the hair at the temples, the nape of the neck, and from the bun itself. High hair means maximum exposure; carefully consider jewellery for the ears and neck. And since the face has no friendly skein of hair to hide beneath, attention is due to creating flawless-looking skin. (It transpires that even ostensibly “easy’ hair is effortful.)
Where one situates the bun is crucial to its impact. “A lower bun will give a more elegant look, a higher bun is more youthful,” says Souleiman. “The positioning is the most important factor in stopping it becoming ‘granny’ and keeping the style chic,” says hairstylist Sam McKnight, “as is the ‘finish’ of the bun – how tidy it is, and how flat and smooth the rest of the hair.” He posits that the hair should be pulled straight back and the bun positioned just below the crown. “You can either twist the hair until it starts to coil and then secure with Odile Gilbert oversized pins [€65 each], or hold the hair using a snag-free elastic [try Blax’s, £2.65].” For evening, McKnight recommends braiding a pony tail and wrapping the braid around the base.
He has hard and fast updo “don’ts”: “No scrunchies, or raw rubber elastics that damage the hair.”
With Darren Aronofsky’s dark, ballerina drama Black Swan garnering early Oscar buzz on the heels of a season in which this updo took on all manner of successful permutations, the hair bun will soon be reaching critical mass – and, with any luck, shedding its pent-up-and-past-it image forever. It’s not the first time the bun has been immortalised on film: Le Chignon d’Olga told of a young man falling hopelessly in love with a girl after glimpsing her neat but deeply sensual hair knot – as compelling an argument as any for taking up the updo.