Vidal: A Jewish Soldier of the Hair Salons

Remembering the Struggles of Vidal Sassoon

Hair Today: Vidal Sassoon, center, with two of his clients, in 1975.
getty images
Hair Today: Vidal Sassoon, center, with two of his clients, in 1975.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published May 09, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The hairstylist Vidal Sassoon, who died on May 9, reportedly of leukemia, was more than just a fashion legend. Born in London in 1928 of Ukrainian-Greek Jewish background, Sassoon created an architectonically geometric updating of the short women’s haircut known as the “bob” for such 1960s celebrities as the English model Twiggy, dress designer Mary Quant, and actress Mia Farrow. These design prototypes are still highly influential today.

In recent interviews, Sassoon referred wryly to how the current high priestess of fashion, Vogue’s Anna Wintour, and the tween pop singer Justin Bieber both sport unauthorized adaptations of his signature styles. Yet unlike the bob, an adaptation of a Paris style developed around the end of World War I known as “la garçonne” (the “boyish girl”), Sassoon’s achievement was not merely to liberate or emancipate women. Based on his own experiences growing up as a Jew in anti-Semitic England, Sassoon created hair visually appropriate for a symbolic tribe of women warriors.

Dapper: Sassoon in his later years.
getty Images
Dapper: Sassoon in his later years.

As revealed in the 2010 documentary “Vidal Sassoon: the Movie” released last year on DVD from Phase 4 Films, and last year’s “Vidal: The Autobiography,” (Macmillan) this bellicose inspiration may have been due in part to the fact that there was nothing boyish about Sassoon’s life, not even when he was a boy.

At age 5 Sassoon was sent to the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Orphanage in Maida Vale, London, after his father had abandoned his mother. After seven years, he was able to rejoin his family and at 14, he was apprenticed to an East End wigmaker, Adolph Cohen of Whitechapel, who provided local Orthodox women with their “sheitels.” This Dickensian beginning instilled a fierce fighting spirit in him, as well as a sense of commercial realities. Although passionate about architecture — Sassoon later claimed to have been inspired by designs in the Bauhaus spirit — he resigned himself to shampooing the hair of Cohen’s clients as his only realistic career option.

The real revolution in Sassoon’s sensibilities came at age 17, when he joined the 43 Group, which was formed by Jewish ex-servicemen who returned from combat after World War II to find that London was still rife with public events by supporters of Fascist anti-Semites, such as the notorious Oswald Mosley. This Fascist-smashing 43 Group — named after the original number of its members — was somewhat successful in tamping down the postwar public flowering of UK Fascism by those who were disappointed by Hitler’s defeat.

An anti-Fascist fighter with a day job as a hairdresser, Sassoon was certainly aware of the style example set by Hollywood icon Ingrid Bergman in the 1943 movie “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” In it, Bergman played Maria, an anti-Fascist Spanish guerilla with a much remarked-upon short-cropped hairdo. Although Bergman’s style was technically termed a “bubble cut” rather than a “bob,” the lesson for young Vidal was clear: strong women fighters must be given shields of low-maintenance hair to enhance their abilities.

This knowledge came in especially useful after the full news of the horrors of the Holocaust reached Sassoon and the rest of London’s East End. His reaction was to make aliyah in order to join the Palmach, the elite force of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization in British Mandate Palestine. As Sassoon told The Jewish Chronicle: “I wasn’t going over [to Israel] to sit in an office…. I thought if we don’t fight for a piece of land and make it work, then the whole Holocaust thing was a terrible waste.”

Sassoon’s feisty descriptions in his autobiography of Israeli battlefield experiences make the book read in parts like the memoirs of a retired foot soldier, not anyone involved in the arts world. Although Sassoon returned to England to help support his mother, his experiences in the Holy Land remained an indelible part of his existence, inspiring his creative life. As Sassoon added to The Jewish Chronicle

The sense of what we’d done [in Israel’s armed forces] gave me an enormous confidence, and I really felt as if I belonged. And, funnily enough, it gave me a feeling of belonging in London, too. Or belonging anywhere: this is our world, that kind of thing.

Working intensely and launching tireless publicity campaigns about his style innovations in the 1950s and ’60s, Sassoon eventually managed to make the then-stylish beehive hairdo look outmoded. By doing so, he created what English fashion maven Hilary Alexander called in a memorial tweet the “most radical hair shift since 1920’s.” Yet despite his all-consuming career, Sassoon never forgot his early London experiences combating Fascist thugs. In 1982, he established the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

And the Center’s attempt to understand and historically document anti-Semitism has borne fruit. The Vidal Sassoon International Center’s noteworthy series of publications include Deborah Lipstadt’s “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” (Free Press,1993); Cesare De Michelis’s “The Non-Existent Manuscript: A Study of the ‘Protocols of the Sages of Zion’”; and Vadim Rossman’s “Russian Intellectual Anti-Semitism in the Post-Communist Era,”, both from the University of Nebraska Press.

It is in such volumes, and a lifetime of devoted concern for defending the Jewish people, that the real legacy of Vidal Sassoon will remain, whatever hairdos Anna Wintour or Justin Bieber may be wearing next year.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.