Collegiate Grooming Showdown: Vitalis vs. Brylcreem

Princeton, NJ resident Bill Stephenson graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1954 and lived in the Delta Upsilon fraternity house. Herein he shares his thoughts on haircuts and grooming products during the heyday of the Ivy League Look.

Back in the day, undergraduates throughout the US looked pretty similar when it came to hairstyles, just as they did with standard campus apparel. Haircuts looked the same in Berkeley, Columbus or Hanover — take a look at ’50s yearbooks and you’ll see.

The cut was usually referred to as a Princeton and was short on the back and sides and neat on top. We had no idea what clipper size was used and never asked. Fine clippers were used on the sides, and scissors on top. The back was always tapered. To have a haircut that was boxed in the back would be like walking around with your fly unzipped.

The guy with the Ivy look considered it very important to get a haircut religiously every two weeks. Haircuts didn’t cost much in those days, and frequent haircuts were sine qua non for being well groomed.

Many styles started at the Ivy League schools then spread to every campus. Magazines like Esquire spread the gospel so that the vernacular was well understood at every college. Esquire was a big deal. The fall issue was devoted entirely to back-to-school clothing. The photo recently posted here shows students at the University of North Carolina, but the guys there could walk into their local barbershop and say they wanted a “Princeton” and the barber would know exactly what they wanted. Also, if you got your hair cut every two weeks, the style was obvious.

This kind of vernacular spread just like the term “white shoe” law firm. Ivy League students wore white bucks, and today the term “white shoe” still means that most of the firm’s associates went to Ivy League schools. Vernacular was the same nationwide on campuses in the 1950s.

Men’s hair dressing was heavily advertised, and men bought in to the concept that you were not well groomed without it. When it came to grooming products, guys were generally split into two camps: Vitalis or Brylcreem.

The men in the UNC photo used Vitalis. I can tell by the look. It’s still on the market. Take a whiff sometime and you’ll see why the fragrance was overwhelming in the dining commons.

Those who used Brylcreem were generally referred to as using “greasy kids’ stuff.” This was the contingent that wore their hair longer, often with a pompadour, and long enough in back to achieve the ducktail look. It was the opposite of the Ivy look (think “Jersey Boys”). Brylcreem was usually the choice of high school boys, who felt that their long hair had to have the high grease content of Brylcreem. In the amounts that were used, it would hold up a pompadour in a high wind.

Vitalis ads referred to their product as being greaseless, as in the ad above where the word is even underlined. Vitalis has a high alcohol content, but doesn’t put a heavy hold on hair. The end result is exactly like the men in the UNC photo. I used Vitalis while in school, and the aroma of Vitalis, Mennan Skin Bracer or Old Spice still brings back campus memories.

Finally, if a guy showed up in the locker room with a hair dryer, it would have been impossible to live this down. He would have immediately been given an unflattering nickname, that would probably still be with him at reunions 50 years later.

As for myself, I still have hair, and have finally found a barber that can do a Caesar. My favorite sax player was Gerry Mulligan, who used to wear a “Ruthless Roman” haircut in the ’50s: short on the side and top, cut so that the hair falls straight forward with no part. No need to use anything on it. Just towel, Kent hair brush, and you don’t even need to own a comb. — BILL STEPHENSON

29 Comments on "Collegiate Grooming Showdown: Vitalis vs. Brylcreem"

  1. One of my favorite images ever for this site. Thanks to Bill for inspiring me to go find it.

    BTW, there’s a super hi-res version of it here:

  2. Vern Trotter | August 25, 2010 at 9:45 am |

    Good story and right on! Back in the 1940’s my dad made me soak my hair in Vitalis. When older, in the 50’s, I eschewed any hair tonic at all since I had a flat top. I forever remember mistaking my college roomate’s Brylcreem for toothpaste and smelling Old Spice reminds me of high school girlfriends as that was what I put on for a date.

    I always wore a hat after college, 1961 on, and anything on your hair would leave a stain above the brim so a lot of us wore nothing. JFK’s refusal to wear a hat was the beginning of the end for hats and even I stopped wearing one in the early 70’s.

  3. JFK also had dry hair, correct?

    I always though the hair on Mad Men looked way too lacquered, and Bill agreed. Just as the suits look too Rat Pack.

  4. Vern Trotter | August 25, 2010 at 10:12 am |

    JFK had long, sort of unkempt hair. His suits were only two button front and I never considered him Ivy style, although of course he went to Harvard.

    The hair on Mad Men is longer and styled instead of just short as it really was in the 60’s. The suits are Rat Pack and I noticed have no pants cuffs as all Brooks suits had back then and still should have now. It is a good show although I notice some slippage this season.

  5. Interesting how Vitalis was pitched:

  6. Great article.

    As with most modern entertainment/propaganda, “Mad Men” inaccurately portrays the past as a hotbed of the basest vices, a cesspool of ignorance, and, most of all, a racist hellhole. As much as I enjoy the style, I find it unwatchable.

    JFK preferred paddock suits, a bespoke style in which both buttons should be buttoned.

    I still partially remember a commercial from my childhood that proclaimed, to a snappy tune, “the wethead is dead!” I remember the rest of the tune, but not the words or the product.

    A quick search reveals it to have been Gillette hairspray. The commercial is probably on YouTube–but who cares?

    I’ve used gel, mousse, and hairspray, but never pomade, Vitalis, or Brylcreem. I now find unadulterated aloe vera gel to be the best for my hair and scalp. Once it dries, I can safely wear a hat, which I’ve been doing for a couple decades now.

  7. Are you macarthur?

  8. And who can forget: “It’s clear, it’s clean, it’s VASSSSeline hair tonic, it’s the clean hair tonic, Vaseline hair tonic for your HAIRRRR!”

    …since you stuck that @#$%?! Brylcreem theme in my head

  9. Bill Stephenson | August 25, 2010 at 9:07 pm |

    Jack, since you mentioned Vaseline, a number of other long gone items came to mind as Christian and I kicked this idea around. You may remember, if you were around in the 50s:

    Fitch shampoo -“Don’t despair use your head, save your hair, use Fitch Shampoo”.
    Kremel – strange stuff that separated, and had to be shaken.
    Wildroot – Cream oil in tubes, in the drug store, and large bottles in the barber shop, in case a customer needed a shot, after haircut. (Wildroot Cream Oil Charley, was their advertising theme.)
    Butch Wax-high parafin base, for guys with crew cuts.
    Top Brass- Another variation of Brylcreem.

    Vitalis was advertised to contain “V-7” whatever that was. There was so much alcohol in Vitalis, that it was possible to squirt a stream of it over a lighter, and have your own mini flame thrower. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

  10. Ah, but how can you forget……..
    “You’d better get WILDROOT CREAM OIL CHARLIE!
    It keeps your hair in trim.

    You’ll see its non-alcoholic Charlie!
    It’s made with soothing lanolin!

    You’d better get Wildroot CreamOil Charlie!
    Start using it today!

    You’ll find that you,will have a tough time Charlie,
    keeping all those gals away, HIYA BALDY!
    Get Wild Root Right Away!!!…………….Nat King Cole Trio

  11. Groom and Clean all the way. I used Vitalis for years—messy stuff, but smelled good. BrylCreem is just gross. I found Groom and Clean almost 20 years ago, and can’t live without it.

  12. My barber has a tin Wild Root sign in it hanging on his wall. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have any Wild Root in the shop, though.

    Who’s “macarthur”?

    And I do love a good scalp massage with hair tonic, but only if the tonic has a pleasing scent.

  13. Macarthur — a guy on Andy’s Trad Forum who wears a lot of hats.

  14. Ulysses Everett McGill | August 26, 2010 at 12:44 pm |

    I’m a Dapper Dan man!

  15. Bill Stephenson | August 26, 2010 at 1:34 pm |

    If you haven’t done so, there is a Vitalis ad on the left. Goes to The one customer review comes from a gentleman in Bagdad, that said that the dry heat there caused problems for his hair, and it looked like Vitalis might do the trick.

    Amazing! From the IFC council at the UNC in the 60s to Bagdad in 01. Venerable, indeed.

  16. Nope. I’m geeky enough as it is; I don’t need to hang out with hat geeks, too.

  17. Also, never saw it advertised but every small town barber shop had “Lucky Tiger” hair…oil? Don’t know if anyone ever used it voluntarily

  18. People should remember that Mad Men is set in the world of advertising, not academia or banking and thus a little Rat Pack slickness seems to be appropriate for men who would be considered hustlers of sorts

    For 60’s sartorial adventures I prefer Dragnet, I Spy, Mission Impossible, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and especially The Avengers

  19. Bill Stephenson | August 27, 2010 at 7:49 am |

    Jack, I vividly remember the “Lucky Tiger” signs, but don’t remember the product. Any one around,that remembers those signs may remember a couple of related items of useless trivia.

    If you could see the sides of the gentlemen in Christian’ s photo from UNC, you would notice that there was a definite line above the ears, where a straight razor or had been used, to shave the hair line over the years.

    This went away because of the longer hair styles that came in in the late 60s. It also went away for those of us that stayed with the short hair styles of the 50s. The reason was the fear of AIDS that almost developed into a panic, when it was discovered in the 80s. The razor would often nick the area over the ears, when being shaved. Thus it was discontinued. That is when women began to take their own pedicure instruments into the beauty shops, because of the fear of AIDS.

    Next, when Christian brought up the idea of this thread, I looked at the product displays in the drug store to see what was being used today. LD mentions Groom and Clean, which is there. However, there is a huge selection of hair spray.

    If an undergraduate had shown up in a locker room, in the 50s, with a can of hair spray, it would have been the rough equivalent of showing up wearing women’s underwear.

  20. What about Crew Wax!!
    And they actually came out with a product called ” Greasy Kid Stuff”

  21. This just all makes me sad to be losing my hair. All I can do is keep it very short. Anything else and it looks like I’m trying to hide a bad bald spot.

  22. KA, from my understanding, it’s precisely because the advertising industry didn’t have the best reputation that those who worked in it wholeheartedly embraced the Brooks Brothers look.

    Jack Lemmon and Tony Randall films of the time show ad men with far drier hair than the grease-mop Pete Campbell.

  23. Interesting write up, especially for me since I recently graduated from the University of Oklahoma and am a member of the same fraternity as the author.

    This article reminds me of my favorite barber shop, Midway Barber Shop in downtown Norman, OK. It’s been in business since 1893, and looks just like it hasn’t changed much since then. The walls are covered with old black and white photos of the place from various decades, and it looks the same now as in the photos. They also have a shelf where dusty bottles of Lucky Tiger something called Osage Rub have probably been sitting for generations. $12 will get you not only a haircut with the best taper in town, but also a trim with hot shaving cream and a straight blade, then a short shoulder massage at the end. I know they did shaves when I first started going there in undergrad, but I’m not sure if they do now. Definitely worth it if you’re in the area.

    It’s so difficult to find a quality barber shop…There’s no way I’m setting foot in a ‘salon’ to get a $30 haircut from a ‘stylist’ that won’t look right.

  24. Bill Stephenson | August 28, 2010 at 2:01 am |

    Brother Mike!

    I was determined to let the subject drop, as I have probably beaten it into the ground. However, Mike’s post brought up another good point.

    Like Mike, I go to a country barber where you can get a haircut for $18, which is pretty reasonable, by east coast standards.

    It is an amazing comment on our zeitgeist to see the number of smart guys that go to a “stylist” and drop $100 or so, for basically the same thing that Mike and I get for under $20. I have never figured out the logic. Maybe it is like buying an automobile with a high price. You just assume that the extra cost gets you a better car.

    Maybe? But a haircut is a haircut, as best I can figure out. Just one of many things that I have yet to understand, like velcro.

  25. Vern Trotter | August 30, 2010 at 7:01 am |

    I went to a stylist for years and years but then I realized I didn’t have enough hair to make a difference. Now I go to Eddy at 34th street and !st avenue in Manhattan; he is the best I have ever had. He gives the old Princeton for $15 plus tip.

  26. Thanks for that tip, Vern. I’ll go check out Eddy.

  27. I’ve used Groom&Clean and Brylcreem, sometimes a bit of both, ever since college in 1985 when I shed the feathered center-parted look for a pomp with a side part and tapered back. Murrays pomade is also kick ass for pomps but is hell to wash out. I hate gels cause they’re like wearing a plastic helmet. I rather my hair be slick, wet and pliable.

  28. I’ve used lots of hair groomers but i find the best tonic to be Vitalis. I still use it occasionally. The best hair gel is Brylcreem’s Power Gel. It has no alsohol and makes my hair look super great. But I really wish someone would bring back the old blue bottle Vitalis Super Hold Hairspray– the original “the pump” hairspray. I used probably hundreds of bottles of that stuff from middle school years til they stopped making it. Many guys i know say they loved that– and it smelled great too. Those were the days!

  29. karl anglin | January 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm |

    I believe Wildroot Hair Tonic, based in
    Buffalo, NY, is still in business.

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