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