Why men’s men are suddenly sporting the side sweep

David Cameron and George Clooney are among those whose haircuts hearken to history

A haircut you can trust to look hot

Photograph by Cole Garside

Shortly after a poll of British women overwhelmingly deemed Prime Minister David Cameron to be “the greatest male chauvinist” of the country’s party leaders, he decided to get a haircut. The Conservative PM adopted the “side sweep” —a low side part flowing into a variably sized tuft of hair on top, with the sides swept back—in a possible attempt to “woo women voters,” according to the Daily Mail. Interestingly, it’s the same haircut sported by Don Draper, the hard-boozing and adulterous advertising executive from the award-winning TV show, Mad Men.

Cameron is just the latest to hop on the hottest trend in men’s hairstyles. Canada’s Ryan Gosling sports the look. So does his Ides of March co-star, George Clooney. And now packs of men are flocking to retrograde barbershops to go under the clippers and adopt a look that hearkens back to the strict military haircuts of the early 20th century, as well as the dos sported by James Dean and Johnny Cash in the golden years of postwar America.

“You would have only got this haircut in the U.K. back in the ’30s and ’40s,” says Alan Brown, the go-to barber at Garrison’s, a quaint men’s shop in Toronto’s hipster-dominated west end. A majority of the 50 to 70 haircuts he does every week are of this style. “There’s a lot of younger people walking around with it, which is making it very popular at the moment,” says Brown, 34, wearing a variation of the look himself, which he laughingly likens to Johnny Depp’s in the 1990 movie Cry-Baby.

As streetcars rattle by beneath the windows of his second-floor shop, Brown stands near a barber’s chair from 1901 and discusses the allure of this “smart, traditional” hairstyle. He insists that it’s part of a wider “men-naissance” in contemporary male culture. “We have the idea of men becoming men again,” says Brown. “The refining of the male species is finally here.”

At Garrison’s, there are combs and scissors resting in jars of candy-blue Barbicide, vintage photographs of Toronto streets nailed to the walls, and stacks of men’s magazines on a wooden table (no, not those kinds of men’s magazines). This type of barbershop—a safe haven for the man’s man, where dirty words are leisurely chucked around—is closely linked with the aesthetic of the “Don Draper,” says Brown. People often drop by with photographs of old adventurers and ask Brown to replicate their hairstyles. “I get quite a few people coming in and asking for the Edmund Hillary,” he says, referring to the legendary mountaineer who, along with sherpa Tenzing Norgay, was the first to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.

Shawn Meunier, a 35-year-old cartoon voice actor, was inspired by Hillary’s hair to shed his shaggy locks earlier this year. He credits TV shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire—an HBO series about 1920s bootleggers—for fuelling the trend. “The Kurt Cobain plaid shirt and messy hair is a thing of the past now,” says Meunier. “You want to feel classic. You want to feel fresh.”

Since getting the trim, Meunier has updated his wardrobe to feature “slimmer jeans” and “nicer shirts” to match his new do. He also bought a 12-year-old bottle of scotch. “I equate this look, this haircut . . . with a need to go back to a simpler time,” he says. “It makes you feel a special way. It makes you feel safe.”

Krystine Batcho, a psychologist at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., makes sense of these trends through the concept of “historical nostalgia.” Many people, she says, yearn to connect with elements of a bygone era because they’re dissatisfied with the present or they idealize the past. “Those people tend to have more of an edge, [be] a little more cynical,” says Batcho, who has researched nostalgia since 1995. “They might even at times be a little more pessimistic about where the future is going.”

In that light, maybe David Cameron will win over some voters with the “Draper.” Maybe it will make them feel safe for a little while, evoking a time when public debt was just an afterthought—at least until the next election.

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