ESC, History of Slicked Back Hair Full Collage

Alfred Wertheimer/Getty Images

Sharp, sleek, defined. The slicked-back hair look not only evokes confidence in its wearer, it marks a seemingly new way for celebs to make a statement among a sea of sweet-and-pretty looks. It's surely having a moment today, but slick hair has long been a touchstone for rebels with style. In fact, this bad-ass hairstyle has evolved from 18th-century France to some of today's best red carpet looks.

One of society's earliest celebrities, Madame de Pompadour, dazzled as an actress, singer and primary mistress of King Louis XV in the 1740s and '50s. But it is her signature hairstyle—swept up, back and off the face—that became her namesake and remains a reigning legacy; the combed-back look has served as a go-to style for both men and women ever since.

If Elvis Presley's debut taught us anything, it's that heartthrob hair means everything for an emerging rock star (and a few controversial dance moves don't hurt, either). In 1956, the sexy crooner topped the charts with his first No. 1 single, "Heartbreak Hotel," and signed a movie contract with Paramount Pictures. But it's his cool hair, slicked back in a pompadour, that had teenage girls swooning and guys suddenly spending hours in front of the mirror trying to recreate the look.

Grease is the word that not only embodied rebellious youth in this 1978 musical—it also captured the slicked-back hair style worn by so-called "greasers" in the film. As the movie became a phenomena (and made a hunky star out of a young John Travolta), guys followed the film's ‘50s revival and rocked the look for themselves on the street.

As Gordon "Greed is Good" Gekko in the film Wall Street, Michael Douglas donned a tight, sleek hairstyle popular with power players of the era. With the volume sucked out of the pompadour, this take on the slick style delivers a hard edge that signals all business and don't-mess-with-me bravado.

In the 1980s, music videos made recognizable stars of musicians that previously were more heard on the radio than seen on TV. But it was the backup players—models with slicked back hair—in Robert Palmer's highly-stylized video for "Simply Irresistible" that stole the screen and helped create an iconic look that serves as a strong style reference for today.

After playing with spiked hair, bleached locks and other of-the-moment hair looks in the early aughts, David Beckham made waves by reverting to this timeless look. The style turn became a template for other stars, like Zac Efron and Justin Bieber, when looking to conjure a more dapper and grown-up vibe.

As an early adopter in today's slick-back hair craze, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley made a sharp statement at the 2013 British Fashion Awards, pairing the style's strong lines with a red statement lip that screams sex, strength and power.

In the past year, the slick look has become a red-carpet staple, with Iggy Azalea, Kristen Stewart and Scarlett Johansson (with a new-school pompadour) wearing the style. One of our favorite iterations came from the November 2014 Wonderland magazine photoshoot, which transformedTaylor Swift from sweet to tough with a slick hair look and major brows.

  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Share