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Style / Looks : On The Fringe

November 19, 1995|HILARY STERNE

When I was a child, my mother cut my stick-straight hair herself. A bowl cut, she called it, with bangs as lopsided as a funhouse floor. In my kindergarten class photo, not only does the hair above my eyes tilt to one side, but my head and crooked smile do, too, as if to say I'd finally given in to the overwhelming immutability of Mom's style dictum. It was the haircut all little girls and their Raggedy Ann dolls should wear, she believed, and in her old photo albums I saw those same bangs framing her own face, her boots sticking out resolutely from a porch rocker.

When I was old enough to wear my hair as I pleased, I let it grow long. The Beatles may have had thick, even bangs; I wanted shaggy locks like the Stones'. "Sweetie, get your hair out of your face," my mother would plead, buying me headbands and barrettes that would inevitably end up in the back of my bureau drawers. But like Zeppelin and reefer, this manifestation of my independence didn't last forever. Over the years, I circled back to variations on the theme: stiff, feathered and reeking of Aqua Net, or bright red and spiked to set off my chartreuse mascara, or chopped as short as Cleopatra's (making me look perpetually surprised, I realized later).

I never especially liked bangs, but there always seemed to be a reason to wear them--whether it was to make a fashion point I thought I should be making or simply because a French hairdresser, like my mother, told me that they set off a beautiful face. No matter why I wore them, though, they somehow reminded me of the kid who was forced into them as reluctantly as she was into her snowsuit.

Part of my aversion to bangs was that I didn't like being a slave to them. The vain and silly wife of a former boss had hers trimmed and dyed weekly to look as sharp and inky black as the ones in that famous photo of Louise Brooks. And I also thought those women who peered out from beneath a shelf of them in an effort to look sexy looked quite the opposite. "Fringe," the Brits called them, and the word conveyed perfectly their disposability, as far as I was concerned.

But a few months ago, I started seeing what looked suspiciously like bangs on women such as Julia Roberts and model-of-the-moment Amber Valletta. These bangs weren't rigid or teased or curled under like a sausage roll. They didn't say "slave" and certainly were not little-girlish. Long, angled, flopping over kohl-rimmed eyes in razored chunks, these bangs looked less like a mask than a flag of liberation. As Toby Fischer-Mirkin of Beverly Hills, author of "Dress Code: Understanding the Hidden Meanings of Women's Clothes" (Clarkson Potter), puts it: Today's bangs "may connote a rebellious aloofness and disrespect for the status quo. And if it's a single lock, a la Veronica Lake, of course, there's that message of seductiveness, too."

And while the current versions may owe something to Penelope Tree and Julie Christie, they're softer, less styled and yet--because they're not so prim--somehow more aggressive. Glamorous but tough at the same time. The new bangs have "that geometric feel without looking as cookie cutter as the Vidal Sassoon five-point cut looked," says Louis Angelo, who works with the New York stylist Garren. "Depending on the kind of hair a woman has, we'll use a razor as well as shears to soften it and make it look more modern." The key to mod-looking bangs, Angelo says, is in the part, which should be low and angled subtly back toward the center of the head. "It gives the bangs the effect of sweeping across the forehead," he says.

These days, I wear my hair the same length all the way around, the style of a child whose bangs saw her through her Wonder years. But flipping through recent magazines, I realize there's something safe about this, too. "The stewardess cut," one stylist calls it during a phone interview, not realizing that I'm wearing the coif myself. And suddenly I remember: Coco Chanel, the queen of modern fashion, wore bangs. I make a mental note to call a new hairdresser. I make another mental note to call my first one and tell her that maybe she was right all along.

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