Travis Kelce, white football player and beau of little-known pop musician Taylor Swift, sports the hottest hairstyle for men right now. So sayeth a writer at The New York Times, dubbing it the “Travis Kelce Hairdo.” The lighthearted piece has upset some people, naturally, because it’s an example of cultural appropriation, a totally real and not ridiculous modern sin.
Ameen Hudson, one half of the “Southside Rabbi” podcast, and Jemele Hill, an activist who masquerades as a sports journalist, both accused the writer, if not Kelce, of cultural appropriation. Both almost have a point, except for the fact that the style has its roots in the military cuts from the 1940s and 1950s, but let’s not let a little historical ignorance about the origins of the fade stand in the way of this truly important debate.
While fashion and rules around hairstyles for service members have evolved over the years, short has been the norm since World War I. Between World Wars I and II, Leo Wahl invented the electric clippers, which offered a new way of trimming hair in variable lengths. During World War II, given the advance in hair-cutting technology, the fade rose in popularity. Here’s one young man, one who gave his life in service, sporting the fade. Here’s another young man getting trimmed up in the field.
So, if we’re talking appropriation, well, the Times article may be getting closer to the truth than Hudson and Hill. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be a record of the first person to take advantage of the clippers’ capabilities, so whoever pioneered the fade remains in the dustbin of history, alongside his hair clippings.
Not that Kelce has the type of fade that Hudson and Hill are primarily referring to. His is a little short on top and not a true retro hi-top fade of the style worn by Doug E. Fresh, Big Daddy Kane, and Kid. It’s also not exactly a flattop. The Kelce Hairdo is more of a high skin fade, not that Kelce himself seems to know. In a video shared by Hudson, he acknowledges picking the style after seeing a picture of it on the wall of the barbershop.
He also acknowledges going to black barbershops, which is probably the impetus for this particular tempest in a teacup. He got lined up by a black barber, started dating Tay Tay, and now the Gray Lady — the paper of record! — is giving him credit for inventing the style now that it’s exploded in popularity. At least, it’s exploded in popularity if you ignore the past 80 years of men’s hairstyles. Johnny Unitas had a fade you could set your watch to. Malcolm X rocked one, too. More recently, all these actors and athletes sported the cut, though apparently it wasn’t appropriation all the way back in 2016.
All of this misses what’s really going on here, though, which is something we should be thanking Kelce for. Of all the historical styles he could’ve gone for, particularly as he goes to black barber shops, the fade is the absolute best for a person of pallor. It’s clean, it looks sharp, and it goes well with casual attire or a suit.
Had Kelce opted for another style more prevalent among black people, it would have ruined the yearbook and wedding photos of the young men who draw inspiration from him. It would be remembered as a regrettable phase in their lives, one which causes shame whenever it’s remembered. It’s a style that’s been popular with entertainers at times and is one that more than a few of his fellow NFL players rock — dreadlocks.
Had he gone natty, and thus inspired a bunch of white dudes to try to pull off a style we most definitely cannot pull off, then I would join Hudson, Hill, the ghost of Bob Marley, and anyone else in denouncing not just a puff piece about his hair, but Kelce himself, as egregiously engaging in cultural appropriation. Thankfully, though, this is not where we are as a society, for if a style that barely covers his head generates this much media coverage, one can only imagine how much worse it would have been had he opted for more voluminous locks.
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