The term “Rockabilly” refers to a hybrid of country and rock n’ roll music that dates to the mid-1950s. The music has endured as a subculture, with occasional popular revivals. The first U.S. revival came in 1982, with the release of the Stray Cats’ album “Built for Speed.” Stray Cats frontman Brian Setzer was also a prominent figure in the 1997 neo-swing movement, which incorporated elements of swing, punk, rockabilly, and hot jazz for dancers. Contemporary fans tend to follow vintage fashion trends: pegged blue jeans, tattoos, wallet chains, and motorcycle boots are the basics of the male rockabilly look. High, elaborate hairdos are the crowning glory. If you’re not afraid of getting greasy, here’s how it’s done.
The Pompadour was the most mainstream hairdo of the original rockabilly era. It was worn by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, James Dean, and many other trendsetters of the 1950s. Some adherents to the style prefer shorter hair on the sides and longer hair on top, others don’t mind a little length in back. Some like long sideburns. But long hair on top is the key to the style, regardless of what happens on the fringes.
The hair was generally greased back thoroughly with old school pomade or Brylcreem, although modern gels and other hair products can achieve similar effects. After the slicked-back helmet look is achieved, a standard men’s comb can be used to lift the long hair on top into a wedge shape that resembles a cock’s comb. Recently, the style has also been referred to as a Quiff.
Video demonstrations of the Quiffing process can be seen in the links below.
While most young rockers of the ’50s actually wore flat tops and crew cuts, those haircuts have mostly gone out of style in the modern Rockabilly subculture. The flamboyant pompadour is the generally preferred look for men in the scene.
For those who really wish to stand out, however, some vintage variants on the pomp may be attempted and mastered, with a little practice.
The Duck Tail reached the mainstream in an episode of “Leave it to Beaver”, when prototypical square Wally Cleaver wore the hairstyle as a form of mild rebellion (he saw the error of his ways, of course). The primary change, which gives the style its name, is the use of a rat-tail comb to introduce a center part to the back of the head, mimicking the look of a duck’s posterior region.
The Detroit runs long on the sides with a greased and style flat top. Sides and top combed forward to the middle of the forehead would be a Jelly Roll.
Some of the most impressive modern versions of these hairstyles can be seen in the Japanese Rockabilly subculture, where the hairstyles are a danger to low-hanging signage.
Psychobilly, Gothabilly and Punkabilly
Psychobilly is an offshoot of Rockabilly that introduces campy voodoo and horror references, as well as a heavier punk rock vibe. Key musical acts in the genre are The Cramps and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The style remains basically the same, although mohawks are prevalent within the scene.
Gothabilly is a similar movement, as is Punkabilly. Neo-Swing adherents can also be difficult to distinguish from Rockabilly lovers.
The clothes go with the hair. For the most vintage look, check out films from the 1950s that feature Marlon Brando, James Dean, or Elvis Presley. White Ts are always popular, as are tight jeans and leather jackets, though clearly Dean and Presley had a more moderate wardrobe. Motorcycle boots are common footwear.
Contemporary styles also incorporate bowling shirts, wingtip shoes, and the James Dean-style zip-up windbreaker. Any vintage accessory can add a personal touch to the basic style.
Rockabilly style is, above all, fun. Films such as John Waters’ “Crybaby” (1990), the ever-popular “Grease” (1978), or an all-day Elvis festival on TV might encourage you to adopt the look for an upcoming Halloween party. It might be that Rockabilly is your life, and you never leave home without your quiff flying high and eight-ball tattoo blazing.
Whichever degree of immersion you’re looking for, this tutorial, along with a comb and plenty of styling product, should get you where you want to go.
References and ResourcesJapanese Rockabilly Hair
ResourcesVideo: How to Create a Pompadour
Images of Rockabilly Artists