Worn by classic style icons like James Dean and Elvis Presley, down to modern-day trend setters like David Beckham: stylish gentlemen can always go with the timeless, slick back hairstyle.
We can say two things about Becks. First, there isn’t a hairstyle that doesn’t look good on him (except maybe when he puts on a headband). Second, he rocked the classic pompadour look, proving that it’s one of the most sophisticated looks going: just as great-looking on the football pitch as it is on the red carpet.
So, what is slick back hair?
It’s just as simple as it sounds: hair pushed back with a hand or comb. You can go with the classic pompadour, slicked back undercut, or the fade – but that basic idea is still the same.
Not so fast though, getting your hair to lie down is often the tricky part. The look you want to go for is ‘slick’: as in smooth. Not as in ‘oil slick’. You definitely want to stay away from looking like you’ve dipped your hair in an oil drum - remember Ross from Friends? We want you to be turning heads in your next Instagram post – and for the right reasons!
Getting the perfect style and all of those Instagram ‘likes’ needs the right products, and we’ve got you covered!
We’re going to go for a little walk down memory lane to look at a couple versions of the slick back hairstyle, as well as some of the right products for you to achieve this classic, versatile look.
The History of the Slick Back look
This style has its origins in the Edwardian era haircuts of the working classes (1901-1910). One of the first examples of the undercut, this style was favoured by barbers who often lacked the skills to blend the back and sides into the longer hair on top.
The undercut was popularised during the first part of the 1900’s, with gangs like the notorious Peaky Blinders sporting the undercut style with well-coiffed hair up top. In part, this was because long hair could get pulled on in a street fight! We are absolutely not suggesting you start behaving like a Peaky Blinder on your next night out: but there’s no harm in feeling a little dangerous!
This cut, probably with some kind of slick back style on top, lasted until Beatlemania in the 60’s and the crazy popularity of British invasion bands like the Rolling Stones. They set the trend with their long hairstyles.
Around the same time, the Pompadour gained a lot of popularity among young men in the 50’s and 60’s. This style was named after Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV of France, who wore her hair high over the forehead and swept backwards. But the Pompadour turned out to good enough for ‘The King’ too: with rock and roller Elvis Presley bringing this style on stage and into fashion.
Fast forward to today, if you combine the undercut and pompadour, you get the modern slick back hairstyle. Sported by none other than Channing Tatum and Brad Pitt, this hairstyle is also a good choice for the ‘Scandi’ type look: especially if you go with a full beard.
The Classic Slick Back
It’s hard to go wrong with the classic slick back style. A real classic look, this style works well in the office and out on the town.
It’s an easy to maintain style, perfect for the modern man without a lot of time on his hands - but sadly it isn’t for everyone. Those with curly hair will have a hard time keeping it down, leaving them with the hairstyle they started with, but now with too much product. This style is also less than ideal for fine hair, as this won’t carry the product well, making the hair look thinner.
For those who are blessed with the hair to carry off the Pompadour look, then the classic slicked back hairstyle is the place to begin.
It’s a sinch to maintain, but we recommend regularly washing (or at least rinsing) your hair because of the amount of product you’ll need to keep it in place.
As your local barber or hairdresser for a nr. 2 or 3 on the sides, and ask them to keep it as long as possible on top. This differentiates the style from the classic slick back undercut. After you jump out of the shower, apply some strong hold hair wax to the hair and work it through. Use your fingers or a fine-toothed comb and push the hair back. Let it dry naturally, and you’re good to go. Softer hold products are OK to use, but there’s a chance that some rebellious hairs will begin to come loose throughout the day.
Side Parting Slick Back
This is a little trickier than the classic style above. The parting gives a little more contemporary definition to your look.
Typically, this style is a little longer on the sides, with the hair faded from the bottom up. For a razor-sharp look, the side parting should be neatly defined with a clipper. The hair on top should be kept long but given some definition with thinning scissors.
How to you achieve this look? Simply apply product to wet/damp hair and part the hair with your hands. Using a hairdryer will add volume and shape, and you can even use a straightening iron to get those tricky curls in line.
Next, we’ll take a look at some go-to products for slicked back hair.
The Slick Back Undercut and the Slick Back Fade
For those of you who want a bold look that’ll set you apart from the herd and make an impression, try the slick back undercut or fade. These daring styles give a modern edge to the classic slick back look, and bring it right up to the 20’s (the 2020’s of course).
The undercut features closely trimmed back and sides, with longer hair on top - think Brad Pitt in the movie ‘Fury’. The longer hair is combed backwards over the shorter, undercut hair at the back of the head.
Not smart enough for you? Add a fade.
For some extra sleekness, think about getting a fade. Starting at the skin at the base of your hair, ask your barber to gradually increase the gradient, tapering the hair up to the top. Unfortunately, the fade isn’t for everyone and won’t work with every face and head shape. For that reason, think about getting a second opinion from your barber or stylist before asking them to reach for the trimmers!
How to Slick back your hair
We’ve looked at the styles and some variations on them, but now we’re going to take a look at how to create them for yourself.
First and foremost, find the best barber or hairdresser for you. Yes, it sounds a little obvious, but it’s important that you have the confidence that your barber understands the look that you’re going for. Not to mention, the ability to cut your hair that way! Shop around a little bit and find the right one for you.
Once you’ve found the one barber of your dreams, you need to figure out which style you want. It’s always good to get an outside opinion on what style will suit your face shape and hair type, and great hairdressers know what works and what doesn’t.
OK, now you’ve got a sharp haircut, but how do you style it? We’ll get onto that, but before we do, we ought to mention that looking after your hair is really important. Not just for your hair health, but also for getting the best out of your hair when styling it.
Step 1: Wash & condition
Start with a great shampoo and a nourishing conditioner. Get rid of any excess oil, product, and dirt on the hair, making it ready for styling.
Step 2: Protect
Up next – add some serum or protective product to your hair. This is super important, especially if you’re going to be exposing your hair to heat with hairdryers or straightening irons. Even better, some pre-styling products can offer the same protection, as well as letting you begin to shape your style, without needing to use too much product and creating an oily finish.
Step 3: Blow-dry & shape
If you’re going with a blow dryer, use a rounded brush and brush the hair from the base up and back, giving your style some height, volume and definition.
Step 4: Style
Once you’ve got the shape down, work in some of the final product and get an even coverage to get the desired result.
Step 5: Finish
When creating that clean side-parting, make sure the parting line is defined and straight. A good comb comes in handy here. However, you might be going for more of a laidback look, in which case you can use your fingers – giving your hair a little less definition. For that iconic 40’s look, a comb is the way to go. It’ll give you much more control over those individual strands and help keep your hair in place.
Busting out the blowdryer. Yes or no?
Chances are your wife, girlfriend or sister has one of these, so why not give a blow-dried look a shot? For adding style, definition and height to hair, the hairdryer is hard to beat. Do keep in mind, heat and hair aren’t the perfect mix, so you’ll need to keep your hair hydrated with a serum or protective hair care product. Set the heat at its minimum setting and move the hairdryer around so that the heat isn’t concentrated on one place for a long time.
That being said, there’s no need to track down your girlfriend’s hairdryer if you’re not too fussed about hair height. For a more conservative look, we recommend applying product to towel-dried, damp hair and letting it dry naturally.
Best products for slicked back hair
There are tons of men’s grooming products to choose from. When it comes to product, what we need here is something that holds the hair in place. No one wants something that dries out their hair and scalp and causes flaky dandruff. Or product that makes you look like you a kid at the school disco with way too much wet-look hair gel.
To give a little bit more volume and bounce to your hair, go with a pre-styling spray. As covered earlier, this will give some initial protection when styling with a hairdryer or straighteners. Not to mention, it will also get you that height you need to pull off a bold, slicked back look. The Sidekick spray from By Vilain is the perfect wingman for your styling game. Sidekick gives you that much-needed heat protection, as well as some extra texture, volume and hold. And even better, you can use Sidekick (as well as the other By Vilain products) for a whole range of different styles.
Up next, you need a product that will keep your hair in shape and looking good. You’ll get some definition from the pre-styling spray, so you don’t want to add too much extra product and give your hair an oily look. The best product for you will depend on your hair type and the style you’re looking for. We’re big fans of By Vilain Gold Digger wax, which uniquely combines a super strong hold with a matte finish.
To turn heads with that classic James Dean look, try using a pomade. That'll give a light hold with a nice glossy finish. Don't forget, choose a water soluble variant: preventing product build up, enabling you to create that clean look time after time, without a need for lots of shampooing.
Want some more ‘secrets’ about how to get the perfect slicked back hair? Check out our video below for some suggestions about products and styling.