Hey there, slick. What brings you to the fifties? Maybe you’re here to finally nail the perfect quiff. Perhaps you’ve got designs on a rockabilly pompadour a la Alex Turner or Sam Smith. Or is the plan simply to grease your hair back for the badass biker vibe you’ve always known would go well with your mid-level accountancy role? Whatever your reason, pomade is the washroom weapon of choice when you desire shine and hold in equal amounts.
To put it another way, pomade isn’t some all singing, all dancing multifunctional hair product. It has a defined purpose and vibe – it’s rooted firmly in mid-century style and ain’t for everyone. So says Brent Pankhurst of Pankhurst London – arguably the capital’s most renowned barbershop. Having cut the hair of multiple style icons – including a James Bond – he’s more than earned the final word on the matter.
What is Pomade?
“Pomade is synonymous with 1950s–1960s quiffs,” Pankhurst says. “People get these things wrong. It helps to think in terms of icons: you have your short hair – Steve McQueen, Daniel Craig – these need a moulding cream or a wax, with more of a matte finish. A pomade comes from the old American, Grease-style medium-length hair. You always want a bit of shine from a pomade. Think of a young Elvis.”
Trouble is, wet-look products have a bad rep for good reason. The old-school brands like Dax and Black & White can leave residue in your hair and consequently around your house as well. “You get it all in your pillow and your partner will be furious,” Pankhurst says. “I used to have to use washing up liquid to clean it off.”
It’s for this reason it pays to purchase the right product, rather than half-inching your dad’s that’s been on the shelf as long as he has. “You need one that’s water soluble,” Pankhurst says. “You want it quite clear and silicone-y to the touch.”
There aren’t any derivatives. “A pomade is a pomade,” says Pankhurst. “The difference comes in the quality of ingredients. And that’s down to the manufacturer.
“A good pomade will feel like a set jelly with a bit of bounce to it. Rub your fingers and see if it goes greasy – if it does, then move on. Next, try a bit on your hair. Always go by touch.”
Who Does It Work For?
When it comes to pomade, bigger is better. “It works well in longish hair with a slight wave through it but also with thick, really straight hair. I think it looks its absolute best on Asian hair with a quiff,” Pankhurst says. “But if you’ve got very straight, fine hair, it isn’t going to work so well for you – it’ll collapse, particularly if it’s a greasy pomade you’re using.”
If you have the right hair type for the job, you want it to be medium length before trying a pomade. “You’re aiming for a bit of height,” Pankhurst says. “Pomade was designed for the quiff. You can have it a bit longer, if you’ve got thick hair like Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart – a bit thick and wavy – but it’s mainly for short back and sides and longer on top.” Think David Beckham in his quiff-cum-pompadour days.
Grooming rules are made to be broken, mind you. Pankhurst acquiesces that it can be used in longer hair if you want shine. “Anything disheveled,” he says. “Long, textured hair you want just lifted off the front. That’s a bit rock and roll.”
How To Use A Pomade
First, some house rules. “You’re looking for strong hold and really good shine,” Pankhurst says. “Usually, with most products, I’d put it into bone dry hair for texture. But with pomade, put it on just towel-dried hair, so it’s slightly damp – this helps with the shine.” Follow Pankhurst’s styling guide with the hairstyles that live or die on a good pomade.
This is basically a short-back and sides. It can get a bit The Only Way is Essex but that’s because they do it with hair spray instead of a pomade, so don’t do that.
Rub a 5-10p piece worth of pomade into your hands to start. Always apply it through the sides first, then the back and pull your fingers through the top, then a little bit at the front in the end.
A common mistake people make is to go to the front first, which makes the quiff greasy and heavy. With product you can always add more – start small then add as you go. You’ll need a good, wide-toothed comb to style it.
Similar to a quiff, the pompadour has a more exaggerated distinction between the top and the back and sides.
Slick the sides of the hair back. Using your comb, starting at the back, roll it backwards as you lift the hair upward. You can blow dry as you go to help keep the desired height and shape.
Now take a 5p piece worth of pomade and work it into the top of the hair, using the comb and blow dryer to form the height. The hair should be pointing upwards, leaning forwards and bending backwards at the top.
You could make something like Vincent Gallo’s hair – rough and ready but with shine. Again towel dry your hair so it’s just damp.
Rub a small amount of pomade into your hands and begin at the sides as above. Work with your hair to muss a wave into the top as you pull it back with your comb.
Apply leather jacket. Break hearts and take names.
The Best Pomade Brands For Men
A hipster barbershop favourite, Layrite (named because it’s apparently the only product that will get your hair to ‘lay right’…) was founded in 1999 and helped kickstart the trend for traditional barbershops. It doesn’t include petroleum and focuses more on hold than shine so you don’t stray too far into The Fonz territory. Ideal for modern takes on quiffs and pompadours, like a David Beckham-esque pompadour fade.
Not just because he put his good name to our guide. Silicon based. Water soluble. Pankhurst’s products find their way into the mops of the great and the good of London’s fashion and media scene for no other reason than he’s the go-to barber for men in the know.
Baxter Of California
A bit of a bastardisation, this, but Baxter of California Clay Pomade respects pomade’s rock ‘n’ roll roots while giving way to modern textures. That means you can expect strong hold but with a much more matte finish from the brand that’s been making quality male grooming products since 1965. Ideal for smaller quiffs.
Another barbershop favourite, you can view American Crew’s extensive range as a complete toolkit for men’s hair. It includes three or four different pomades depending on the style and finish you’re going for, be it high-shine and maximum hold or something more casual and matte finish.
An Aussie brand inspired by 1950s barbering, its pomades are the centrepiece of its collection. There’s a matte option but if you’re going for a slick back, sharp side parting or pompadour, check out the strong hold, wet-look style, which offers shine without turning you into a Ken doll.
L’Oreal Professional Homme
This salon-stocked range is the antithesis of the sticky hair products every teenager overuses. Light and cream-like, the pomade is not an industrial-strength cement, but better used for touselled and textured hair styles. Ideal if your hair has a natural wave that you don’t want to get in a fight with.
This recently launched range of pro-level styling products includes pomades for every hair type. If Elvis is your style hero, you’ll find a high-shine product fit for the King. Slightly more modern is this wax-pomade hybrid, which has less of a grip on your hair and allows you to restyle it throughout the day.
Tigi Bedhead For Men
If you want a glossy pompadour or slick-back, the hard part is finding a pomade that does the job without requiring turps to get the grease off your hands or out of your hair at the end of the day. Tigi Bedhead is your friend here. A non-grease formula makes it easy to wash off and restyle your hair quickly.
This Texan grooming company is typically unfussy and uses natural ingredients to make products that smell as good as they work. There are three pomades in the range: gel, wax and clay, each one tweaked according to your needs when it comes to hold and finish. None of them are sticky, either.
Created by a pair of Dutch barbers with seriously old-school barbering tastes, this range of pomades is colour-coded according to what you need. At one end, you have a water-soluble product that gently styles and holds your hair without any unwanted flakes. At the other, a hardcore grease monkey that let’s you turn up the rockabilly to 11.
If you care as much about the environment as your follicles, Aveda uses natural, organic ingredients and green-thinking practices in its packaging. It’s another company with several pomades, but if you have curly hair, its humectant pomade is for you. Designed to retain moisture and define the natural waves in your hair, this makes high-maintenance hairstyles accessible to men with a tricky hair type.
Bumble And Bumble
A fashion-insider’s choice, Bumble and Bumble is often used backstage at fashion shows, on photoshoots and on film sets. Pomades for slick, precise styles can feel heavy but this is light and malleable for when you want something more flexible than Lego hair.
Based for 30 years in London fashion district Soho, Fish is seen as regularly in glossy magazines as on supermarket shelves. Big on hold but low on shine, its pomade is ideal for modern takes on quiffs and pompadours. The coconut scent isn’t bad, either.