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The Greatest Hairdresser of the 20th Century, Revealed

In 1947, Roman Vishniac documented Orthodox Jewish Holocaust Survivors near Paris. He also photographed Antoine.

Maya Benton
April 30, 2015

In 1947, photographer Roman Vishniac was a recently naturalized American citizen when he was sent back to Europe by several Jewish relief organizations to document the plight of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees in displaced persons camps. While there, he photographed the ruins of Berlin, his former hometown, and traveled to France where he documented a community of Orthodox Jewish Holocaust survivors living in a crumbling chalet outside Paris. En route, he stopped in Paris, where he photographed Antoine, the world’s first celebrity hairdresser.

In honor of National Hairstylists Appreciation Day (it’s a thing, look it up), and the age-old challenges posed by Jewish hair, we are publishing Vishniac’s images and contact sheets of the fabulous Monsieur Antoine for the first time.

Born in Poland in 1884, Antek “Antoine” Cierplikowski moved to Paris in 1901, where the once penniless émigré became the most famous hairstylist in the world. Known as “Monsieur Antoine,” or “Antoine de Paris,” his salons were a mecca for the chic-est women in Europe. He was credited with the creation of such dramatic cuts as the short bob, referred to as “à la garçonne,” or the “shingle cut,” which became an international sensation among daring and modern women in the 1920s, including Coco Chanel.

Considered the first hairstylist to have celebrity cachet, he had clients who included Claudette Colbert, Mata Hari, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Sarah Bernhardt, Wallis Simpson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Edith Piaf, Brigitte Bardot, and Josephine Baker, whom he saved from a horrible burnt-hair episode when she was rushed to one of his salons. Antoine created fads for unusual hair colors and streaks, including blonde, blue, green, mauve, and gray, which became popular in artistic and avant-garde circles; he strolled the streets of Paris with his dog, whose hair he dyed mauve. His innovations included the invention of a homemade lacquer concoction (known today as hairspray) and the “sculpted curl” that was popularized by Baker, and Antoine could even stencil a golden butterfly in the hair of a free-spirited flapper that would wash out when the party ended; he allowed customers to try on wigs in daring cuts and colors to see what might suit them (protecting himself, no doubt, from a monarch, heiress, or actress falling apart at the sight of an irreversible, frizzed orange bob).

In the 1920s Antoine opened a salon at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, and it was in America that he mentored the next generation of celebrity coiffeurs; he soon had salons in Tokyo, Melbourne, Vancouver, and throughout Europe and the United States. Antoine had a knack for immediately sizing up the insecurities, needs, and fantasies of his female clients, observing

Women come to us shopping for a new personality. Every woman is an abler and better person when she knows she looks well. All have some elements of beauty. To a great extent our work is correcting nature’s deficiencies. If a woman has bad ears, we hide them. If her forehead is too high, bangs will shorten it. Upswept hair will lengthen a low forehead. Hair on top of the head will give a sense of height to a short woman, and a long bob will shorten a woman who is too tall. There is no such thing as a “standard” hairdo. Every woman is an individual problem.

His clients sometimes endured his harsh appraisals, the cost of being styled by Monsieur. He could snap at a client, “I don’t like your taste and don’t want your money. Please leave.” (She would return the next day.) To another, he might bark, “You act like a truck driver. If you do not believe me, go have your voice recorded. I do not see how anyone could tolerate you, much less love you.” Rather cruel words to withstand from one’s hairdresser, yet clients waited months or even years for an appointment. He once charged $15,000 for one haircut (adjusted to inflation).

Elsa Schiaparelli poses for Man Ray in an Antoine wig. (Man Ray, Untitled, ca. 1933, Collection San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Elsa Schiaparelli poses for Man Ray in an Antoine wig. (Man Ray, Untitled, ca. 1933, Collection San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris)

In the 1930s Antoine became a darling of artistic circles, particularly the Surrealists, including Man Ray, Salvador Dalì, and Cocteau, who incorporated Antoine’s designs and famous, high-gloss shellacked and lacquered wigs into their photographs and films. In 1933 Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) photographed legendary fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli—her body replaced by the marble bust of Venus de Milo—wearing one of the many wigs Antoine designed for her that was inspired by ancient Greek and Roman hairstyles.

Schiaparelli later recalled, “Antoine made me some fabulous wigs for evening and even pour le sport. I wore them in white, in silver, in red for the snow of St. Moritz, and would feel utterly unconscious of the stir they created. Antoine was … certainly the most progressive and the most enterprising coiffeur of these times. I wore these wigs with the plainest of dresses so that they became a part of the dress and not an oddity.” Despite his association with Cocteau and the most unconventional and bawdiest members of the French avant-garde, he was still establishment enough to do the hair for the 1937 coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Antoine was flamboyant and eccentric: He slept in a cushioned glass coffin; paraded around with his poodle’s hair died in various shades of purple (his white Borzoi wolfhound got a blue ’do); he adored white and had everything—including his hair—painted that color; he constructed his own elaborate tomb and mortuary sculptures in a secluded cemetery (which he visited often to “accustom himself to death”); he lived in a house with neither windows nor doors, where he was fond of playing Bach on a cathedral organ built into the wall (for more on his life, read Antoine, by Antoine).

When the Nazis occupied France in 1940, Antoine was in America, so he waited out the war in New York, opening salons from coast to coast. He became an American citizen in 1946—the same year as Vishniac—and used his private plane to fly back and forth between Europe and America. Just after the war, while in Europe to photograph Jewish refugees and displaced persons camps, Vishniac photographed Antoine working in one of his salons—always surrounded by handsome young assistants—and in his grand apartment in Paris donning painted toenails, wearing platform shoes and a white silk robe, or holding a mask in front of artworks glorifying the male form. How and why they met remains a mystery.

Click on the link to the left to launch the slideshow

Maya Benton is a curator at the International Center of Photography.

Maya Benton is a curator at the International Center of Photography.