Remember those early-aughts shampoo commercials where — after an hour-long shower — a super-squeaky-clean woman would emerge with full, swingy, multilayered hair? That very specific style is called a step haircut.
No, it doesn’t dry itself like Big Shampoo would have us believe. But it is just naturally voluminous, sultry, and fun. That’s thanks to its tiered layers, which are cut at various lengths to create a “stair” effect along the hair. Those swingy sections ensure that every time you move, your hair does an enchanting little dance.
If you want to look like you, too, are a mythical shampoo-commercial person, then this is the cut for you. So, we asked the experts to explain exactly what a step haircut is, how to get it, and what hair type works best with the cut.
Meet the experts
– Julien Farel is a hairstylist and chairman and founder of Julien Farel Restore Salon and Spa in New York City and Palm Beach.
– Raven Hurtado is a hairstylist at Maxine Salon in Chicago.
– Stephanie Johnson is a hairstylist at Marie Robinson Salon in New York City.
What Is a Step Haircut?
You can ID a step haircut by its similarity to, you guessed it, stairs. “Step cutting is a graduated haircut, making hair take the form of cascading steps,” says Julien Farel, a hairstylist and founder of Julien Farel Restore Salon and Spa in New York City and Palm Beach. Layers are trimmed at different levels and intervals along the length of the hair, creating a look of sharply delineated steps.
“It’s mostly a two-layer cut: There’s a layer below the ear or that hits around the shoulders and a bottom layer that is the perimeter of the length,” adds hairstylist Raven Hurtado, a hairstylist at Maxine Salon in Chicago. It’s a great cut for long styles since it gives the hair some sexy, diva-like movement, but it can be punky and fun on shorter hair as long as the layers are choppy and tousled.
Step, Layered, and Feathered Haircuts: Is There a Difference?
In short: yes. But the differences are nuanced. A layered haircut is more of a catchall term for a cut with varying lengths that add movement to the hairstyle. Not all layered cuts are step cuts, but all step cuts are layered.
With a step haircut, the delineation is much more visible. “You can clearly notice how the hair is trimmed at different levels, with different intervals on your hair lengths, even if it is blended out. There is a sharp demarcation between the steps,” says Farel. The key difference is the definition between layers.
If you’re picturing a feathered haircut — wispy, Farrah Fawcett hair — that’s not quite it, either. A feather cut is also a layered cut but it’s more about hair texture than movement and volume. It doesn’t necessarily involve layers, just opening up the cut at the front and thinning those pieces out a bit so they look airier.
Who Should Get a Step Haircut?
“The step haircut looks best on thick or wavy hair,” says Hurtado. The cut will remove some of the weight of your hair, which gives it a bouncy effect. It’s an especially effective solution for excess frizz, as it will remove some of that puffy volume.
If you have thin, fine hair, a step cut may not be the best move. Cutting sharply delineated layers will make your style look even thinner, especially with the significant space between the lengths of hair, which is standard for a step cut. “Standard layers would be a better option [for thin hair] because of how the layers blend,” notes Hurtado.
How to Maintain and Style a Step Haircut
Keeping the layers clearly separated is key for a step haircut. “The best way to maintain a step haircut is by coming back to the salon about every six to eight weeks,” says Stephanie Johnson, a hairstylist at Marie Robinson Salon in New York City. However, even if the clear steps start to blend into your hair as it grows, it’s not such a bad thing. You probably won’t rush to cut your hair because step haircuts tend to grow out to look like a natural, lived-in style.
The day-to-day is where the real work is and it requires some finessing your wet hair with a blow-dryer. “As you blow-dry, roll the hair out and in again to create the step hair layering,” says Farel. “Before you release a section, hold the blow-dryer over the brush and really heat the section up. Pin and keep it pinned until the end. Then turn the dryer off and let the section cool down after releasing it all.”
If you’re not up for the effort, “there is no better way to show off those amazing layers than with a voluminous ponytail,” says Johnson.
Step Haircut Inspiration
Rachel McAdams’s golden hair is a great color complement for swingy step layers. The ends of the top step (the shortest layer by her chin) are picking up light, which adds some interest at the mid-lengths.
If Beyoncé cosigns, we’re in. This long haircut has always been a go-to for the singer, giving her strands the kind of movement you would get by having someone follow you around with a box fan.
Several of our experts cited Priyanka Chopra’s step haircut as an ideal example. She typically styles the ends with a voluptuous curl — a sexy look that we can easily picture paired with an oversize men’s oxford shirt.
Miley Cyrus’s wavy texture gives her step haircut a cool, undone look. It’s more rock ’n’ roll than luscious sex kitten. Plus, with the two-toned color, you can clearly spot where one step ends and the next begins.
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s shoulder-length lob is a great example of a short step haircut done right. With choppy ends, the style looks cool and edgy.
Originally published in Allure.com