The Enduring Power of a Low Bun

Posted December 29, 2017 6:35 p.m. EST

In the admittedly small taxonomy of buns, the topknot, or the high bun, is the bun that tends to hog the spotlight. “Look at my hair!” it screams, perched like a papal crown. It’s the universal symbol of ballerinas; of young starlets parading their sex appeal; of flight attendants going for a vaguely retro look; of a certain brand of self-consciously sensitive bro.

If it’s rare to see a person over a certain age wearing a topknot, it’s because it conveys a certain uncouth youthfulness, a sense of unseriousness, a need to provoke. In this regard, another bun — the low bun, with hair wound into a spiral or folded into a loop — might seem its polar opposite. In ancient China, the style was adorned with flowers or jewels, and while considered a status symbol, it was also thought to be matronly, literally — a look worn only by married women. In the United States, there were many decades when the low bun was associated with a decidedly practical, puritanical, even schoolmarmish look.

In recent years, though, the low bun has been reclaimed, just as a certain kind of womanhood has: Why should looking like a wife or mother (or a woman who simply needs her hair out of her face) have a negative connotation? Who says it’s not sexy, or better yet, commanding? In a modern context, the low bun — worn loose or tidy, hastily done or carefully coifed — is a shortcut to elegance, conveying not stuffiness or seriousness so much as a hint of refreshing formality: sleek, chic and versatile, feminine without being fussy, drawing attention to the face without requesting attention outright. In an age in which having a signature uniform conveys both style and ambition, a suggestion of having better things to do, the low bun is the fail-safe solution.

If eyeglasses are a quick code for “smart,” the low bun, sometimes known as a chignon, has become the equivalent for “sophisticated” — but unlike, say, the French twist, it offers the added benefit of not making you look like you’ve tried too hard. The low bun looks good on everyone, and it’s also eminently achievable.

It works on clean hair and greasy hair, straight hair and curly hair, long hair and relatively short hair, with a side part or with a part down the middle. It takes virtually no skill: You simply sweep the hair back at the nape of the neck (is there a body part more poetic or demurely beautiful, both in name and in form?) and use an elastic to twirl it around into a neat whorl. The idea of effortless beauty can seem like wishful thinking at best — but if there’s a single practice that comes close, it’s the low bun.