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How the romance of Astrid Kirchherr and Stuart Sutcliffe created The Beatles' iconic look

When one thinks of The Beatles, you’re normally met with the silhouettes of four mop-topped, charming, handsome young men. Arguably the most iconic of their looks, the suited, mop-top iteration of the four-piece from their early days is the one that is universally recognised and the most accessible. Although they wrote better music in their psychedelic days, that’s not what their brand was built on.

However, this look, which is seen in Hard Rock Café’s across the world, was not the brainchild of the ‘Fab Four’. Instead, it was something of an accidental occurrence. Their aesthetic stemmed from the unintended efforts of German photographer Astrid Kirchherr along with her art school friends, the now-iconic Klaus Voormann and Jürgen Vollmer after Kirchherr befriended The Beatles during their formative Hamburg era. 

The three were also part of the city’s existentialist scene, mainly made up of their peers from Hamburg’s Meisterschule für Mode, Textil, Grafik und Werbung. Of their outlook, she told BBC Radio Merseyside: “Our philosophy then, because we were only little kids, was wearing black clothes and going around looking moody. Of course, we had a clue who Jean-Paul Sartre was. We got inspired by all the French artists and writers because that was the closest we could get.”

She explained: “England was so far away, and America was out of the question. So France was the nearest. So we got all the information from France, and we tried to dress like the French existentialists… We wanted to be free, we wanted to be different, and tried to be cool, as we call it now.”

When Kirchherr passed away in May 2020, Paul McCartney said: “Astrid looked unique. She had a short blonde haircut and wore a slim black, leather outfit which made her look like a funky pixie. She would come to the club with Klaus and another friend, Jörgen Vollmer, and the three of them made quite an impression on us lads from Liverpool.”

Of this arty trio, McCartney also said: “Their wit and conversation were really stimulating and we fell in love with Astrid’s style.” It would be the band’s then bass player, Stuart Sutcliffe, who truly fell in love with her, though. Enchanted by her style, and viewing the trio as “real bohemians”, Sutcliffe soon fell madly in love with Kirchherr after only their first encounter. 

At the time of meeting in August 1960, Kirchherr and Voormann were a couple, but this wouldn’t matter. Sutcliffe and Kirchherr were engaged by November 1960. Unfortunately, he would pass away owing to a brain haemorrhage in April 1962, but not before they both could make their lasting impact on The Beatles.  

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Kirchherr was also totally rapt by the boys from Liverpool, as she once explained: “It was like a merry-go-round in my head, they looked absolutely astonishing… My whole life changed in a couple of minutes. All I wanted was to be with them and to know them.” Given her influence, Kirchherr is widely credited with inventing the band’s mop-top haircut and is said to have been the one that admonished their early teddy boy look. However, the band’s change in style was a gradual thing, not a concerted effort, regardless of what discourse says. 

She revealed: “All that rubbish people said, that I created their hairstyle, that’s rubbish! Lots of German boys had that hairstyle. Stuart had it for a long while and the others copied it. I suppose the most important thing I contributed to them was friendship.”

Adding: “All my friends in art school used to run around with this sort of what you call ‘Beatles haircut’. And my boyfriend then, Klaus Voormann, had this hairstyle, and Stuart liked it very, very much. He was the first one who really got the nerve to get the Brylcreem out of his hair and asking me to cut his hair for him. Pete (Best) has really curly hair and it wouldn’t work.”

So, it was actually Stuart Sutcliffe, who, by way of wanting to impress the already spoken for Kirchherr, who helped to shift the style of The Beatles. In another interview, she explained that after she cut Sutcliffe’s hair in that moody, French-inspired mop, Harrison asked her to do the same thing when she visited Liverpool. 

Not wanting to be left looking uncool, Lennon and McCartney then followed, cutting their hair in the same style when they visited Paris, only it wasn’t Kirchherr who did the job, but her friend Vollmer who was living there while working as the assistant to the celebrated photographer William Klein. 

Although she claimed she did not invent The Beatles‘ famous look, without Kirchherr, it is safe to say they probably would’ve kept their teddy boy aesthetic. Not all of the plaudits can go to Kirchherr, though, as it was Sutcliffe’s efforts that actually made the difference. In a weird way, then, Sutcliffe lives on in every image of the band wearing mop-tops.

Listen to Kirchherr talk about The Beatles below.