It’s technically true that the Civil War general Ambrose Everett Burnside invented, and lent his name to, sideburns. But it’s also true that the sideburn’s century-ish of history can be considered but a prelude to one fateful day in 1990 or thereabouts when Luke Perry’s barber, clippers in hand, reached the space in front of the actor’s ears … and paused. The clouds parted, the angels sang, and a few millimeters of growth later, lo it had been achieved: the pinnacle of the sideburn.
Perry’s sudden death on Monday has inspired an outpouring of grief for the actor and fond remembrances of how he carried his heartthrob mantle through generations. But if you really want to understand just how culturally important, admired, and lusted over Luke Perry was during the height of the 90210 years, you need look no further than his facial hair. The actor was so famous that his sideburns took on a life of their own. No one, not even his Beverly Hills, 90210 co-star Jason Priestley, sideburned better than Perry in his prime.* To witness Perry’s ’burns on the show was to watch a great artist at work: Someone alive in the ’90s couldn’t hear Beethoven play piano live or see Olivier on stage, but she could count herself lucky to live in the time of Perry, with his innate cool and the impossibly perfect hair adjacent his ears. Though the Rachel gets all the glory, Perry’s sideburns kicked off the original ’90s haircut craze—and there is a rich trove of cultural coverage from the time to prove it.
Perry’s sideburns rated a mention in practically every article about the actor or the show. “It’s his voice, his sideburns. He’s so casually cool,” a 13-year-old named Robin gushed to Newsday in 1991. The next year, the Chicago Tribune tried to dress Perry down by calling him a “bit too big for his sideburns.” The Chicago Sun-Times ran a guide to 90210 “for boomers” and identified Perry by his earside hedges, while the Vancouver Sun referred to Perry as Priestley’s “partner in sideburns.”* In 1991, a Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel article, written after Perry’s appearance at a local mall devolved into overcrowding and shoving that led to 20 injuries, teased that Perry’s sideburns were even longer in real life than they were on the show, a morsel designed to drive adolescent girls crazy.
Soon enough, young men everywhere started copying the sideburns, and, like the tiny hairs by their ears, trend pieces started sprouting up all over the place. In 1992, the Wall Street Journal called the sideburn fad “so trendy that for some it’s already passé,” before identifying Perry and Priestley as “the two leading examples of the burns trend.”* The paper said the previous heyday for sideburns had been the ’60s and ’70s, when Elvis “wore them so large they almost covered both of his chins” (though other publications pointed to James Dean and the 1950s as precursors). They’d gone out of style, until 90210 arrived on the scene and changed everything:
Messrs. Perry and Priestly [sic] showed up, independently, with sideburns for their auditions for “Beverly Hills 90210.” The show’s producers were at first skittish, not sure how the look would fly on prime-time TV. But they took the plunge, and the rest is history.
The Baltimore Sun took the first-person tact on sideburn mania with an article headlined “Cool Hair Luke,” by a writer who discussed his own brush with longer hair on the side of his head as well as his envy of the full sideburns of the supposedly high school–aged stars of the show. “How do they keep them so close?” he opined. “The actors probably get a touch-up every day from professional stylists.” The writer wasn’t alone. A 22-year-old quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that year professed to hate 90210 and insisted he was going for more of a James Hetfield of Metallica look with his sideburns. “It bugs me when people tell me I’m trying to be like Luke Perry,” another 19-year-old man told the paper. Men seemingly wanted to subtly associate themselves with the heartthrobs of 90210 without actually having to watch 90210, a point that says almost as much about the masculinity of the era as it does about the coiffure.
In the annals of celebrity hair, Perry’s sideburns deserve a place alongside Andy Warhol’s wig, John Waters’ mustache, and Amy Winehouse’s beehive. They became such a trademark that they later inspired a meta joke in one of Perry’s first post-stardom film roles. If Beverly Hills, 90210 isn’t remembered as a particularly good show, Perry’s performance was special, as was his wily infiltration of the larger culture, and his sideburns provided an enduring part of that mystique. It was a magnetism that even some of the beleaguered sideburned men of the era couldn’t resist. As one of them, David Birmingham, then 27, told the Orlando Sentinel, “[I]t’s OK to have people say, ‘Hey, you look like that guy on Beverly Hills 90210.’ I mean, he’s a pretty cool guy.”
Correction, March 5, 2019: This piece originally misspelled Jason Priestley’s last name.