“Taper,” “fade,” “taper fade….” When it comes to men’s haircuts, you’ve most likely heard people throw these terms around. But if you’re confused about the differences between each type of cut, then you’re certainly not alone!
Though the terms “taper,” “fade,” and “taper fade” are sometimes used interchangeably, tapers and fades are actually separate haircuts with distinct differences and taper fade is a catch-all term for both. We’ll walk you through exactly what these haircuts look like, the differences between the two, and how to know which cut (if either) is right for you.
Taper Cut, Fade, Taper Fade: What Are the Differences?
The taper cut and the fade cut are two very similar hairstyles, and if you don’t know what to look for, it can be tricky to tell them apart. This can make knowing what to ask for a little more difficult when getting your hair cut, so let’s break down what each cut looks like, plus what people mean when they talk about a taper fade haircut.
Taper vs. Fade: What They Have in Common
Both the taper and the fade haircut start with long(er) hair on the top of the head, which then gets progressively shorter going down the back and sides.
Versatile and easy to maintain, both cuts are extremely popular and have been for several decades. While the taper haircut is more common and a little more adaptable to different looks, both are considered “classic” styles, suited towards many different face shapes, as well as both casual and professional environments.
Both the taper and the fade cut will grow back in evenly over time, which makes maintenance touch-ups generally pretty hassle-free. And it also allows for an easy transition growing back in if you decide you don’t like the style.
Because the cuts are so similar, it can be confusing to understand the difference between them or know which to choose. But there are a few key differences between the styles, so let’s look at each in more detail.
What Is a Taper Haircut?
“Tapering” in hair means that the hair reduces in length along a gradient (goes from longer to shorter). Most modern men’s haircuts have some form of tapering, but the amount varies depending on the cut in question. Even on relatively uniform haircuts, a small amount of tapering—especially towards the bottom and at the hairline—helps prevent any haircut from coming to a “sudden stop.”
A proper “taper haircut” leaves a relatively long length of hair at the top of the head (usually 2 to 4 inches, but sometimes longer) and then slowly reduces the length along the back and sides. The gradient usually begins around the temple and ends at the natural hairline. The fading process itself can either be stylishly “sloppy” and have obvious layers to it, or be fairly uniform and smooth, depending on the desired style.
Though the gradient of a taper cut gets quite short at the hairline, the hairline remains intact and the fading doesn’t blend all the way down to the skin. This is one of the key differences between a taper cut and a fade cut.
The taper cut can be done with scissors or clippers (or both), depending on how thick the hair is and how slow the tapering effect is. There is also some wiggle room for a hairdresser to get it “wrong” or otherwise make a mistake in a taper cut, as the tapering is generally done along a slow gradient. Because of this, it’s easy to recover from a mistake by simply blending in the rest of the hair along the sides and back to match.
The taper cut has been a classic look for decades, as it combines the best of two worlds—allowing for longer hair (with little required maintenance), while still maintaining a stylish and well-groomed look. Taper also gives a lot of freedom of movement for the longer hair at the top of the head, which allows for a wide variety of day-to-day styling choices.
What Is a Fade Haircut?
The fade haircut, like the taper, also has a gradient, beginning from longer hair on top, to very short hair along the back and sides. But the difference between a fade and a taper lies in the the length of the hair at the top of the head and the style of the fading along the back and sides.
The hair on the top in a fade cut is generally much shorter than a taper cut, usually less than two inches. The fading effect of a fade cut also happens more quickly than in a taper cut, with the hair of a fade ending above the natural hairline. The hair at the bottom of the fade cut should blend into the skin so that the hairline isn’t visible at the back and along the sides.
In a fade, the hair usually fades to skin right at or above the ear (though a “low fade” can be much lower, near the hairline, and a “high fade” can end high above the ear), and the cut should have an incredibly smooth blend overall from the hair to the skin. Whereas a taper cut can potentially look “artfully messy” or choppy, the fade cut should look smooth and streamlined, which can be difficult to master. So make sure whoever’s cutting your hair has experience with the technique!
Also known as a “high and tight,” the fade cut has long been popular with military personnel due to its neatness and ease of maintenance. But there are many styles and variants on the fade cut, so it is by no means limited to the military. The cut gives a modern and fashionable look while requiring only touch-up maintenance (not daily styling). It’s also a particular popular cut in American-American communities, as the fade haircut works well with most any hair texture, including very tight curls.
What Is a Taper Fade Haircut?
Because the taper cut and the fade cut styles are so similar, many people conflate the two haircuts into one catch-all term: taper fade. However, if you walk into your barbershop or salon and ask for a taper fade, you’ll have to spend some time explaining exactly what you want, since taper fade isn’t an official term.
Most stylists will assume you’re asking for a regular taper haircut if you ask for a “taper fade,” but it’s best to be clear about which haircut type you want so as to avoid any misunderstandings. After all, if what you really wanted was a taper cut and you the got the closer-cropped sides of a fade cut, chances are you won’t be too happy!
Why Choose a Taper or Fade Haircut?
Taper and fade cuts have been (and continue to be!) some of the most popular haircuts for men, and for good reason. These cuts allow for a wide range of style choices, are adaptable for different social or work environments, and look good on the vast majority of men. Each cut can be as trendy or as formal as you want to make them, and most versions of the taper or the fade are easy to maintain on a day-to-day basis.
Overall, if you’re looking for an easy style that still looks like you put some effort into your appearance, a taper or fade haircut might be the right fit for you.
Taper vs. Fade: Which Hairstyle is Right for You?
Okay, so you’ve decided you definitely want to get some kind of gradient cut. But how can you decide taper vs. fade?
Again, though there are more similarities between the two styles than not, each has its own different benefits and drawbacks. Each cut will be a better or worse fit depending on how much effort you want to put into your daily appearance, your general style, and your face shape.
Picking the Best Hairstyle for Your Lifestyle
If you’re someone who wants to think as little about your hair as possible, then a fade haircut is perfect for you. It requires zero daily maintenance, though do take note that you’ll have to get frequent haircuts, or learn how to do it yourself, if you want to maintain the cut).
Though you can absolutely choose a fade cut that is stylish and daring, most fade cuts are short enough on top that they don’t need a lot of daily styling and maintenance. Generally, all you need is the initial cut and then you’re free and clear to live your life without worry until it’s time for the next touch-up. The fade cut also tends to look a little more “serious,” so if you’re someone who doesn’t want to worry about ever looking frazzled or messy, then the fade cut is probably the way to go.
If, however, you’re someone who likes to experiment with different looks from day to day (or hour to hour), then you may want to go with a taper haircut.Though still easy to maintain, the extra length of the taper cut means that you can play around with different products and styles to alter the look however often as you want.
Without styling, the taper cut can also look a little more casual than the fade cut, so if you like to bounce between a relaxed look and a more professional one depending on your style choices of the day, the taper cut is versatile enough to master the challenge.
Picking the Right Hairstyle for Your Face Shape
A haircut can drastically change the look of your face, and the right or wrong haircut for your face shape can make all the difference. No face shape is inherently better or worse than any other, but knowing what yours is can help you make the best style decisions for your overall look. Finding a haircut that complements your face shape can even help draw attention to your best features.
The four most common face shapes are: round, square, oval, and long/oblong. So let’s talk haircuts that work best for different face shapes.
Round faces are about as long as they are wide, which gives the face a uniformly circular appearance. If you have a round face, you’ll want to try to give it the appearance of length and avoid making it look even rounder.
To balance your face shape, avoid round, completely uniform, or full haircuts. It’s best to have a shorter length along the sides and some more volume on top.
A taper cut or other square hairstyle works great with round faces. The fade cut can be a little too extreme for round faces, however, since the bald sides will often make a round face appear rounder and more “babyish.”
Celebrities with round faces: Elijah Wood, Leonardo DiCaprio
Square faces are faces with strong, straight lines along the cheeks. Many people with square faces also have a strong chin and jaw line.
Square faces work great with either a neat and tidy cut or one that has more volume and softness, depending on the look you’re going for.
If you want to emphasize the “strength” of the square face, a haircut that has shorter sides and some volume on top will do the trick. If you want a softer look, then a haircut that’s a little longer on the sides also looks great with a square face.
Both the taper cut or fade both work perfectly for square faces. Go with the taper cut if you want a soft or playful look and the fade cut if you’re going for a more serious look.
Celebrities with square faces: Michael Fassbender, John Cho
Oval faces are about one and a half times longer than they are wide, with relatively uniform proportions. Oval faces are extremely adaptable and pretty much any hairstyle will suit an oval face.
If you’re thinking about a gradient cut, both the taper or the fade will be perfect for an oval face.
Celebrities with oval faces: Will Smith, Jake Gyllenhaal
A long or oblong face is usually noticeably longer than it is wide. Often, people with long faces have long foreheads or chins as well, though this isn’t universally true.
If you have a long face, go for volume and layering in your haircuts to draw attention to the sides of the head and away from further elongating the face. Bangs or other soft style that keeps the hair in front of the face can also go a long way in keeping a long forehead from being too overwhelming. Avoid long hair unless you’re also pairing it with some neatly-trimmed facial hair. And avoid hair with closely-cropped sides.
The taper haircut can work for a long face if you keep the gradient choppy and give the cut lots of layers and volume. But a fade cut is not ideal for an oblong face, as it will make the face appear even longer.
Celebrities with long faces: Hugh Laurie, Morgan Freeman
What to Ask for When You Get a Taper Fade Haircut
Knowing the right cut for you is an important step, but it won’t mean much if you don’t know how to communicate your needs to your barber or stylist. Know what to ask for and how to start out with gradient haircuts so that you walk out satisfied every time.
1. If a taper or fade haircut is new to you, it’s probably best to start slow.
If you want a fade cut, start with a low fade, with the hair blended to skin just above the natural hairline. That way you can see if the style is a good fit for you without going too extreme right out of the gate. If you want to go higher and shorter, you always can.
If you want a taper cut, start slowly by having your barber start shorten the length with scissors instead of clippers. You can always go shorter if you want a closer crop, but you can’t undo it if you start too short too quickly.
2. Be clear with your stylist about exactly what you want before the cutting starts.
The two haircuts are similar, so start by using the terms “taper” or “fade” (depending on what you want) in order to give your stylist a sense of direction. But then take a minute to get specific.
Describe how and where you want the hairline to end and how close-cropped, gradual, or abrupt you want the gradient to be along the sides and along the back. Give specific lengths and guidelines when you can—the words “long” and “short” are subjective and will vary from person to person.
Use inches and/or clipper grade lengths when you describe what you want. After all, “Leave three inches at the top and start tapering with the clippers at 3 on the back and sides,” is much clearer than, “I want it longish on top and shorter on the sides.”
3. Bring pictures for reference.
There’s a good reason people say that a picture is worth 1,000 words! If you find a great haircut that you want to emulate, bring a photo (or three) to show your barber.
A photo reference will go a long way towards preventing any misunderstandings between you and your stylist and will help you achieve the cut you want.
4. Be willing to listen to input from your stylist, and don’t be afraid to ask for advice!
Getting an outside opinion—especially from someone who works with hair styles and textures, and different facial features all day long—can prevent you from making any style mishaps. And your barber may also lead you in an even better direction than what you originally had in mind.
Don’t be too nervous to ask for advice or feedback—if your stylist has some qualms with the haircut you want, there’s probably a good reason for it!
But also keep in mind that the decision is ultimately yours. After all, you’re the one who’s going to live with your cut, so do what makes you happy.