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The $20 Hair Dryer I’ve Had My Whole Adult Life

Thanks, Vidal Sassoon.

Photo: Paper Boat Creative/Getty Images

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Few markers of adulthood make the transition into actual adulthood. But my Vidal Sassoon Quiet Styler has lasted from the last day of summer vacation in 2002 through this morning. Considering the 15 years of near-daily use, in addition to more than 10 living situations and four states, I expect the hair dryer to last well into middle age.

Buying it felt decadent — because for a 14-year-old, or at least for 14-year-old me, spending $20 is decadent. After all, I’d been hoarding chore money to fund this sacred Target sojourn. Once home and in the safe quarters of my carpeted bedroom, I gingerly held the machine, turning it over in awe. This was it: my first hair dryer. Growing up with thrifty parents, I was allowed to use my mother’s just-fine generic dryer when I showered in the mornings before school. But this dryer was mine, and unlike my mom’s bland white model, mine was ensconced in silver metallic paint and featured deep ebony letters spelling out VS Sassoon. In my young brain, the logo meant a deviation from my strictly middle-class upbringing. The Vidal Sassoon Quiet Styler was adult luxury. Even my older sister didn’t have her own hair dryer.

This acquisition meant maturity in a way no other product or gadget had. Before, I slicked Teen Spirit on my adolescent pits in vain and ran an electric razor over blonde leg hairs to no obvious effect. But when it came to the hair dryer, I didn’t need anything my hormones weren’t ready to dish out just yet. I’d had hair on my head since I was born — this would be easy. Obviously the QS would pump my limp hair with an air of proficiency, magically lifting and illuminating strands like I saw in Pantene Pro-V commercials.

On our second day together I held the dryer at arm’s length from my wet mop, primping in the mirror. (Its elegance almost made me forget the massive maxi pad I was wearing — coincidentally, this wasn’t just my first day of eighth grade, it was also the first day of my first-ever period. More proof that I was a woman, finally! A result of the hair dryer? Probably.) We lived in a modest, thin-walled craftsman. If my sister or I ever invited friends to sleep over, it was always only a matter of time until our shrill gossiping carried from the living room to my parents’ room at the other end of the house. But my new dryer kept true to its name. It was quiet enough to keep me out of trouble as a teen.

Its reticent nature has staying power, too. The machine’s soft hum kept the peace through countless throngs of super sound-sensitive roommates in tiny Brooklyn apartments. In one living sitch, two roommates also used the dryer — meaning it got about 45 minutes of use a day for two years, after serving only me a decade-plus prior.

It was once silver and clearly marked with settings, but constant use wore my Quiet Styler’s handle to its current matte, text-less gray. There are just three speeds: low, medium, and high, with a Cold Shot button to help set more finicky styles. Although initially more posh than my mother’s wares, my dryer has solidified itself as simply practical — and freakishly reliable. Even through a slew of moves, its braided cord has absolutely never tangled itself into anything more complex than a loose knot.

My technique using the dryer has gone through its own journey, too. Initial runs included the diffuser attachment I could never understand and swiftly misplaced forever. (The removable filter that allows “easy cleaning and extends the life of the dryer” also went missing early on. That clearly had no negative effect on its lifetime, though.) I crudely wielded a narrow, plastic round brush, attempting to mimic my mother’s approach; the goal was to inject my fine hair with volume, but the reality was a hair cacophony involving said brush that almost necessitated scissors. For much of college, I opted to air-dry my hair on bike rides to class. But for nights out, I nailed a head-upside-down approach, finger-combing tresses while gently shaking the dryer’s hot air stream at sopping roots. It never made a remarkable difference from when I air-dried in the cycling lane, but the ritual made me feel more grown-up — even if I was just prepping for a night out taking advantage of penny PBRs at the local dive. Owning and finessing such an adult device surely meant I would adopt an eloquent way of speaking, social intelligence, and class… right?

At 29, as much of an adult I imagine I’ll ever feel, my Quiet Styler still serves me well, though I use it more rarely in Atlanta summers while working from home. My hair never looks as TV-ready as when a professional handles it, but the lasting power of this modest piece of technology provides a weird sense of comfort. I bought it as a prepubescent girl and have continued to use it well into textbook adulthood, most recently moving it into the house I now own. Besides a beloved Minnie Mouse pillowcase from my fifth birthday, I haven’t held on to much from my girlhood. When I purchased my Quiet Styler, it was symbolic of what I wanted to become: a woman. It’s part of a series of rituals, and in some weird way that provides the deepest sense of warmth, even warmer than a 15-year-old hair dryer.