For a start, there is the term: hairdresser or barber? Hairdresser seems an inherently feminine word, if not concept, that is difficult for many men to pronounce without being self-conscious.
Barber is a different story. For a start, it conjures up a completely different and male-dominated world. Barbers chairs to start with, with their cushioned seats and metal footplates, and their ability to tilt and swivel: I remember thinking as a kid that I would mind a chair like that when I grew up. Then there is the smell, slightly menthol, the cut pieces of paper towelling carefully folded around the back of your neck, and the scissors and combs sitting in a bath of pale blue disinfectant, on the floor clippings of hair of all colours to be swept up later. Then the barber himself – a very different creature from a ‘hairdresser’ – older generally, mostly pretty affable given his trade, flashing his scissors and cutting rapidly at thin air without achieving any discernible result. In my memory at least they seem to be men with a profusion of nasal hair and with a personal style that harked back to another era – perhaps coincident with the ancient girly calendar yellowing on the wall – when California poppy and Brylcream were all the go.
All this is distant memory, too. For all my wistful description it is a long time since I actually sat in a barber’s chair. They seem to me a strange and almost archaic profession, their shops little time capsules of old-fashioned mores and sentiment. In other words, they seem to me places where old men go to re-visit those eras when they were fresh and spry, recaptured in the frozen but familiar relics all around them. To me it is less familiar – besides which, I’m sceptical of their ability to deliver the haircut I actually want.
What that haircut might actually be is not easy to answer – certainly I don’t know. In part that’s why I go to a hairdresser rather than a barber. What’s it today they might ask, to which I might respond with an uncertain smirk and a shrug of the shoulders, whatta ya reckon?
I am of that generation – and type – where to spend good money on appearance is the work of a moment. It may be slightly embarrassing still to sneak into a hairdressing salon, but in the long run well worth it if they can preserve – or extract – some remnant of slowly diminishing male beauty. This is very different from days past. To get a haircut once was a purely functional exercise – just a little off the sides thanks, Joe. Anything more than that was slightly unmanly, and left to the girls to bother about: that was their thing after all. How things have changed – we now live in a narcissistic age made easy by relative wealth and a plethora of choice.
I’ve had my hair cut today by the girl who has done it the last few times, a skilled practitioner who has all sorts of ideas about my hair and with whom I discuss as she snips away travel and sumo wrestling and all manner of topics. She’s good, but my favourite hairdresser was a short, bald and pot-bellied man who knew my hair better than I did, and with whom I would discuss boxing and technology and occasionally girls, and all the other boy things. This was in an up-market salon where most of the clientele were beautiful and well to do women, or simply well to do. I was neither of course, and a bloke to boot. To sit amid all that was somehow a little strange, but also a little fun. In ways, he was as foreign to that environment as I was, but much in the way that a discordant note makes the tune complete. Out of place, but we fit.
Maybe you could argue that the barbershop may one day go the way of the dodo, but I’m tipping that even as times continue to change that there will always be a place for them, and a clientele ready to climb aboard a barber’s chair and be transported back to a simpler time.