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Fashion archive: The man’s world of traditional barbers under threat

One of the few masculine preserves remaining to this age is the barber’s shop. True, the proprietor’s wife occasionally pokes a head and a word into the football and racing conclaves of the small suburban and village saloons, and the big city hairdressers often boast a manicurist who slides silently from behind curtained recesses and disappears again as soon as her buffing and filing is done — but on the whole, pass beneath the striped pole and through the frosted glass doors and you are in a man’s world.

To-day, however, it is a world threatened with invasion. Barbers all over the country are finding it so difficult to get assistants and so few boys are entering the trade from school that many men’s hairdressers fear that the widespread employment of women is unavoidable.

The main explanation of the long lists of “barbers wanted” that appear nightly in the classified columns of the evening papers and weekly in the trade journals is a simple economic one.

Barbers serve a three-year apprenticeship at the end of which a boy can expect to earn about £2 10s a week exclusive of tips. Unskilled labour and even errand boys’ jobs pay much more than this. The minimum wage for a skilled, fully trained barber is about £5 10s a week — again industry can offer much more attractive wages. Hours are another source of discouragement: barbers’ shops are usually open until 7 p.m. and stay open on Saturday afternoons, and, as in other trades, conscription had had its effect, encouraging, as it does, so many boys to take a short-sighted view of wages and prospects.

Insufficient pay and prospects are, however, not the only deterrents. The quirks of human nature also play a part. A barber takes an apprentice who, in the intervals of taking instruction from his employer, acts as a lather boy. After a year or two the boy will be ready and willing to shave a customer or cope with a simple haircut. Ready and willing — but not able. The customer will not allow it. “Why should I be the guinea-pig?” he demands of the barber. The barber relents, to keep the customer, and the boy goes on lathering and sweeping hair or finds another trade.

Then there are the factors of craftsmanship and pride in the job. In a large
northern city two barbers’ shops are to be found across the street from each other. One finds no difficulty in getting assistants and keeps for years the ones it employs; the other has a large turnover and a permanent vacancy sign. The reason for the discrepancy is craftsmanship. The customers in the first shop are mostly regulars, they are leisurely and individual in their approach to having their hair cut. The barber and his assistant take time and pains over their work using scissors and comb and never clippers. Each head of hair is tackled differently and so the assistants find pleasure, pride, and variety at their work and stay at it.

The second is in complete contrast. To use a “Sweeney Todd” expression still current in the trade the one aim of the establishment is to “polish ’em off.” No sooner is the client installed in one of a seemingly endless vista of chairs than the sheet is round him and the clippers are out : “Short back and sides?” asks the assistant and almost without waiting for an answer the hair begins to fly. Barbering under these conditions is like lathe-operating or working on a conveyor belt — dull, monotonous, and extracting little loyalty from its practitioners.

Allied to this matter of craftsmanship is the Englishman’s attitude to his hair. Barbers who take a pride in their job complain that most Englishmen regard it as almost effeminate to display any interest whatever in its shape or styling. If they have any instructions to impart many apparently cover up their shameful failing by throwing the onus on their wives. “My wife says it ought to be fuller at the sides,” they mumble, dismissing this as some outrageous female aberration but hoping the barber will accept it as an instruction.

To free themselves from the bondage of hour after hour of short back-and-sides cutting some barbers have introduced charts and ask the customer to point to the style he prefers. But in many cases the only result of this has been that the customer has selected the style that suits him least. Men with long thin faces ask for short sides, broad-faced men demand that it be left full above the ears.

But let Englishmen who are appalled at the prospect of women barbers ponder the situation in America. There even women serving behind bars are regarded with horror but the price of a haircut is reported to be three dollars. And they will find their wives having a haircut in the men’s saloon.

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