For men only
The barber shop is one of the last great engines of democracy. Be he duke or dustman, when the customer eases himself into the leatherette and chrome of the Belmont barber's chair, he becomes just another head of hair. By Nick Foulkes. Photographs by Christine Sullivan
Along with the pub and the bookmaker, the barber shop is part of a triumvirate of establishments upon which the edifice of the British male is founded. It recalls a time before men's style magazines began to bombard their hundreds of thousands of readers with grooming tips. It is a monument to a time when a haircut was just that, a perfunctory no-nonsense quarter of an hour, during which excess locks were trimmed. A haircut was not a fashion statement, nor even an event on which much thought was lavished. It was just something that was done as a matter of course, like checking the oil and water before a long journey in the Morris Oxford or paying a visit to the dentist in the event of a toothache.
Indeed, the surroundings in which the barber worked often evoked a feeling of surgical efficiency. At its most highly developed, the decorative tempo of the deco barbershop is best characterised as "camped-up operating theatre": walls panelled with Vitrolite, chunks of coloured marble, cabinets of stainless steel, reflective glass, chromium trim everywhere, Buck Rogers- style light fittings suspended from the ceiling and, of course, those chairs that conspired to make even the seating arrangements in the dentist's consulting room seem anorexic. The clinical rather than cosmetic heritage of the barber shop is still evoked today with the prominently displayed, imposing glass and metal canisters of the azure-blue antiseptic Barbicide.
Even the pricing structure was frill-free: one paid for what one wanted. To have the haircut dry was the base price; a wash incurred an increment in the price as did such extras as singeing with a hot taper or the application of such invigorating tonics as "friction".
To describe a visit to the barber as a male ritual or a rite of passage would perhaps be overstating its importance, but it was a part of male life. A visit to one of the men's outfitters that dominated the nation's high streets for much of this century was not complete without a visit to the barber shop.
Depending on the pretensions of the outfitter, the barber would range from the extravagance of Austin Reed on Regent Street in London to the discreet labyrinthine charm of Walters on the Turl of Oxford.
For boys, the end of a school holiday would be marked by a visit to the barber, whose precise efforts would soon be marred by the itinerant school barber, invariably a man with a limp or a leg iron, who, with his apprentices, would butcher dozens of schoolboy heads before lunch.
The barber shop has endured the onslaught of everything from the rise of the unisex salon to the vogue for holding mousse and styling gel with an attitude best described as curmudgeonly pluckiness. It seems to revel in its grumpy, manly archaism.
Time, however, does not stand completely still, even in a barber shop; it accretes. Trends wash over the barber shop and, when they recede, they leave behind them traces of their flotsam. The Vitrolite may now be showing its age. The chrome is perhaps slightly pitted.
Electrification has led to a grudging switch from hand-operated clippers to electric ones. Black and white photographs depicting hairstyles seemingly selected at random from any time in the past four decades hang on parts of the wall in a vain attempt to persuade customers to look like, say, Mike Barlow in Coronation Street circa 1976. There may even be some remaining shreds of vintage advertising paraphernalia urging the purchase of Durex condoms or Cossack Hairspray.
But whatever the superficial trimmings, there is a feeling that the whole style of the barber shop is underpinned by a grudging refusal to compromise too much: a quality that is quintessentially British
Arts & Ents blogs
There is a good many moments in the second episode of this psychological thriller that deserve refle...
The opening titles squeal ‘Never Can Say Goodbye…’. Oh Lord how I wish I could heave this series off...
Even though there was a complete absence of our favourite odd couple Brienne and Jaime, we got anoth...
This is the end... Keyboard player of The Doors Ray Manzarek dies of cancer aged 74
'He was lucky he didn't die' - George Michael fell out of speeding car onto M1 motorway, according to eye witness
Coronation Street triumphs over EastEnders at British Soap Awards 2013
School-gate mums: Is 2013's Fifty Shades a novel by Gill Hornby called The Hive?
Arrested Development returns but can the new episodes on Netflix capture the show's deadpan glory days?
- 1 'He was lucky he didn't die' - George Michael fell out of speeding car onto M1 motorway, according to eye witness
- 2 Austerity has hardened the nation's heart
- 3 Gay couple beaten in park urge MPs to moderate language on gay marriage
- 4 X marks the spot: The find that could rewrite Australian history
- 5 'It was just like the movie Twister': Man survives Oklahoma tornado by taking refuge in horse stall
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.