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

When Julio Cortazar wrote, "A haircut is a metaphysical operation", he is unlikely to have been sitting in Gerald's barber shop on Pelton Road in South London. There can be few things less incorporeal than the premises of an English barber. The barber shop is a place where philosophising, if there is any, is restricted to the outcome of an impending sporting event or the vicissitudes of the British climate.

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests