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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week