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