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

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
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.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'