Hair is the first thing strangers notice when they meet you, and the last thing they forget. No wonder hairdressers can rise to celebrity status. Here, four writers go for a haircut
hair is everyone's defining feature. Get a radical new cut and your best friend won't recognise you at 10 paces. The police have found that criminals know very well the easiest and simplest way to change their appearance is a wig or a hat. Hair has always been a status symbol. In the 17th century a gentleman could be judged by the quality of his periwig - Samuel Pepys's delight at being able to afford one was recorded in his diary.

Women have scrapped over top coiffurists for hundreds of years - an appointment with Nicky Clark today means a three-month waiting list. The hairdressers at the top of the modern heap are far from being humble snippers; they rub shoulders with the stars, they appear in Hello!, they become glitzy "personalities" in their own right. For a restyle with a top cutter, expect to pay more than pounds 90. At one of the less highfalutin' of Britain's 29,000 salons, the average amount spent per visit is pounds 11.30.

Things have come along way since the short back and sides, trim or perm. The latest innovation is 100 per cent human hair additions, mounted on clips for easy attatchment. They are available as More Hair from the Daniel Hersheson Salon (0171-434 1747) or Secret Hair (0171-938 1022 for stockists).

But all the technology, all the weaves, perms (acid, root or spiral), tints, waxes, mousses and spritzes in the world can't protect from the Bad Hair Day; going to the salon can still be a traumatic experience ...

my mother was a wrap'n'roller

I'VE NEVER seen my mother's real hair - not even one single strand. Every Friday she goes to Diane's and has a shampoo and set to perk up her perm. It takes at least an hour and a half and as a child I would sometimes go with her if I were "unlucky" enough to be off sick from school. It was at Diane's, breathing deeply on hairspray and perming lotion, that I learnt the feminine art of suffering.

My mother was and is a strong and independent woman. Seeing her pinned to a basin and pummelled by a resentful teenager, then wrapped up like a new born babe was totally fascinating. Dignity was always her main priority, and in situations where such a thing were not possible she feigned an absence of attention. Curling and pinning, though demanded an entirely different arsenal of tactics.

Being "rolled up" meant she would have to hold her head perfectly still as the stylist tugged at sections of her hair and wound them around squashy rollers. The stylist would tug and mum would resist, increasing the pain and tension. All the while she would read Woman's Weekly down her nose and wince at appropriate intervals. The final flourish was a net to hold it all securely and "Is that white with two sugars?"

Only the stylist was allowed to operate the drier and she would lower the hood over my mother's head and give her the switch to hold. It appeared to be a matter of pride not to fiddle with the switch. Her face would get redder and redder as she peered out from inside the little capsule and she would smile at her fellow captives lined up alongside her.

The hot blasting over, she would walk slowly and with great dignity over to a styling chair where she would wait her turn to be bouffed. This was the best bit when lots of single fake curls would be backcombed into one huge feathery bouffant. I was desperate to have a go myself and would beg her to let me have just one little brush of her hair - she never would. I was allowed to sit a little nearer, though, and breathed deeply when copious amounts of hairspray were fizzed around her head to set it in place for the rigours of the week ahead. No one gave a toss for the ozone layer then.

I often asked her what her hair was like in its natural state and she said it was awful and she could never do anything with it. But it was more about belonging to a certain generation of women - women who were born before the concept of feminism got to its feet and were expected to channel their energy into concepts like good housekeeping and duty. The Queen and Mrs Thatcher are a case in point. Rigid hair keeps everything buttoned down nicely.

I have often imagined my mother with her hair cut short and her perming lotion thrown to the wind. I'd like to get hold of her and take her to an expensive London salon, but I have no more hope of doing that than to ask her to don a pair of dungarees and take a course in women's studies. In the meantime, twice a week, I heave lumps of metal up and down in a vain attempt to control my body shape and wonder what any future daughter of mine will say about me.


my friends call me gulag

"HOW LONG is a piece of string?" is one of life's unfathomables. "How short is a No 2 at the sides, square at the back, No 4 on top?" is another - but this one really matters. Like foreplay, ironing a shirt and putting on a duvet cover, asking for a haircut is something men can do only in a manner of speaking. If it works, it's more by chance than good judgement. Parents never tell us how to do it, and real men rarely discuss it. But where frustrated lovers, rumpled shirt tails and duvet wrestling are a very private affair, an inappropriate communication at the barber's can lead to weeks of humiliation.

As a child, I never had any say in how I was coiffured. In the chair, pumped up as high as it would go by the sinister Mr Glendenning, I was given Jelly Babies as a palliative. My mouth was too full to speak. At school, a gang of prefects corralled us into the assembly hall every few weeks, where a man with halitosis and a charisma by-pass draped us in green nylon sheets and gave all 600 of us identical crewcuts.

It was at university that I first had to speak to a barber. There would be an uncomfortable silence. "Yes?" the barber would eventually ask, and I'd say "Just a trim."

What you get if you ask for "Just a trim" is an artless pudding-bowl that leaves you looking like Michael Parkinson circa 1972. This is because all men of my father's generation (50-65) ask for "just a trim" and barbers know that, to them, Parkie is cool. I used to go to an old-fashioned barber's emporium with a clientele of City gents, and they always said "Just a trim" or "Just the usual". Some even said "Just a haircut", which made me wonder what else was on offer if you knew to ask. They all ended up looking exactly the same.

After a few years of trims I met - and married - a woman who really knew about haircuts. She packed me off to Fred's, a fashion victim's Mecca in south-east London, with a set of coded instructions. I asked for "A flat-top, No 2 at the back and sides, spiked on top, tapered (not square) at the back, and gelled".

Women are always insistent on having the same person cut their hair. Men are more promiscuous, or more embarrassed about making a fuss. If they insist on having Frank instead of Norman, people will get the wrong idea - and really, does it make any difference? Yes, it does.

For the last couple of years I've been going to a Greek temple of coiffure, presided over by Alessandros and Stavros. Alessandros is the artistic, effete one, Stavros the burly, silent and cack-handed one. This much I knew. By a strange statistical quirk, I had always arrived just as Alessandros was dusting down the shoulders of his last follically-challenged client. Stavros had never touched me. What I always said was "Very short at the back and sides, No 2, and a little bit longer on top." Alessandros understood

This time, Al was otherwise engaged and I fell into the rude mechanical hands of Stavros. I didn't have the nerve to argue. As I gave him my usual instruction, I thought I saw Alessandros flinch in the mirror. "A little bit longer on top" had a clear meaning to him and me, but to Stavros it meant, well, "A little bit longer on top". That's exactly what I got - 2mm of hair at the sides and a 4mm stubble on the crown. Colleagues ask me when my parole ends; my girlfriend calls me "Gulag". Why can't the language of the barber's be as clear as that?


from bottle blonde to natural mouse

"LONG, BLONDE hair ... " I think this is one of the most alluring phrases in the English language, and if I believed in popular psychology I'd put it down to the fact that I had no hair at all until I was two. And when it finally started to grow, some old fright-witch of a hairdresser told my trusting mother that the best way to encourage my pathetic wisps to grow long and strong was to cut them back ruthlessly. So as soon as it grew long enough to be presentable it was all hacked off again, into a pudding bowl cut. Everybody thought I was a boy, which upset me horribly.

As soon as I had any say in the matter, I started growing it - and as soon as my natural childhood fairness started retreating in favour of dark mouse, I started paying extortionate amounts for highlights. Sitting for hours in the hairdresser's, with a head covered in rustling bits of foil and stinking of bleach and dye seemed perfectly reasonable.

The effect of ten years of highlights is not subtle. It is very Bet Lynch. I finally decided to get rid of the brassy bits and go back to my natural brown. "You can't just stop being blonde," said one shocked acquaintance. Oh yes I can. Blonde is not a frame of mind, it's just a hair colour. I do not believe blondes have more fun, or that gentlemen prefer them. Nor do I think they are dumb. I remember someone once explaining earnestly to me that she had cut off her fair hair and taken to tying up what was left in a scarf because she "wanted to get away from this dumb blonde thing, y'know?" Pretty dumb, I would say.

Going native was less easy than it seemed, though. First, how do you know what your natural colour is going to be? The roots looked nearly black. "Oh, no, there's a great deal of warmth in there," said the stylist, who was decked out in strappy shoes and strappy dress. All right, then, match it up. A minion was sent off to "mix up two tubes of 403 and a couple of inches of orange". Orange? And I wanted a colour with a name rather than a number. But by then there was no going back. On went the dye. Then I had to sit and wait. "Oh, baby, oh honey, you are going to look sooooo different," purred the stylist in my ear. Yikes.

The first few days after were nerve-racking. Every time I caught sight of a few wisps of dark mouse at the corner of my eye I would jump nervously. It was like having a strange animal perched on my head, or wearing a disguise I couldn't take off. And, much against my will, it turned out to be character- changing after all. After losing the blonde hair, I went on to ditch my contact lenses and put my hated glasses back on, then I sacrificed a long mane for a short bob. Life-changing too: the workmen on the corner don't say good morning to me any more, but I can live with that.


the first cut is the deepest

WHY DID I cut off my hair? Because I was angry. I was mad at myself. I wanted to make a declaration of the passion within. I was fed up with playing the sweet little Indian girl, an image that had worked so well. I was repressed. I was a sad single who had become a workaholic. I wanted to tear away the facade. I had just turned 29 and it was my testament to youth as the drudgery of my fourth decade on the planet stared at me over the carbon monoxide-filled horizon. I wanted people to look at me a little deeper. I had an attitude, a bad one, and I wanted it exposed. I wanted to rebel. Over an innocent lunch one encouraging remark from a friend: "just do it, what the hell", that's what he had said. And I did it. The lot came off. It was the day after the butchering - after regret, guilt and tears - that the real enormity of it kicked in. I looked in the mirror with disgust. How could I face myself day in day out? Why hadn't I realised? Why hadn't someone warned me? After the deed had been done, people didn't recognise me any more. They said I had changed radically. Some questioned my sanity, others my sexuality.

My convictions, both cultural and religious, were attacked. It was about morals. Heterosexuals thought I was a homosexual, gay men thought I was a cute boy and lesbians considered me a lesbian. I would have to start wearing lipstick, bright pinks and reds, and earrings not crafty or ethnic ones, bright gold ones better still diamante ones. Oh, and invest in some slingbacks, high ones. To be on the safe side I should also start wearing dresses, not the marquee variety, tight ones.

And there were other consequences I hadn't thought of for a moment. Shaving your head gives you a bed head in the mornings. As if I hadn't suffered the curse of celibacy for long enough, I calculated that I would have to rule out a love life for at least the next six months. How could a girl expect a man to be romantic the morning after? It would involve getting up before him without an alarm clock for the ritual of washing it drying it, moussing it to make it spiky, waxing it to make it softer and, for the finishing touch, ruffling it around nonchalantly. Then I'd have to run back upstairs quietly, slip into bed as discreetly as possible and pray that he had slept through it or at least be polite enough to pretend he had. So perhaps I'd stick to being a sad single. I had kinda got used to it.

I learned a harsh lesson - reinventing oneself is a liberating business, but a tough one. And, having thought I was dispensing with vanity, I found myself embracing narcissism with the fervour of a supermodel.