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David Bouchier: Beauty And The Beast

Nam Y. Huh

At last my favorite barbershop has reopened. On the first day, when Long Island moved into Stage Two of the return to normal life, I drove over to the shop to see if this was real. A crowd of disheveled men waited outside, while in the interior I could see a busy scene of tonsorial activity, with every other chair occupied. This was a great relief. My small crop of hair has flourished mightily so that I look like a hedgehog with curls. For the past three months I have scarcely dared to appear on the radio and now – or perhaps not now but soon, but not too soon, I will allow my barber to restore my hair to its natural state, whatever that is. He knows better than I.

A good barbershop is hard to find. When a man needs a haircut he needs just that, a haircut, nothing complicated. An authentic barbershop will display a symbolic candy-striped pole outside, and will be starkly utilitarian inside. Until the last century, barbers also acted as rough-and-ready surgeons, at prices far below the current AMA rates. This history should be reflected in the plainness of the decor: it should look like an operating theater. Carpets and flowers, pastel colors and hair dryers, are a sure sign that the place is on the downhill slide to becoming a unisex establishment, or even a beauty salon.

The deprivation of hair care has obviously been even harder for the ladies whose needs are more complicated. The closing of beauty salons was deeply unpopular in France, where they are twice as numerous, and in Italy where, last month, hair and nail salons opened to a huge rush of business with appointments scheduled months ahead. Plastic surgeons also had a big surge in bookings, so it seems that a few weeks without beauty treatments have led to some drastic decisions.

In the French village where we used to live there was one barber, in the market square. His small shop was packed with farmers discussing wine and local politics in the incomprehensible local dialect. His grooming technique was less like that of a hairdresser than of a lawn service. His wildly flying scissors sometimes drew blood “pardon monsieur” and I privately named him Sweeney the Barberarian. This left me little choice but to patronize one of the local beauty salons, where I was received kindly although with some surprise. There – in the five minutes it took Muriel to cut my hair – I caught a glimpse of the incredibly complex infrastructure of female hair beauty. I won’t give anything away, except that it seems to involve a lot of chemicals and a lot of time.

There is something about hair that touches our deepest obsessions. It is the last vestige of our animal selves, the last scrap of protective fur covering for our tribe of naked apes. The symbolism is powerful. Samson proverbially lost his muscle tone when he was shorn of his locks. The cutting of hair has been a form of domination at least since Caesar did it to the Gauls in 52 B.C. Short hair often indicates submission to a discipline, as in the bullet-headed military cut, or the penitential monastic style. At the other extreme, elaborate and high-maintenance hair styles for men indicate either a narcissistic desire to be looked at, or the absence of a mirror in the bathroom. 

Nothing is simpler or more mundane than an ordinary man’s haircut. A traditional barber doesn’t believe in embellishments like style. He will ask: "How do you want it cut, sir?" But this is a mere formality. Everyone gets the identical short back and sides, which is what we came for. So I’m waiting for my chance, when things calm down, to get a nice professional haircut. In these difficult times a short back and sides – modest, economical, and above all quick – is the perfect fashion statement.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.
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