Being a man in the modern world is a bit less uncertain than it was for previous generations. Back when we were younger, gender roles were much different than they are now. Typically, mom looked after the kids and dad earned the money, girls played with dolls and boys got dirty. As society has worked to close the equality gap and the roles that we grew up with are no longer appropriate, it can sometimes be difficult to find one’s place in society as a man.
Fortunately, there is a place that is coming back into fashion, which many of us have not had much access to in the past. We are talking about the bastion of the male community, the barber shop. Not only is a barbershop a place to get a good haircut and a close shave, it is also a place to socialize. While barbering is pretty hot at the moment, there are still a few questions to be answered. How did barber shops begin, where did they go, and why are they back now?
Grooming has always been a social activity for people and it’s no surprise that the tradition of barbering goes back to before written history. It was once believed that hair contained the soul and the job of cleansing the soul was entrusted to one of the highest members of society, the priests.
When the Greeks showed up on the scene barbering became a profession with the Greeks preferring to have their long hair and beards trimmed and styled. With the Greeks, the barber shop which was often located in the marketplace (or Agora), became meeting places where men would engage in long conversations about politics, philosophy, and communal matters, all while being groomed. Shaving came into popularity after the Persians defeated Alexander the Great by pulling his men off their horses by their beards. Shaving continued to remain popular and meant that men needed to visit their barbers several times a week. A good shave could literally mean the difference between life and death.
From its earliest inception, barber shops fulfilled an important function in the community, places for men to socialize and discuss communal matters. Think about it. From the time of ancient Greece to present day (covering all the major events, political and social upheavals, and daily life between these two times) men have been convening at barber shops and to discuss the important matters of the time.
However, despite over two millennia of tradition, barbershops went into decline around the 1960’s for several reasons. The first assault on barbershops came in 1904 when Gillette introduced the safety razor, allowing men to shave at home. Secondly, several wars reduced the barber’s pool of customers and the introduction of at-home cutting kits, further reduced men’s visits to barbers. Finally, the hippy movement in the 60’s, drove the final nail into the coffin of barbershops as men began wearing their hair long and stopped visiting barbers who specialized in short-cuts.
In the 1980’s, short hairstyles came back into style, but the vast majority of mean headed to a new type of establishment called a unisex salon. This was a salon that catered to both sexes and was staffed by hairdressers licensed as unisex cosmetologists. By the 80’s, barber training was folded into general cosmetology training, meaning that the techniques to cut men’s hair were barely taught. While these salons were convenient, the quality for men was lacking as the hairdressers expected to cut men’s hair, spent most of their training dyeing, perming, and cutting hair with scissors (instead of clippers).
Fortunately, during this period of decline, black barbershops fared much better, helping to preserve the barbering tradition. Reasons for their stability include the specialized nature of cutting black people’s hair and the important roles that black barbershops played in the economic and cultural development of black communities, helping to cement their place in the community. Barbershops became like a second home to many. They were a safe haven, a classroom of learning from previous generations, and an open podium where ideas were exchanged and egos deflated.
So after a long history, barbering fell into decline for a few decades…. but now they are everywhere. What happened, what brought barbering back? Well, there were several factors that contributed to the resurgence of barbering.
Firstly, men started spending more time and money on their appearance. Men’s fashion and grooming had long been an under-performing industry when compared to the female equivalent but nowadays men put more effort and money into their appearance. Whether this was a carefully crafted marketing strategy to make men become fully-functioning members of consumerism or just the natural process that results from creating a more equal society, it’s hard to say. Secondly, around 2010-ish beards came into fashion. Shortly after that, beards started being paired with “vintage” hairstyles and the specialized skills to cut men’s hair was needed again. This beard trend could have actually been a kind of pushback on the traditional values of “manliness” being challenged and the resulting appropriation of “manly” features helped men to re-identify themselves. Thirdly, alienation in the digital age meant that while we are connected like never before, we are actually missing on regular personal interaction. People started seeking out a place where they could comfortably interact in a social situation.
These factors coincided to create a social place that provided classic hair and beard styles, which men were willing to pay for. Or in other words, exactly what barbershops had been providing for the better part of two thousand years.
I can imagine what some of you are thinking… that barbershops and beards are just for hipsters. Just ask yourself though, what actually is a hipster? While you struggle to define it, have yourself a coffee and get a nice shave… and then later come to the realization that the appreciation for craftsmanship is just a part of our generation.