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Industry Updates

Throwback Thursday: Hair’s Where It Gets Real

The old days. Notice that the only thing with long hair in this room is mounted on the wall.

“We’ve missed you!” said the banner in the window of a hair stylist’s shop in a nearby town. The place happened to be closed that day, either because it was Sunday or maybe out of concern about reports of social unrest, but clearly this shop was thrilled to be taking tentative steps to reopen.

And who could blame them? The pandemic and its related economic downturn have done a number on most industries. But the people who pay their bills by cutting and styling our hair and performing related grooming tasks have been especially hard hit.

Everyone seems to have a story about giving or receiving a haircut from a shelter mate in the past couple of months. We won’t be sitting for a new LinkedIn photo until we see a real barber or stylist again, but our scalps are doing, eh, OK. However, the picture is more dire for people who ordinarily do this sort of thing professionally.

A recent survey found more than 70 percent of salon workers live paycheck to paycheck or have only a small reserve of cash to live on. Nearly a quarter have no health insurance. And then there are the owners and operators straining just to keep the lights on. “As some owners struggle to pay rent, digging deeper into minimal cash reserves available, the effect has been felt by every assistant, receptionist, colorist, stylist and janitor,” Cheryl Wischhover, a freelance writer specializing in the beauty industry, reported in Allure. Her article’s headline said it all: “The Salon Business Isn’t Built to Withstand a Pandemic.”

It Wasn’t Built to Withstand Beatlemania, Either

Certainly, this business has suffered through previous disruptions, such as recessions. People (well, some of us) tend to put off professional grooming when times are tight, and that has a direct impact on the people behind the chair. But, no surprise, there is no recent precedent for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The closest thing I could think of was the cultural change that began to sweep much of the world in the mid-1960s. “With the huge influence the Beatles and the hippie movement had on men growing their hair long in the ’60s, rather than military short, the popularity of barbers decreased considerably,” noted professional barber Drew Danburry in an online interview.

Only 31 at the time of his interview, Danburry could afford to view the hair wars of the 1960s with some historical detachment. An older generation of barbers, however, once accustomed to weekly client visits, naturally took a darker view of the mop-top look.

“To this day, if you talk to old-time barbers, they still curse the Beatles,” Ron Baker said. “The profession that had always done well, both in good economic times and bad, was taking it on the chin, and the barbers didn’t know what to do about it.”

Baker, the son of a barber, grew up to be a CPA. (I’m not sure whether his career choice was influenced by the sight of empty chairs in his dad’s shop.)

The pernicious phenomenon of young men (and later, some not-so-young men) growing their hair long had such a profound impact on the barbering industry that it even shows up today as the entry for the “1960s” on the National Barber Museum’s timeline of history-changing events: “The Beatles set the stage for long hair. Many barbers who refused to learn the methods of cutting long hair were soon out of business.”

Ah, that’s a telling observation. If you were a skeptical middle-aged barber circa 1960-something, disgusted by the noise blaring from AM transistor radios and adamant not to lower your tonsorial handiwork to the level of this kid stuff, you might find yourself “soon out of business.”

Barber shops did close during this era. But others began to transition away from catering only to men who wanted to look something like JFK. They began to learn to style the more ambitious looks that were coming in favor, and even (would you believe it?) serving both men and women in so-called unisex salons. In a few short years, the popular idea of the guy who cut your hair shifted from Floyd the barber to someone more like Warren Beatty’s character in “Shampoo.” (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that was progress. Say what you will about him, Floyd always had the latest National Geographic for you to peruse while you waited your turn.)

Anyway, back to Ron Baker’s dad, who campaigned to be president of his local barber’s union in 1969. By then, men’s hair had gotten really long. “He got to the platform and asked the assembled barbers what was happening to their incomes,” the younger Baker reported. “They all grumbled, for incomes were dropping precipitously throughout the industry. Even during the Great Depression, barbers didn’t experience the decline they were now suffering.”

The senior Baker then suggested something that probably had a few older gents in his audience reaching for their nitroglycerin tablets: Man up and learn to style hair. Maybe even, gulp, team up with a cosmetologist. (Ever heard of a blow dryer, fellas?)

Baker’s dad went on to practice what he preached and offered unisex services in his own shop. “After a few months, my father was astonished to learn that approximately 80 percent of his revenue came from these new hairstyles, and that he was making more in four hours than his fellow barbers were making in eight,” his son said. “In 1972, while most of the barbers in the union were still working at $3, my father had increased his haircut prices to $10, and by 1975, he was charging $15.”

So, with 50 years’ worth of hindsight at our disposal, it looks like the scourge of Beatlemania was cured, or at least treated, by adaptability. Easier said than done, of course, particularly if you’d been following a snip-snip-and-you’re-done routine for years.

And of course, the current crisis facing barbers (who are still out there, often specializing in beards), as well as stylists, cosmetologists and anyone else in salon-related work, won’t be solved by adopting new styles and becoming more groovy. What these shops face today is a trifecta of illness, economic stagnation and possibly even vandalism. A pop group would be a welcome distraction.

As you’re probably already doing with your other local businesses, this is a time for us as consumers to step up and help. “There are a few ways to support your favorite beauty pros right now,” Wischhover wrote. “Salons are encouraging you to buy gift cards to ensure they have some income in the short term, and some clients have sent tips directly. And like the restaurant industry, local salons have launched GoFundMe campaigns to support their staff. A search for ‘salon’ on the site brings up over 12,000 salon relief funds.” (That was in April. A more-recent search turned up more than 13,300, some with photos of vandalism.)

Here’s a plan: When you tire of your home-cut hair and feel more comfortable venturing out, head back to your stylist or barber. Remember, they’ve missed you. And, as you survey the damage in the bathroom mirror at home, you probably miss them, too.


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