Hairdressers and  stylists,  also  known as beauticians, beauty  operators, barbers, and  cosmetologists, tout  the  creation of style, in  contrast to  barbers who  have traditionally been associated with cutting hair that has grown too long. Hairdressers typically possess high-level skills that  include cutting, perking, straightening, coloring, finishing, and  sometimes braiding and  weaving.  In a nod  to the  history of barbering, some  hairdressers catering exclusively  to men  are still identified as barbers and  have  embraced many  of the  techniques more  commonly identified with  women’s fashion trends. Men’s  hairdressers also  design  facial hair  shapes and  are experienced with shaving  techniques as well. Increasing interest in male grooming since  the  1990s  has  provided additional business opportunities and thereby a relatively  recent rise of a new generation of skilled  barbers whose  services are less distinct from hairdressing.


While  barbering is one  of the  oldest  professions in the  world,  ladies’ hairdressing  only  became a  common pursuit in  the  19th   century as  public   hair  care establishments opened for  women. Archeologists have  found haircutting tools that  date  back  to 30,000 b.c.e. However, the  introduction of hairstyles dates  to the  ancient Egyptians, who  developed hairdressing tools  and  techniques around 6000  b.c.e. These ancient hairdressers served  men,  while  women created their own hairstyles in private  spaces.  Over  the  next centuries, few hairdressers would specialize  in men’s  hair care. The  popularity of hairdressing is instead linked  with the  development of late  19th  and  early  technological innovations such  as hair dye, dryers, and thermal and chemical methods designed to permanently wave or straighten hair,  as well as various  concoctions to make  hair  grow and  look  more lustrous.

African American Hairdressers

African American entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone were  unique trendsetters in the  early 20th  century, creating a niche  for African women as beauty  consumers, workers, and  entrepreneurs. In the  United States, hairdressers historically have largely served women and, thus, transformations in women’s social, cultural, and  economic roles  have fueled  the  growth of the  profession.  In the early 20th  century, Walker  Agents  sold products door  to door, and emphasis on pampering customers and rags-to-riches stories  appealed to middleand  working-class women longing to  have  their  hair  professionally styled.  The flapper  of the  1920s  and  her  willingness to adopt a range  of male  prerogatives, including short hair, encouraged women to frequent barbershops—a social taboo. Barbershop patrons were not thrilled with the female intrusion. The  cultural ambivalence women faced in barbershops, coupled with permanent wave machines and  the  proliferation of Hollywood-inspired trends in length, color,  and  texture created a female business niche  and the beauty  shop  became an iconic American institution.

Segmented Market

The  golden age of the  independently owned  and  operated beauty  shop  came  in the  1950s  and  ’60s, and  offered  even  women with  children at  home a unique opportunity to find  a creative  way to earn  a living and  engage  in entrepreneurial pursuits, thanks to increases in women’s purchasing power  and  leisure  time. However, since  the 1970s,  many  hairstylists have shifted  from  sole proprietors to working for corporate-owned salons.

The   American  hair   salon   remains  highly   fragmented.  Regis  Corporation, begun in 1922,  is the  largest  owner  and  franchiser of hair  salons  in the  world, with  over 10,000 salons  in North America  and  the  United Kingdom. It operates the  chains Supercuts, Master Cuts, Trade Secret,  Regis  Hairstylists, and  Smart Style. The  success of the  company is rooted in its decision in the  1960s  to open salons  in shopping malls. Yet, Regis only  holds  a two-percent share  of the  U.S. market. Such  large corporate chains created new problems and  opportunities for hairdressers. Today, many  salons  do not  require an appointment; they tend  to be less personal in service,  and  often  have management policies  that  can  challenge an  individual hairstylist’s pace  and  creativity.  At the  same  time,  they  often  offer more  benefits than the  independent shop  and  allow hairdressers to pick up  and start  again—moving place  to place—with no  strings  attached. Women generally own and operate hair salons. The smaller salons  typically employ five hairdressers, while some  work for themselves renting booths or simply operating a small shop in or adjacent to their  homes. While  larger salons  may employ  a receptionist and shampoo crew along  with a greater  number of hairstylists, owner-operator shops may mean  the hairdressers take care of all business and customer needs.


The  first school of cosmetology opened in the  late 1890s  to train  students, primarily women, in the burgeoning profession. Today, modern schools of cosmetology teach  cutting, dyeing, washing, setting, perking, and  straightening, and  some also teach  how  to lengthen hair  with extensions. Even  after passing  courses and becoming licensed, salons  often  train  new employees to follow their  own particular techniques and  decorum; thus, many  highly  trained cosmetology graduates start  out  in the  role of apprentice such  as the  shampoo girl who is also expected to sweep  hair  or bring  clients  magazines and  refreshments. Although each  state requires a certain number of hours to be licensed, generations of hairstylists have worked  in an underground economy, cutting hair in parks, tenements, and factory bathrooms with or without official license  or training.

Relationship With  Customers

Hairdressing is one of the few professions where the employees exercise enormous power over the owner  of the business. African American hairdressers, for example, had  such  unique business opportunities, sometimes being  the only black-owned business in a town  or community, that  their  status and  economic independence offered  them   paths   into  politics   and  community  leadership. In  turn, African American women long  viewed hairdressing as a particularly unique occupation, since  so much of black  labor  was associated with  the  least  desirable service  for white customers/employers. The  personal nature of the business encourages connections between clients  and hairdressers, with the result  that customers are loyal to the  hairdressers and  not  to the  business that  employs them. This  relationship allows hairdressers to be unusually mobile, moving  from shop  to shop  and taking their  clients  with them  or establishing their  own businesses. Often  known as the poor  woman’s psychologist, the  hairdresser has  been  a stock  character in films ranging from  Dolly  Parton’s small-town socialite  Trudy in Steel Magnolias (1989) to Queen Latifah’s  starring role in the  film Beauty Shop (2005), and  their  interaction  with  clients  that  sometimes spans  a lifespan  cannot be overstated. Not  just a sympathetic ear, hairdressers are confidantes, often  knowing secrets  about their clients  unbeknownst to  their  own  families.  Because  loyalty to  one’s  hairdresser spans  decades, stylists  often  grow old with  their  customers, and  it is no  surprise then that  hairdressers are often  asked  to style their  clients  in hospitals, nursing homes, and funeral homes.

Gender Stereotypes And The  Shop Floor

At the  same  time,  the  gossipy  hairdressers of film  and  fiction  project an  image that  is less than professional and  has been  the  bane  of the  industry leaders,  who have often  sought to push out  irregulars. Often, rules  against  gossip  are coupled with dress  codes,  and  the  image  of the  dimwitted hairdresser prevails  in popular culture. Although women dominate the  industry, the  most  famous hairdressers tend  to be men,  in part  because they more  easily meet  prevailing notions of professionalism that  long  privileged  men  regardless of occupation. Female  clients have  often  suggested that  male  stylists  know  what  men  like  or  have  admitted that  flirtation is often  a perk.  Men  who chose  hairdressing as a profession, however, are  venturing into  a career  that  has  been  feminized in  the  public’s  mind. As a result, male hairdressers have long been stereotyped as gay. The  stereotyping has undoubtedly limited  the  number of males  who pursue a hairdressing career; however, men  looking for work  spaces  that  tolerate sexual  and  gender identities often  find hairdressing rewarding, personally and  professionally. Female  hairstylist have long complained about the attention men  receive in salons, but have also embraced them  as a valuable  part  of their  work culture; as hair  salons  attract increasing numbers of male clients, some of the gender dynamics that seemed tilted in favor of men  can be muted.


Regardless of gender dynamics, the  work  can  be far from  glamorous. Satisfying customers when  it comes  to personal looks can be challenging; listening to problems while maintaining a diplomatic mien  can also be part of the daily experience. The  work can also be hazardous. Products used  to change hair color  and  texture affect the  workers who  apply them  day in and  day out.  Hair  spray  and  perms  to curl and straighten hair have long been cited as health hazards. Standing on one’s feet and holding a dryer or using  the same hand to repeatedly cut or curl is linked to carpal tunnel syndrome. Perhaps most  problematic are the wages and the widespread lack of health insurance that means many with or without children to support  still struggle to earn  a living wage.

Leave a Reply