Beauty Shops And Salons

Beauty shops have long been  seen as a place for women to temporarily escape  the problems of labor and love, literally washing away the blues in search of a new look and attitude. Thus, beauty  shops quickly  gained  the reputation as bastions of gossip that  mixed seemingly mundane conversation with the smells of hairspray and perms. Often  located in front  parlors and tenement flats, many shops have mistakenly been  relegated to the periphery of a larger political  economy, but few institutions  more  profoundly fueled  the  growth of the  beauty  industry while providing women an institution that  offered them such  a unique degree  of independence as both consumers and  producers of beauty. Because  beauty  shops were  often  located in or adjacent to homes, they allowed mothers and wives with households to maintain an entrepreneurial niche  that  fit the  changing demands of the  lifecycle.

Beauty  shops have  also tended to  reflect  the  distinct cultures and communities to which they are inextricably bound and, just as race  profoundly shaped the American landscape, beauty shops came  of age with  segregation, creating a racially  segmented industry. At  the  same time,  women’s  desire  to  create a social space that stood in bold relief to the  barbershop’s masculine milieu defined beauty salons   regardless  of  race  and class distinctions.

Early  Roots

The  history of the beauty  shop  owes much to technological and stylistic changes, as well as the ebb and flow of women’s roles as consumers and workers in American society. In the 19th  century, posh  salons  were few and far between, and ladies’ hairdressers frequented the private homes of the well-to-do where  they washed, fan-dried, and  arranged hair.  Free  and  enslaved household  laborers were  also routinely asked  to care  for their  employer/owner’s personal and  hygienic  needs, something that often included dressing hair. Men  with more  access to money  and public  space  frequented barbershops, while  washing and  styling  hair  was often part of mother and daughter’s routine relegated to the private realm of the family. When women began  frequenting barbershops for the short and carefree bob, first popular in the  1920s,  they  posed  a threat to distinct gender roles  and  the  once exclusively male bastion of the  barbershop. Bobbing hair  and  fears over respectability were coupled with the  development of electric  permanent wave machines that  further delineated ladies’  hairdressing and  beauty  shop  services  as distinct from barbershops.

Work Cultures in the  1920s and 30s

By the  1920s  and  30s,  beauty  shops were  easily found even  in  out-of-the-way places. While  many  were owner-operated businesses that  relied  on kitchen sinks and  homemade ingenuity, other salons  were  stylish  art  deco  retreats that  hired dozens of beauty  workers who  specialized in  everything from  color  to  perms. Renting just a booth was also a common practice and  offered  a measure of independence with little economic risk. Coloring hair and painting nails, as well as facial and skin treatments, were common features of beauty  shop  services, although many  shops thrived on  just  doing  hair.  Pampering the  well-to-do or catering to working-class neighbors meant work cultures varied greatly, yet pleasing  a picky customer easily transgressed class  boundaries. Permanent machines, one  of the most  iconic  features of these  early  shops, were  often  unreliable. Curls  did  not come out the same, and dyes and other products could be unpredictable. Hair type and  hairdressers’ skills varied, as did the  creams, colors,  and  rinses  used  in these different beauty  rituals. Heat  and  humidity could  ruin  styles  as quickly  as they were finished, and  beauty  shop  profits  could  decline  with the weather or fashion trends that made previous investments in supplies and skills obsolete. Some shops strategically operated in cooler  basements, but  even  then chemical and  thermal combinations could  make the smells unbearable at times and strikingly unhealthy for hairdressers who worked  in salons  day in and day out.

Social And Political Space

African  American entrepreneur  Madam C. J. Walker understood that  offering beauty  services  to  working-class women was  about providing more  than style. It was about giving Black women the chance to brush aside or straighten out  the racial  politics  of the  day. Like  churches, beauty  shops helped transform, in the words of so many black leaders, “segregation into a form of congregation,” making hairdressers more  than a sympathetic ear but  movers  and  shakers in their  communities. In African  American communities especially,  beauty  shops have  been the  locus  of politics  and  community organization throughout the  20th  century. During the  long  civil rights  movement, for  example,  beauty  operators manned voter  registration drives,  housed a plethora of African  American literature, and cleaned up  protesters after violent  attacks at sit-ins. Thanks to their  rich  history of independence from  white  control, African American hairdressers’ legacy continues today. Whether with information on breast  cancer or AIDS, beauty  shops often  provide  more  successful kinds  of outreach than institutions that  seem  too distant, impersonal, or untrustworthy.

Golden Age Of  Owner-Operator Shops

Beauty shops have also thrived despite the ebb and  flow of politics  and  economy in part  because they  have  never  been  a static  institution. During World  War  II, Beauty  shops visibly contributed to charities, sold  war bonds, saved scrap  metal, and  dressed store  front  windows in  red,  white,  and  blue.  Doubting the  iconic Rosie  the  Riveter’s  war  worker’s  femininity ensured that  trips  to  beauty  shops were cast as patriotic acts. In fact, some  war industries made  sure  their  factories provided beauty  shop  services  to their  female employees even though they failed to  offer  working mother’s day care  for their  young  children. Women who  were able to avoid being  absent too many  days or made  it to work without being  tardy might  even receive a bonus in the form of a trip to the factory-owned beauty  shop. Similarly,  the  cold  war’s emphasis on  domestic containment resurrected quasiVictorian styles along  with high  maintenance hair-dos that  meant weekly standing appointments at most  salons. Even when drugstores offered more  inexpensive do-it-yourself products, bouffants and  beehives helped to make  the  1950s  and 1960s  the  golden age of independently owned  beauty  shops that  boasted names like Bertha’s Temple of Beauty.

Unisex Salon And Corporate Chains

The  most  direct  challenge to beauty  salons  came  in the  1970s,  with  the  rise of unisex  salons  and  the  corporate reorganization of the  beauty  industry that  attempted to  break  down  gender distinctions in  style  and  process. Longer hair in  males  was devastating to  barbershops, which  began  to  wane  in  numbers as a younger generation of men  rejected their  father’s  crew cuts.  An ever increasing number of salons  redesigned themselves by changing their  names and  décor to  cater  to  a male  clientele. Unisex  salons  brought not  only  male  and  female customers into  the  same  salon,  but  fostered direct  competition between female and  male  stylists,  the  latter  often  deemed more  professional and  still occupying a disproportionate number of managerial/ownership positions. Although this  is something of a stereotype, gay men  found salons  a unique work space  that  embraced  homosexual identities and  masculinities often  chastised in more  conservative businesses.

Other corporate trends have been  designed to break  down  the bonds between hairdressers and  their  clients,  making customers’ loyalty rest  with  a chain  salon rather than an individual. Some  salons  advertise  that  appointments are not  necessary and  that  walk-ins are welcome, adding  excitement and  aggravation to the stylist’s  day-to-day routine. Regardless of the  length or  condition of hair,  these businesses guarantee a new  look  faster  than a pizza delivery.  Stylists  were often prohibited from  using  their  own  names, providing any personal information, or making small talk, to ensure that  profits  would  not  be disrupted by high  rates  of employee turnover. Although low-budget chains may  be  the  places  where  the newest  cosmetology graduates first find employment, they often  provide  benefits like health insurance and  other benefits that  smaller,  independently owned  business have not  always been  able to afford. Despite the corporate reorganization of the  salon,  many  follow their  stylist  from  salon  to salon  and  retain  relationships that  defy most  other kinds  of service work.

Contemporary Marketing Trends

Today, hair salons  are as diverse  as they were in the  early 20th  century, and  just as likely to be marketed to different pocketbooks, but they are not without competition. Businesses that  specialize  only  in hair  compete with  nail  salons and spas  for consumer dollars.  Full-service salons  once  employed a single manicurist who  managed both her  wealthy  regulars and  customers celebrating special occasions like proms and weddings. Now  the same salon  may employ  a number of specialists who  provide  manicures, waxing, and  facials. The  visibility  of an ethnic market has also meant that  businesses, with varying success, have blurred some  of  the  race  and  ethnic boundaries that  had  long  divided  the  hair  care industry. Head-to-toe beauty  salons  have  also courted a male  clientele seeking everything from sport  facials to MANicures. Some  businesses that  advertise  “for men  only”  alter  more  than the  names of their  services  to  adopt a more  manly bearing. They  also tout  flat-screen TVs and  decor  that  would  revival any sports bars.  Of course, many  beauty  salons  operate just  as they did 30 or 40 years ago and thrive  in private  homes and residential neighborhoods. Whether businesses market cheap  and  fast service for family budgets, hip  hop  chic  to white  suburbia, or organic products for a green  consciousness, salons  continue to  be the heart  and soul of many  communities, caring  for customers from cradle  to grave, ensuring that  beauty  workers are  always  more  than just  a hairdresser to  their clientele.

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