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.
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.