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.
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.