Disco to Dalston: Brief History of Barbers

Going for one’s haircut can cause trepidation. Maybe excitement. But always hesitancy. What if the barber screws it up? Our hair shapes the most important part of our physical identity: our face. We live in a romantic world dictated by a swipe-left, swipe-right philosophy and a handsome face framed perfectly by one’s hair is a must! In that way, the seemingly mundane and humble barber is on the curatorial frontlines of our urban world – by which I mean our Tinder feeds. But seriously. In our superficial society we entrust the barber with a lot of responsibility. They make sure that everyone looks at least halfway decent, that we’re not staring at scruffy unkempt hair on public transport day after day (unless, of course, you’re on a night bus from Camden). The barber’s important social status didn’t always need to be argued for either.

While today hair holds an important place in how we define ourselves physically, in pre-modern times, hair held much more spiritual significance. Some archaeologists believe that early Paleolithic societies thought one’s soul existed in one’s hair. Meaning only the most respected and trusted members of society could cut other people’s hair. Can you imagine the pressure though? I get pissed when my barber messes up my do, how can I trust him with my soul!?

Ancient Greece saw the barbershop become a social space for the men of Athens to congregate, gossip, and talk politics. Fitting in with their philosophizing was the hair styling of the time, a nice trimmed beard (for stroking ponderously of course!) Alexander the Great, however, did away with the beard for a time – issuing a creed that all in his army remain clean shaven. That way, in battle an opponent’s beard could be grabbed and used against them while the clean shaven warrior could not be harmed (at least with regards to the ancient war tactic of beard-grabbing).

Just like in Ancient Rome and Greece, the barbershop became a public space in medieval and early modern Europe. It was a meeting space for gossip and news. More than this though, the barbershop was also an early equivalent of a doctor or surgery office. For most of history barbers were referred to as ‘barber-surgeons’, as they used their trusty scalpel for more than just trimming one’s beard. Infamously they practiced the act of bloodletting—which is a super archaic medical practice involving letting a patient purposely bleed so that any toxins may exit the body. Unsurprisingly, a very large percentage of people died from blood loss. It was thanks to this gruesome little habit that the red and white barber’s pole emerged. So while perhaps Medieval and Renaissance barbers weren’t considered handlers of people’s souls, they still were entrusted with people’s lives.

Advancements in science during the 18th century saw surgeons and barbers begin to split as two very distinct professions. It wasn’t long until barbers became perceived as a lowly profession, and their shops merely homes to the detritus of the social strata. The 20th century, however, saw the barber regain some status. Barber’s unions formed and A. B. Moler set up the first post-secondary school for barbers in Chicago. The profession, while never returning to it’s top rank in the professional hierarchy, clawed back some respect.

Then in the 1970s barbering evolved even more radically. For most of history, barbering had been considered a separate craft or profession from the hairdresser, in that the former specializes in men’s grooming and the latter with female hair-styling. But the 70s – dawn of the disco era – the male desire for long hair in the fashion of the Bee Gees meant that barbers had to expand their repertoire, and in doing so became skilled in the art of female hair-styling as well. Thus the once exclusive male-domain of the barbershop became a place for both men and women. We have disco to humbly thank for such egalitarian progress.

Disco fever aside, barbershop’s have had a rich musical history of their own. There is a whole genre of a capella music, typically sung by barbershop quartets. The origins of this music remain debated; some argue that it originated in England in the 17th century while others point to African-American communities in the early 20th century. This again highlights the inclusive nature of barbershops: one didn’t need an instrument or fancy equipment to be in a band—you just needed your voice.

Nowadays the barber’s function in society is easy to take for granted. But in some ways the barber’s presence is more emphasized than ever. The rainbow-coloured beards of Shoreditch and the waxed moustaches of Dalston were all born somewhere, and we have the trusty barber to thank for all the eye candy!

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