Remember Your Barber, Gentlemen

Today I was saddened to learn of the passing of Ed Lara, proprietor of Georgetown Hairstyling, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.  Ed was a terrific guy who was great at cutting hair, but he was also part of a world that continues to vanish, i.e. the virtually all-male domain known as the barbershop.  His passing gives me an opportunity to remind my male readers of the virtues of patronizing these places, before they all disappear.

After I moved back to Georgetown more than a decade ago, Ed cut my hair for many years, as had his stepfather Rigo before him, when I was an undergraduate.  Ed was always hugely professional and accommodating, happy to talk about anything from travel and customs in Spain, to different kinds of music (he played in a rock band on the side), to rumors about development plans in the neighborhood…or to just let you doze off in the chair.  Back when my online Superman persona asserted itself, Ed was responsible for helping me grow out my hair in such a way that I could have a neat side part but still manage a dangling curl in front when required.  Subsequently, whenever I called to make an appointment and gave my name, he’d always greet me by saying, “Hey there, Superman!”

About a year ago when my work changed, I stopped going to Ed – much to my guilt whenever I’d pass by his shop – and started getting my hair cut at another barbershop, closer to the office.  Not unlike Ed’s shop, sometimes it’s so quiet that the only thing one can hear is the television news playing in the background, even while all of the elderly male barbers are hard at work giving a customer a trim.  There are no close friendships one can perceive, and yet like in all barbershops there is a welcoming clubbiness to the place.

It’s often been observed that women can develop deep, personal relationships with their hairdressers.  Because a lady’s hair can often take far longer to get ready than a gentleman’s, it’s only natural that while sitting in a chair for a great length of time while waiting for things like chemicals or curlers to work their magic, lengthy conversations will often result.  Moreover a woman will often follow her particular hairdresser around, as they move from salon to salon, in part because of the relationship of trust that develops over time.

Typically, less is said about the relationship between a man and his barber, and there are likely several reasons for this.  For one thing, in some circles it is still considered rather unseemly for a man to be fussing too much about his appearance.  This has not always been the case however: one need only look to the figures of the Italian Renaissance or the Regency period in England to realize that, like their avian counterpart, the male peacock, men have been strutting around showing off their mops for quite awhile.

Another reason why there is often less of an obvious bond between male customer and male barber is the fact that barbershops these days are rarer animals than they used to be.  With more and more unisex salons, and increasing numbers of men going to hairdressers rather than barbershops to get their hair cut, the old-fashioned, stripey-pole barbershop, with its nondescript decor and straight razors, seems to be little more than a relic of the past.  From my point of view that is to their credit, rather than otherwise, but it’s certainly true that barbershops have been on the wane for some time now.

Although I’m sad to know that Ed will never cut my hair again, I’m grateful to have had such a good barber for so many years, and am equally glad that he was able to take over at one of the oldest continually operating businesses in town, and keep it going well into the 21st century.  His passing is a reminder to those of us who appreciate small, local businesses, as well as things which may seem old-fashioned, that in order for such establishments to survive, it’s not enough to simply have nice feelings about them.  They need our business, our patronage, and our recommendations to friends, in order to thrive in these increasingly homogenized times.

The late Ed Lara (center) at work at Georgetown Hairstyling

The late Ed Lara (center) at work at Georgetown Hairstyling

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Count Castiglione on Confident Clothing

The other evening I attended a Christmas party thrown by some very good friends, in the neighborhood where I live.  As it was to be a cocktails and canapes sort of thing, I wore a gunmetal sharkskin suit with a subtle sheen – not the blindingly reflective sort which seems to appear quite frequently on the red carpet these days – and a black angora turtleneck.  Several people commented on how much they liked both the suit, and the combination of wearing it with a turtleneck rather than with shirt and tie.  However in truth, it really was not that unusual a combination: this was something that would not have been out of place in the Art Deco period, or the Mad Men era, for example.

If you pay attention to clothes, one of the things you will come to appreciate over time is that there has been far less variety over the past century than there was in the centuries which came before it.  For example, this season retailers such as Ralph Lauren and Zara are selling cloche hats, tweed coats with fur collars, and velvet suits right out of the Edwardian era.  This is thanks in part to the popularity of the British television series “Downton Abbey”.  Coincidentally, the same thing happened back in the 1970’s, when other British shows set in the late Victorian/Edwardian period, like the original “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “The Duchess of Duke Street”, and “The Pallisers” saga, influenced clothing retailers both in Europe and America.

However as we watch ladies’ hemlines go up and down, it is true that men’s clothing generally does not go through the same amount of radical alterations, apart from the wardrobes of those who are victims of fashion.  Men’s duds get tighter or looser, more constructed or more de-constructed, depending on the aesthetics of the time, but not much else changes.  Many of the articles of clothing your grandfather might have worn you could still wear today, and look just as stylish as he did then.

The reason I think this is important to recognize is that, at least among the men, it is a sign of maturity to come to appreciate what suits you, rather than buying into the fever for trendiness which seems to have a death-grip on our society, from politics and religion (or anti-religion), to art and architecture, to gadgetry and clothing.  One of the things which differentiates the man who knows himself, from the boy who is still trying to be what he thinks others want him to be, is to be found in the clothing choices he makes.  This was as true during the Renaissance as it is today.

Count Baldassare Castiglione, the always well-dressed patron of this blog, writes in his Book of the Courtier that we cannot judge a man strictly by his dress.  However, we cannot completely discount dress, either, for it tells us something about the personality of the man himself.  “I do not say,” he writes, “that fixed opinions of men’s worth are to be formed only in this way, or that they are not better known by their words and acts than by their dress: but I do say that dress is no bad index of the wearer’s taste, although it may sometimes be wrong; and not only this, but all ways and manners, as well as acts and words, are an indication of the qualities of the man in whom they are seen.”

That passage from Castiglione gives us the opportunity to reflect a bit on our own choices, and how we look at ourselves.  For example, personally I have never been particularly interested in sports, and at my very jock-oriented high school I was often left on my own – writing, reading, listening to punk/alternative music, and so on while others ran about.  Thus sports-inspired clothing, like a varsity-style jacket or letter sweater, would be a rather awkward and uncomfortable choice for me, not necessarily because it would fit poorly, but because it would not match who I am, my experiences, and so on.

Whereas in contrast to trying to dress like I was on a team or captain of a squad, wearing a leather jacket over a shirt and tie is something I have done since I was a teen, and I return to it regularly whether it is in fashion or not.  It is actually rather an old idea, as we can see in the illustration from 1930’s Finland below: a mixture of modern and traditional, without necessarily being predictable.  Perhaps that describes me rather well, also, and it is why I feel so comfortable in it, whereas on someone else it would look decidedly uncomfortable.

For most of us men, we have to dress a certain way at certain times: dark suits for court or funerals, tuxedos to balls, that sort of thing.  There are many times when we do not have a lot of variety, for we are looking to be considered both dependable and in line with the men who came before us.  However where men are in situations where they can actually choose what they want to wear, there is in fact plenty of room to maneuver between the extremes of peacock and dormouse.  Castiglione throughout his commentary on dress in the Book of the Courtier points out that man should have the confidence to try things out, and see if they suit him, while at the same time avoiding the overly bright and garish.

As the Count so clearly understood five centuries ago, clothes do not exactly make the man: the monk is no less holy if his habit is new, than if it is old and worn.  However when men do have choices about what to wear, blending into the background is not always such a good idea.  If you are both comfortable and looking your best, chances are your words and your actions are going to match that level of confidence.  And that confidence is more likely to bring about a better result in your interactions with others, on many levels.

menhikingjacket

Bow tie and leather jacket combo in Finland (c. 1935)

Hair’s the Thing

We need a little levity this week, gentle reader, as we are no doubt all so exhausted by the election and its armchair quarterback aftermath. It would be good to talk about something comparatively unimportant for a change.  We can think about, and leave comments about, something that really has nothing to do with who did what to whom and whose fault it is.

And so, I’d like to talk to you today about hair.

I’m now at the age where many of my male contemporaries are losing their hair.  Some of my friends started losing theirs awhile ago, at the end of college or graduate school.  They simply shaved their heads entirely, or just cropped everything very close so that the hair or lack of it was no longer a distraction.  This is the right thing to do, of course, rather than attempt the dreaded comb-over plastering job.

However in my case, at least for the moment I am still the owner of a rather fast-growing, extremely wavy mane of hair, which needs to be mowed every 3-4 weeks.  It is so impenetrable without product in it that I cannot comb it when dry, and even when wet the comb tends to gets snarled if I let it grow too long. Such is the case at present, since I grew my hair out for Halloween over the past eight weeks, and I am having to hook the longer parts behind my ears to keep them from falling into my face or curling up into a sheepskin: there are unruly, long waves and curls popping out all over the place.

I have been told countless times by barbers over the years, struggling to cut through the entangled brush that forms the top of my head if I let it grow too long, that there’s little or no possibility of my ever going bald.  If when I was younger, I desperately wished to have straight hair that was easy to manage, now I am glad that nature instead decided to make me something of a ram.  In the summertime having this kind of hair is torture; I have to try to keep it as short as I can, because it is so uncomfortably hot if I let it get too long.

Yet having such a mop in wintertime is not so bad, because then you have this natural pelt sprouting out of the top of your head, which helps to keep the heat in.  I have several friends who must wear hats in winter, because they have no other option to stay warm, whereas I generally have to opt for earmuffs in all but the most brutal weather.  If I do not, then when the hat is removed there is a static, “Eraserhead” sort of effect.

I have gone through many hairstyles thus far in my life, ever since my parents allowed me to start making choices for myself in this area, probably around 7th grade.  I’ve had the tall quiff-pompadour, with the short back and sides and longer waves piled on top.  I’ve had the very closely-cropped military officer style, so short you could barely comb it.  I’ve even had chin-length poet hair, all one length, looking like I should be drinking absinthe and reading Shelley in some bar on the Left Bank.

I’ve had the floppy English-preppy style, like something out of an episode of “Poirot” or “Brideshead”, short all around but so long on top so that the strands tend to fall into your eyes.  I’ve done the choppy, messy “bedhead”; the Clark Kent side-part; the Gordon Gecko slick-back.  At one point, I even had waves on top and shaved the back and sides completely bald, trying to emulate Bernard Sumner of the English alternative-new wave 80’s band, “New Order”.

Generally speaking, your average man does not have many options for variety in his appearance. Men are, for very good reason, a bit more limited in our style vocabulary than are the ladies.  Apart from our hair, generally the only place where one might in theory express a bit of personality or difference from “samey-ness” is in one’s choice of necktie or socks.  And even that is considered too risky in some quarters.

I am not sure what my regular barber will say tomorrow, when I turn up for my appointment and he is confronted with two months’ worth of growth.  Back when I was a college student, his father cut my hair, and their shop will be celebrating its first century this year, so I suspect he won’t turn a hair – so to speak. Fortunately, at least for now, I am still in a position to take my barber’s suggestion with what to do with this tangled shrubbery atop my head, and I will enjoy having that option for as long as genetics and nature allow.

Getting a haircut, 1950’s