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Salon Language

Francis Raven
Barbershop photo from

Communicating aesthetic ideals and desires is daunting, even for artists. When you’re not the artist, it's even more difficult. But this is exactly the predicament in the hair salon.

Whenever I get my haircut, the barber makes me look like a nerdy soccer player. I am not a nerdy soccer player, so the experience is somewhat traumatic. For better or worse, haircuts can seem to represent who we are. We all know the exalted feeling of getting a haircut that looks exactly as we feel about ourselves, and the feelings from nightmare haircut can linger long after the hair has grown out. A new hairstyle can drastically alter our appearances and the way we see ourselves; we sometimes believe a new haircut can actually change who we are. And yet we have a great deal of trouble communicating to the stylist how we want to look.

Communicating aesthetic ideals and desires is daunting, even for artists. When you're not the artist, it's even more difficult. But this is exactly the predicament in the hair salon: We need to find the language to express our aesthetic ideals and intentions about our hair to the stylist, who may have his own language to describe such ideas, if not his own aesthetic intentions altogether. Sometimes when you say "a few layers", it is not what the stylist means when he says "a few layers".

Because we lack precise language for our haircuts, when we try to communicate what we want our hair to look like, we actually often talk about how we want others to perceive us. For example, stylist Gwen Scaman says that many clients tell her they want a "sophisticated, messy look". These apparently contradictory adjectives are less details about the cut itself than personality traits we want to project -- in this example, an effortless casualness. That we view our haircuts as a representation of our personalities puts extra pressure on the stylist to try to understand our vision and translate our wished-for personality traits into hair form.

Of course, if we really wanted to create ourselves in our own image we would cut our own hair. But few of us possess the relevant skills which would enable us to cut our hair well. Cutting one's own hair is an attempt at what philosopher Stanley Cavell terms moral perfectionism: "that aspect of moral choice having to do with…with being true to oneself…caring for the self", part of "the demand for providing reasons for one's conduct, for the justification of one's life." As such, hairstyling can be thought of as an act of self-creation. Thus by styling our hair in a certain way that feels true we are in fact simultaneously creating this true self.

However, styling ones' own hair -- or more exactly, having it styled -- might be seen as a part of the self-creation that philosopher Richard Rorty addresses in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Rorty argues that our private identity-making projects cannot be made to harmonize with common public projects, thus creating a radical public-private split. He believes that we should be "content to treat the demands of self-creation and of human solidarity as equally valid, yet forever incommensurable." Rorty writes, "To fail as a human being is to accept somebody else's description of oneself." A good haircut permits us to re-describe ourselves so that we can achieve ourselves.

It may seem that getting a haircut is a lesser sort of self-creation then, say, writing poetry or getting a new job. But in his review of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity Ian Johnston notes that Rorty "insists that all methods of self-creation are equally expressive of human nature, and all are part of the innate human desire to poeticize life anew and thus represent the 'final victory of poetry in its ancient quarrel with philosophy -- the final victory of metaphors of self-creation over metaphors of discovery'." So a person's hairstyle could be just as expressive as the poetry they write about the haircut after the clippers have been turned off. These personality expressions lead us into who we will be in the future. Sometimes, a new haircut is all it takes.

But this act of self-expression is no simple matter, as the preponderance of bad haircuts proves. It's complicated by the need for a stylist to facilitate it. Getting a haircut can be seen as similar to the practice of artists hiring craftsmen to complete their work. For example, Marcel Duchamp employed a professional sign painter, A. Klang, to paint a pointing finger on his painting "Tu m'." Andy Goldsworthy has also made use of expert craftsmen, hiring professional stonemasons to finish his monumental sculptures at Storm King Park in upstate New York. Both Duchamp and Goldsworthy presumably wanted a professional look in their artworks; that is, Duchamp wanted the hand in Tu m' to look like it was a sign so he hired a sign painter and Goldsworthy wanted well-crafted stonework. Likewise, when you have conceived of the identity you want to project with your hair style, you hire a stylist to execute it and create that personality for you.

The problem is that most clients do not have the wherewithal to negotiate the aesthetics of their haircut. They may not even know what is possible. "A lot of clients are confused over the technical jargon," Toronto stylist Andrea Claire Walmsley says, "and they will try stylist speak. But you must be careful or you might end up with what you don't want." According to D. Scott Ball, owner of the Cut & Color Room in Orlando, Florida, a good stylist will "try to listen and then educate her clients to communicate in professional hairdresser terms." However, he also noted that "the biggest problem in our industry is communication."

Wanda Crocker, owner of Shabby to Chic Salon, says clients should be "up front and honest. Tell the stylist exactly what you want, they cannot read minds. I have my clients show me a picture of the style." Because stylists and their clients typically lack a shared vocabulary, many stylists say pictures are the best way for a client to communicate with their stylist. Walmsley says, "Clients bringing photos say a lot about their personality, and this is especially good for a first time visit. If the celeb in the photo is really outgoing, chances are your client is to a degree as well." Yet since the client is not the person in the photograph, the haircut in the picture may not work on the client. Makeup artist and hairstylist Dawn Rivard, whose clients have included Rob Lowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Neve Campbell, Donald Sutherland, Jennifer Beals and Stockard Channing, says, "For me, it's best if people have pictures or can mention one of my other clients that they have seen and want to look like. You never want to copy another client exactly but you can personalize that style for the individual."

The communication difficulties in the haircut process point to an underlying power struggle. In the salon, who is the artist: the stylist or the client with an aesthetic vision of themselves? Some would argue that the true artist is not the client who has imagined a new self to be expressed through a hairstyle, but the stylist himself. Clients line up to be the canvas for the great hair artists; in fact, they pay obscene amounts of money for the right to objectify themselves in the stylist's vision. London stylist Lee Stafford, for example, charges $1,925 for a "couture cut." According to the Financial Times, this special cut is "accompanied by champagne, nibbles and a follow-up trim", but still that does seem like an awful lot of money for a cut. Is it worth it? Great hairstylists, like any other artists, are at the cutting edge of their art's zeitgeist. If you want to be the talk of the town, if you want the newest and the most bold, if you want a heralded coif, you have no choice but to let yourself be a canvas. However, just as experimental artists are often criticized for going beyond the bounds of beauty and good taste, so are the great hairstylists. Some patronize high-end hair stylists only to end up with hair disasters, or cuts that may be avant-garde but are ill-suited to everyday life.

So whose vision should dominate? Even with the best stylists, there must be some negotiation between stylist and client. Walmsley tries to mitigate the distance. "Most clients complain that their stylists never listen and do what they want anyway," she says. "I have heard clients complain that when they bring in pics to their stylist, the stylist tells them, 'I know what you need' without looking at the picture." The vision of the stylist must contend with client's peace of mind and appearance. Since the haircut -- the artwork -- is on their body, the stylist cannot have free rein. "Yes, we are artists," Walmsley says, "but we are there to make our clients happy, comfortable and feel beautiful. You can't do this with a huge ego and an attitude."

No matter the communication difficulty, it's incumbant on the stylist to exercise restraint. Says stylist Candice Jackson, "There is nothing worse than a client that is unhappy because you didn't listen to them. A stylist has to be willing to put the scissors down until she understands what the client wants." Walmsley agrees. "You should never pick up your scissors unless you are 100 percent sure that you are on the same page as your client. If you are unsure and cut anyway, the client will sense your uncertainty and therefore won't relax and probably won't be back based on comfort."

When I was getting my hair cut for my wedding, I decided to eschew my standard $10 barbershop haircut and found a stylist. His name was David. When I sat down in the chair, I said, in all seriousness, "More indie rock, less boy scout." I'm not sure if David, who had once had a career as a singer, understood what I meant by this, but it seemed to turn out okay. When he finished cutting he taught me how to use "product", which, he convinced me, "added quite a bit of texture". I have no idea what he meant.

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