Could Your Hair Salon Benefit Your Career?

Don’t be DIVERTED BY DISCUSSION of the relative merits of different networking venues. The power to BENFIT YOUR CAREER actually might rest with your hairdresser, says MAGGIE ARMSTRONG

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There is a hair salon in Ireland that everyone who is anyone goes to. It’s in an elegantly imposing three-storey building situated in the capital’s booming hairdressing quarter. The interior feels like a lavish nightclub. It advertises itself on its website as “Ireland’s most elite and prestigious hair salon” and you can sense the footfall of celebrities inside its crepuscular ambiance.

There you relax on toffee-coloured velour banquettes until your hairdresser comes and plants a kiss on your cheek. He takes you to a Snow White mirror, where he runs his fingers through your locks and gazes at you with solicitude. Beautiful water nymph girls bring you cups of coffee and maybe a crab salad. As the hours pass your thoughts are blissfully anaesthetised by pop tunes, petal-scented hair products and phosphorescent visuals, and your every whimsical want is provided for.

There is a nail bar, make-up artistry and elite tanning booths if you fancy. You can have a glass of Prosecco, chocolate-covered raspberries and mini lemon meringue pies. Your hairdresser offers a pastoral care service and if you are having work issues, an extramarital affair or simply have a slight tension headache he gives impartial advice. The visit costs about €300 plus tip. Afterwards you don’t even need to go to a nightclub or call a friend.   

The salon, like the white tablecloth to the hungry diner, or the celebrity cookbook, furnishes you with a lifestyle, not just a meal.

It’s true that this isn’t, in fact, a real place, but an amalgam of about six different hairdressers’ at large in the country. Hair salons, I mean. It’s so easy to forget that going to the hairdresser has become visiting the hair salon; stepping into a Proustian living room of social and spiritual and alimentary nourishment, revived in the beauty world. An exclusive treat, not a chore. The salon is a place richly furnished, deep in its knowledge of what you want, large in its promises to personally transform you.

But when did hairdressers’ become hair salons? When did we let this French word in? A rough guess is that a hair “salon” was a boom-time addition (hair “groups”, hair “technicians” and hair “therapists” came and went). The anomaly is that today they are still prospering in beauty bubbles of their own. They call themselves “hair salons” even if we, their clients, prefer the Anglo-Saxon “hairdressers”. The difference is that salons, with their plump décor and refreshments, offer an experience, not a mere service. The salon, like the white tablecloth to the hungry diner, or the celebrity cookbook, furnishes you with a lifestyle, not just a meal. The famous motto of Vidal Sassoon –“If you don’t look good, we don’t look good” – is switched to “If we don’t look good, you don’t look good.”

But it might be time to look inside the world of the hair salon. Perhaps we could sort out what the hairdresser does from what it claims to be.

There is a long and uncertain wait before you are put into a cape. A person drenches you in a cold sink that injures your neck and you are placed in front of a mirror. You are told not to cross your legs. To bow your head, to raise your head. To turn to the left, to turn to the right.

The hairdresser cuts your hair with a sharp pair of scissors. A lot of men have this done in barber shops for €12. The hairdresser colours your hair, like a young more carefree you did, or like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s does, with bottle dye and an old towel at home. The hairdresser blow-dries and styles your hair like none other; we’re all agreed on this. But if you tear away the extras and fripperies, what have you got left in the hair salon?

Going to the hairdressers’ is a kind of experiment in democracy. Everyone chooses it, though no one is really free inside it. Arrive, and you find yourself reading through pages of royal baby bulletins and diet plans. There is a long and uncertain wait before you are put into a cape. A person drenches you in a cold sink that injures your neck and you are placed in front of a mirror. You are told not to cross your legs. To bow your head, to raise your head. To turn to the left, to turn to the right. If you’re really committed, you sign up for colour and your hair is separated into foil, giving you the look of a puppet in a low-budget 1980s children’s show. It all happens during working hours when your mind is at its sparkiest.

As you page through the dross and check your phone 150 times you are drained of feeling and thought, sent into a vapid intellectual recess. Consciousness is kept awake in a prism of mirrors. Left to gaze at your well-lit reflection, like an unbeautiful narcissus staring into his pool, you enter a profound contemplation of how you look these days. Next to you, a dozen others are doing this, to whom you give the attention of a fellow zomboid. For the length of time it takes to have your bangs cut and coloured – almost three hours – it costs, well, we’d rather not think about this.

I was bemoaning how I really wanted to be a journalist, but no one else wanted me to be one. No one was replying to my emails. Editors were a mythical and unreachable race. “You should meet Anthea from The Ticket,” Joe said casually. Two seats to my left was a woman in a cape with paper strips in her hair. We were introduced. I emailed; she replied. She was warm and helpful. I’d an “in”.

The experience is a great leveller, as equalising as snow and rain. Everyone is the same. You are stripped back, uniformed, given orders. It’s a dressing down akin to security checks in airports, being on Twitter, taking religious vows, joining the military. As in the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket when, private by private, crew cuts are dashed out and the hair is shaved away, identity eliminated.

But we can ask ourselves, is it a good thing, to feel the same as the next woman and (increasingly) man? Democracy isn’t always successful. There is always the concern that you have voted in the wrong crowd. That you have relinquished your freedoms to a group of people with very sharp scissors, whose promises amount to a puff cloud of voluminous hairdos. 

Let us argue that it can be a good thing. I go to a typically expensive and chi-chi hair salon with a coffee bar, Indian head massage and discreet hairdresser, Joe. A few years ago I was having a spectacularly overpriced trim, giving Joe too much information. I was bemoaning how I really wanted to be a journalist, but no one else wanted me to be one. No one was replying to my emails. Editors were a mythical and unreachable race. “You should meet Anthea from The Ticket,” Joe said casually. The Ticket is an Irish Times magazine. Two seats to my left was a woman in a cape with paper strips in her hair. We were introduced. I emailed; she replied. She was warm and helpful. I’d an “in”. Soon other people wanted me to be a journalist too (not everyone, understandably), and it all started in capes and dye mesh.

Social and political tiers collapse before your eyes at the hairdressers. At the right hairdressers, that is. So although we are hopelessly following the leader, at least we are able to choose that leader.

I go to Joe out of family allegiance, as with most political choices. My mother and sisters go to him. So does Hillary Clinton. She was visiting as Secretary of State and having a blow-dry, Joe told me. Anthea told me recently that Angela Lansbury also goes to Joe. The venerable actress from Murder, She Wrote, who I’d thought had a blue rinse. Then my mother told me she met so-and-so there, a Senior Counsel. I met him at a party. “You go to Joe?” I asked. “He’s the only one who knows how to do the sides,” he said bashfully. Social and political tiers collapse before your eyes at the hairdressers. At the right hairdressers, that is. So although we are hopelessly following the leader, at least we are able to choose that leader.

Going to the hairdresser is an obvious thing to do now as we enter autumn. We are all about cutting off the dead hair of the last few months, getting “body”. But how about staging a peaceful protest against salon manipulation? Saying no to Prosecco and cakes. To newer French importations, like balayage, and ombre, and calling them highlights again? Demanding better reading material. Asking for your money back if they cut off too much inch. But exploiting the opportunity, too. You never know who you’re going to meet, so turn your head right and left.

Maggie Armstrong @MaggieDubliner

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our September issue, out Saturday September 3.

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