What is it about women and hairdressers? I’ve spent years trying to work it out and I still don’t have a clue. Let’s take an example. When I’m in England, I get my haircut at a salon in London. The salon is owned by a man called Nicky Clarke.
Star snipper: Clarke (left), posing here with actor Alice Evans, makes his clients wait for hours. (Photograph: Charley Gallay / Getty Images for KH Design / AFP)
The stylist who normally cuts my hair has his designated spot right behind the place where Clarke himself operates — when he does deign to come in. So, often, when I go to the salon, I get to see Clarke and his clients up close.
On many occasions, he doesn’t turn up — even if he has clients waiting for him. When he does appear, he is nearly always late. Most of the times, this does not seem to matter to his clients. They sit patiently in the reception, flipping through the pages of Vogue and Tatler, waiting for the great man. Sometimes, to provide the illusion of activity, they are taken for a shampoo and then made to sit in the main salon with wet hair. At most places, this would indicate that a haircut was imminent. But with Clarke, all it means is that you’ve moved up to the next level in the waiting list. You could sit there for hours, watching your hair dry from the central heating and still be no closer to getting it cut.
Because Clarke is not cheap (around £500 or so for a cut with the great man’s scissors, I reckon — the other stylists are much more affordable, thank God!), his clientele tends to consist of very rich women. Many are professionals and several run organizations where scores of minions answer to them. If any of them went for a professional meeting and were kept hanging around for an hour or more, I’m sure they’d explode with rage. But rarely have I seen anyone storm out of Clarke’s salon. Only once did I see a rich lady of Far Eastern appearance first burst into tears (after a wait of two hours, I was told) and then storm out of the salon (fortunately, her hair had dried from the waiting). Clarke couldn’t have cared less. There were many others in the queue.
Why do women put up with this? Many of Clarke’s clients are regulars, so he’s been making them wait for years. But they hardy ever defect and they keep phoning for fresh appointments (tough to get because he’s not in the salon every day).
In some ways, the relationship between Clarke, who is blonde (thanks to the colourists in his own salon, I’d reckon) and wears leather trousers, is not unlike the relationship between a rich older woman and her wild, young lover. The woman knows that the stud will behave badly and yet, she keeps coming back for more.
There are less Freudian explanations, of course. Clarke is very good at what he does. He was the star stylist at John Frieda’s salon before he left to start his own business. His reputation was sealed when the Duchess of York started coming to him — in the days when she was still perceived as fun-loving Fergie rather than an over-promiscuous piglet. More recently, he’s been praised for the look he gave Jemima Khan, whose beauty lies mainly in her haircut. It does not follow that Clarke takes the same trouble over less famous clients. But there’s no denying his talent.
Then, there’s the glamour factor. Ever since the 1990s, the Western media’s relentless hunt for celebrities has turned hairdressers into famous people. In the old days, there were a few famous snippers — Vidal Sassoon, for instance, who was integral to the whole Swinging London scene in the 1960s. But now, hairdressers have reached another level of stardom, at par with fashion designers, soap stars, pop singers and ramp models. When Clarke is not in the salon, he’s on TV. He used his celebrity status to launch a range of (very good) hair products and managed to sell it for a small fortune (he’s still associated with the range though he no longer owns it).
For many people, it’s become a name-dropping thing. It sounds impressive to say “Nicky Clarke cuts my hair” if you leave out the details of your humiliation during the wait for the haircut.
Which, of course, takes us back to where we started: what is it with women and hairdressers? Why are women prepared to pay such vast amounts to get their hair done? Why do salons become such an important part of the lives of rich ladies?
If you exclude the explanations I considered above (skill and fame of the stylist), there is a still one good reason: A haircut is more important than an outfit. You change your clothes every day; a haircut is for keeps (till the next appointment, at least). So, if a woman has £500 (around Rs41,500) to spend, it makes more sense to get a good cut than a new bag or a new dress.
But I think the relationship between women and salons goes beyond logic and practicality. Hairdressers have convinced women that they can make them look attractive. Any time a woman needs her confidence boosted, she goes and gets her hair done. It doesn’t substantially alter her face, but she still feels as though it has. After all, you can’t really do much about the facial features you were born with, short of Botox or plastic surgery. But your hair lends itself to all kinds of improvements, from dyeing and streaking to perming and straightening.
Plus there’s the ambience of the salon itself. As Hal Ashby and Warren Beatty noted in their 1975 movie Shampoo, women treat salons the way some men treat clubs or golf courses. It is their own space. They meet others like them. They are fussed over and pampered (unless Clarke is doing their hair). And they leave feeling more beautiful and more confident.
Men don’t get any of this. I treat my haircut as a necessary nuisance. I see the point of a good stylist who can make my hair look fuller. But I don’t need the ego-massage of a celebrity hairdresser’s cut. And no sooner have I entered a salon, than I am dying to get out.
It’s one more way in which the sexes are different.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org