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Thursday, 19 March 2015

Groom Service, please

During a recent visit to a Turkish barber, I made a startling discovery which I hope may lead to me being recognised as having made a significant contribution to the science of grooming. Like most folk, I believed that the science had been more or less settled since the mid-seventies, when Jorge Silva’s ground-breaking ‘The hermeneutics of grooming’ was published. Silva’s research established that there were six recognisable stages on the ‘male haircut’ continuum:

Passive → Larval → Peacock → Business → Utilitarian → Topiary 

The ‘passive’ phase encompasses the childhood years, when the male has no awareness of his hair and all responsibilities for grooming fall upon his mother. The second (or ‘larval’) phase begins when the young male becomes self-conscious and is, as Silva puts it, ‘quite fussy’ about his appearance.  
Stage three (the peacock phase) has been the subject of most academic attention. Gilligan and Porter’s influential paper on 'The Hair Delusion' (Oxford Tonsorial Review, 1991) observed that, during the peacock phase, a young man “may spend as much as one third of his income on hair products and spend as much as one hour getting his hair just ‘right’ for a night out.” During my own peacock phase, I was known to experiment with colours, lengths and -sadly- accoutrements. I do not exaggerate when I say that my ‘Mick Hucknall’ period is itself worthy of a psychological case study.

Stage four, the 'business phase', evolves over a much longer period (some males can take as long as 15-20 years to make the transition) and, because of where it sits on the continuum, there can be a certain amount of ‘crossover’ between the stage it follows (the peacock) and the stage it precedes (the utilitarian). 
According to Waldorf, Sanchez and McPhail, professors of Hair, Nails and Beauty at the University of Wisconsin, the average male, “having lingered in the hinterland of his peacock days, will make the inexorable graduation, first to the business stage (in which he seeks best value for a good haircut) and then to the utilitarian, in which he will pay the minimal price at any venue (within the parameters of established norms) for a haircut.” Note the absence of an adjectival descriptor for the haircut in that second definition. 

The Wisconsin team devised a simple equation to express the concept of customer satisfaction, which they believed delineated precisely the boundaries of this crossover period between the business and utilitarian phases:  

P = T x A ÷S/N 


P = acceptable price
A = aesthetic considerations
N = likelihood of negative reaction to haircut
T = willingness to invest time
S = sundry considerations (e.g. location, weather, chattiness of staff etc. ) 

Not all experts agree about the existence of an extended crossover period; you may recall the huge twitter row last year when Stephen Fry controversially stated that the difference between the business and the utilitarian period was so minuscule as to be ‘hardly worth the bother’, leading the international stylist John Frieda to describe him as a “preening jackanapes with all the insight of stale suet pudding.”   

Until my recent startling discovery, I believed (like most of us, I’d imagine) that the fifth, or utilitarian, stage had but one offshoot, namely that sixth (topiary) phase, the first to include trimming activities beyond the mere head of hair. I call this the “shall I do those eyebrows for you, sir?” phase, as those were the exact words put to me during a quick visit to a handy boutique in the summer of 2008. In existential terms, entering the topiary phase can be a defining moment, the point at which the mature gentleman is faced with the realisation that he has reached an age characterised by what Camus called “the ineffable desolation of eyebrow unruliness.” After the initial feelings of shock, desolation, shame and existential despair, I had more or less settled into the “shall I do those eyebrows for you, sir?” stage. I was reasonably content that my journey along the tonsorial continuum had reached its comfortable terminus.  

Until, that is, my recent visit to the Turkish barber.

After I had given my usual simple instructions (a ‘two’ at the back and sides and chop a bit off the top please), I sat back and relaxed, expecting nothing other than a pleasantly brief grooming hiatus in an otherwise uneventful Saturday morning.   

Suddenly, and with no prior announcement, the barber took a small set of clippers and applied them to my eyebrows and my ears. Further, he did this without even asking. After the initial shock, the realisation dawned that I was in uncharted territory: a new point on the haircut continuum. The barber had decided that my need for eyebrow and ear trimming was so pronounced, so obvious, that he had no need to consult me. There was, for him, no question to be asked, no debate to be had. ‘This guy’s eyebrows and ears are getting it,’ he must have thought. In Turkish.   

As I sat there considering the enormity of what had just transpired, it occurred to me that this is what Archimedes must have felt like as he sat in his bath and invented the Isosceles triangle. This was a game-changer.  

Accordingly, I have written to the Royal Tonsorial Society to suggest that some further research be carried out in order to establish the exact conditions and boundaries of this seventh point on the grooming continuum. I’d like to think that, in recognition of my contribution to the advancement of science, they may even allow me to name it.

Upon consideration, I believe that the ‘acknowledged overgrowth’ stage has quite a nice ring to it. 

I am aware that this subject has the potential to cause follicle offence and would not wish my admittedly hair-centric approach to upset any friends and colleagues in the bald community. There are many fine works available on baldness, among which I would thoroughly recommend Brandon Linklater’s excellent six-volume work ‘Depilation Row: male baldness and the 60s counter-cultural narrative.’  

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