Diary

Jenny Diski

At 17 I was (let me be bold, let me put it on record) gorgeous, and gorgeous in exactly the way a person was supposed to be in 1964. Thin as a leaf, a Biba size eight, hips that held hipsters perfectly in place, and legs that were perfectly designed for emerging from skirts that were little more than a pelmet. But – oh what a waste of temporary good fortune – none of that mattered. My 17th birthday present was a haircut at Evansky’s, as stylish a hairdresser as Vidal Sassoon at the time; the place where hair was cut into the essential knife-sharp meticulous geometric shapes that swung like chain mail as you walked. I sat in the chair while behind me Robert, the senior stylist, cast his professional eye over me, lifting hanks of my long hair with a comb and letting them drop, flicking sections this way and that to see how they fell, examining its possibilities. Finally, he pocketed his comb and with a sigh that would have broken a Mock Turtle’s heart intoned to my mirror image: ‘Every mother prays that their daughter will have straight hair.’ I shrank down in my chair with shame, but I didn’t need to be told. I knew my case was hopeless. My hair curled, it was thick and wiry; in a million years and with all the hairdressing talents in the universe I could never have that sleek hair that fell of its own accord straight and shiny into an immaculate bob as soon as I got out of bed in the morning. Hair then, as Vidal explains in the current edition of the Hairdressers’ Journal International, had to ‘make a statement rather than just make someone look pretty’. All my hair ever said was ‘sorry’. Robert did what he could, he cut it as if I had the right kind of hair and then blow-dried it with agonising tugs of the brush, pulling it away from my scalp to straighten it. I didn’t mind, I deserved the pain. I used an iron and ironing-board myself. He made it look wonderful, right, just like those women who had been blessed with proper hair. I had the style, it made the statement. I looked as I was supposed to look when I left, but then it rained, and by the time I got home my hopeless hair had sprung back into frizz, the knife edges serrated, the weighty slab of fringe cork-screwed. What ever else was right about me didn’t count. My hair was wrong, and in the 1960s if your hair was wrong, nothing could be right.

I saw Robert once again, though not at the hairdresser. Some time later he heard from a friend of mine who was a regular customer that I was in a psychiatric hospital. One day he walked into the day-room, looking dreadfully uncomfortable. We sat at a table, but he was ill at ease, not clear, I think, why he’d come, and it was hard to know exactly what to talk about. He would begin to ask, ‘Why ...?’ and then stop, perhaps for fear of upsetting me, perhaps because he couldn’t formulate the question. After a little while, and several awkward silences, he left, still troubled, squeezing my shoulder and saying he’d be back. He wasn’t, but I was moved that he had come at all. Still, in retrospect, I wonder if he thought my insoluble hair was the root of my problem. And, I don’t know, who can say for certain what strength of psyche I might have developed if only my hair had conformed to the necessity of the time?

And this is what happens. If I’d been asked to review a book of essays by a zoologist or a literary person, I might have controlled the upwellings of personal reminiscences, the heartache and pleasure of books I’ve read or animals I’ve known, but show me a series of articles by a hairdresser and I’m lost in the history of my own hair. I could go on to the 1970s and the need for perms (even my curly hair was not curly in the right way), or to the hennaings, the cropping to half an inch all over, or the moment when my daughter came out of infant school and walked straight past me because that morning her mother’s hair had not been purple.

Given my history as a person with socially unacceptable hair, I have always thought of hairdressers as one of the caring professions, like doctors or psychiatrists, but now I learn, from a Paris coiffeur’s ‘letters’ to his British colleagues in the Hairdressers’ Weekly Journal, that hairdressers have concerns of their own.[*] Like, I suppose, doctors and psychiatrists, when they talk to each other, their vital interest is in using their skills to make a living. Steven Zdatny offers the articles of Emile Long as a particular view of the social history of the early years of the 20th century, and it is a very particular view indeed. The years from 1910 to 1920 were not uneventful in Europe, but for Emile Long writing in a trade magazine, everything that happened was of concern for the effect it had on the business of hairdressing. What did the First World War mean to M. Long and his fellow professionals? It meant a threat to their customary business, the need to find a way of ‘counteracting the trade crisis occasioned by this terrible war’. He writes in 1915:

In times of peace the weather generally forms the topic of conversation, but at the present time it is out of place to indulge in such small talk, and opinions are generally exchanged in regard to the latest news from the Front. This gives the coiffeur an excellent chance of making a remark something to the effect:

   ‘Did you know that it has become the custom in Paris for people who are fond of one another to exchange locks of hair before parting?’

   ‘–?–’

   ‘– Yes, the men present the women with a small strand of hair, which is artistically worked up and then preserved inside a medallion. For their part the ladies offer the men who are about to leave for the Front, or to visit some distant land, a bracelet, ring or neck band skilfully plaited with some of their longest hair. This custom brings good luck ... Here are a few of the various but more simple models.’

Long’s other suggestions for keeping the business going during these testing times was to diversify into the dressing of little girls’ hair and, given that ‘the European War continues with unabated severity, and until it ceases all industries, and especially business de luxe, will suffer from stagnation,’ the making of wigs for the dolls of the little girls whose hair is now, perforce, being dressed. The everyday concerns of a hairdresser trying to make a living in 1915 offer as vital an insight into the pulse of history as Owen or Sassoon’s poetry from the Front.

Long is a businessman wishing to share his years of experience with others of his trade. There is always satisfaction in discovering the details of specialist worlds, and the quotidian life of the hairdresser expands into a social drama of heartache and struggle equal to the torments and terrors of Arthur Miller or David Mamet’s salesmen. As Zdatny explains and Long complains, hairdressers were at the bottom of a hierarchy of fashion, helpless in the face of the couturiers of the great fashion houses who kept their models’ hair short and simple so as not to distract from the clothes. But at a time when hats were compulsory items of dress, the battle raged most directly, and therefore most fiercely, between the hairdressers and the milliners, whose styles each season determined the degree of complexity and therefore the profitability of hairdressing. ‘The coiffeur is lamenting,’ Long laments, ‘because he is ruined by the modiste; by creating a demand for bee-hive hats, which reach down to the shoulders, the milliner has killed waving, hairdressing and postiche.’

But Zdatny warns against putting too much faith in the semiotics of fashion. The milliners, too, were at the mercy of others. In 1910 Long did a tour of the milliners to determine what the fashion was to be for the next season. ‘Toques,’ they told him, one and all. ‘Toques in velvet and furs of all kinds.’ When Long asked why, he was told: ‘We do not make toques out of preference but simply because our hat shapers have been on strike for four months and we cannot procure felt shapes.’ Could Marx or Engels, Weber or Durkheim have explained man’s interdependency better?

Long is a model of the bourgeois businessman, single-lensed but commercially passionate, and with an elder’s desire to bequeath his wealth of knowledge. He knows about hair – his master was Marcel of the Marcel wave – and he knows about profitability. The weekly cut and set was no more than a hairdresser’s dream in 1910. The coiffeur’s livelihood depended on the luxury end of the market, dressing long hair as complicatedly and therefore unmanageably as possible. But in the end, like any good businessman, he accedes to his customers’ wishes. Elaborate styles and complex postiches might represent the good times for hairdressers, but if the clients want short, simple styles, it is better to take a cut in profits than see your customers go elsewhere. Technology was changing, newer methods made waving and tinting accessible to customers at the less exclusive end of the market, and it became possible to make postiches on a scale that allowed them to be sold over the counter at drapery establishments and department stores. Long’s distaste is not merely commercial, he is exquisitely snobbish. The mass-market postiches were ‘too frizzy and waved to please the elegant Parisiennes. Nevertheless there is a demand for such work, as there are many coquettes possessing no personal taste and to whom it would be impossible to sell a postiche of the latest design and make.’ Though the snobbery, too, is commercial at base, popularisation rebounds on profit, and grand ladies, seeing every flibberty-gibbet on the street with a frizzy postiche, were soon rejecting them. Long did not have a very high regard for women: ‘The more civilised and cultured a woman becomes, the more she resembles the savage of the Pacific Islands in her taste for showy colours and glittering ornaments.’ But his misogyny, like everything else, is at the service of commercial concern. If women refuse to buy expensive, exclusive postiches, there will always be something, fancy barrettes and decorations, that they can be persuaded to buy. He sounds increasingly nervous, and by 1920, when he stopped writing, women were beginning to get a taste for the simplicity that he feared would do the hairdresser’s business accounts no good at all.

Emile Long need not have worried, because there I was, back in 1964, cringing in my chair, and wishing fruitlessly that hats would become de rigueur so that I might conceal my tragic hair. The hairdresser finally won out against the milliners, and short hair, especially precision-cut short hair, needs cutting regularly. Long’s fear of mass production was ill-founded. Still, business is business in the hair trade, as the editorial in the February issue of Hairdresser’s Journal International makes clear:

We need to know who our audience is and then make sure we tell them what we can do for them – if you’re a salon whose clients are young and funky, there’s no point in sending flyers to the local old people’s home. Getting the right message to the right people is what created some of today’s most successful businesses – and there’s no reason why hairdressers can’t mirror that success.

And haircutter to the stars Trevor Sorbie speaks the eternal commercial truth in his advice to present-day hairdressers: ‘The future of the industry has nothing to do with hairdressing but the art of business, learning new things like computers, presentation skills, marketing ideas – these are the ingredients to becoming successful. The new medium for hairdressing is the media.’ Wouldn’t Emile Long’s heart sing?

Not long ago I did a reading at a literary festival. I stood in front of the audience and read from a work in progress. They listened, showed no sign of restlessness, clapped appreciatively, and seemed well enough satisfied. At the end a woman came up to me without the usual book in her hand for me to sign, but with a look of sincere admiration. Since childhood I had wanted to be a writer, and such moments, I suppose, were fantasies come true. Yet like most fantasies come true, writing is now a normal thing and the public stuff performed more as a duty than for self-satisfaction. The woman stood in front of me and I prepared my face to receive her compliments on my writing with appropriate humility. ‘I just want to tell you that I really love your hair,’ she said. I melted.

[*] Hairstyles and Fashion: A Hairdresser’s History of Paris 1910-20, edited by Steven Zdatny (Berg, 224 pp., £39.99, 10 April 1999, 1 85973 2178).