Hairdressing

The ‘dressing’ bit is odd, isn’t it? But the OED gives ‘to trim, purify, or smooth’ from as long ago as 1480, so it’s no different from dressing a turkey, I guess (ah, and that’s where dressing-table comes from, it’s where you dress your appearance, I’d always thought it was something to do with the act of putting clothes on: aren’t dictionaries good for going off at tangents?)

Anyway. Today is my overdue six-monthly visit to have my hair cut. Six months is a long time for most people, but I went from May 1970 to May 1986 without visiting a professional, or even amateur hairdresser. Sixteen years. I cut it once or twice, but cut it myself, using a small mirror and a pair of nail-scissors. It was so long and untidy that no-one inspected it for split or ravaged ends. I must have been one of the only full-time teachers to get away with having hair to my waist, a la mode of the early 1970s, for so long. It threw the parents of the students I taught, that’s for sure. All my students took Art A level as well as English A level, so the parents naturally assumed that a) I was the Art teacher, and b) that, looking inarticulate, I was inarticulate. So they were wrong-footed on both counts. It wasn’t ever part of a plan, but I came to realise that the gap between appearance and reality gave me a slight advantage in these settings, which can be combative. Amazingly, I never had a complaint. (Interesting, though, that it would have been all right if I’d been the Art teacher – eccentricity in an Art teacher is somehow acceptable.)

In 1986, however, I decided to go for promotion, and I realised that, even to have a glimmer of opportunity, the pinking shears and the kitchen knife weren’t going to be enough. Self-help wasn’t possible, if I was going to apply to be a head of department. So I went to a hairdresser’s again. My boss had already written his reference (‘despite his appearance…’), and had to quickly amend it.

The hairdresser herself, who was called Julie, looked at me with a mixture of incredulity and shock. I thought she was going to turn me down, but it turned out I’d made her day, her week, her month. ‘I’ve always wanted to do something like this,’ she said, and grinned with delight. It was an odd experience, sitting down again in one of those surreptiously comfortable chairs, and hearing the snick-snack of professional cutting going on. She started from behind, and left the three-foot fringe for last. After a pleasurable age, she said ‘Are you ready?’ and cut the fringe away. It was a weird feeling: I was looking, for the first time in sixteen years, at someone who had rejoined the conventional race. All my prejudices against the hairdressing salon-owners vanished with a snip. There was no doubt that I looked oddly younger (and also that my neck felt cold and exposed).

It might have been one reason why I got the job. The interviewers walked round me before I went in for the grilling, oohing and aahing. I guess they thought I wanted the job badly, if I was prepared to part with so much weight from my head.

Only one thing went wrong. After a haircut, even a DIY one, the natural instinct is to wash the remainder. I duly went home and got the shampoo out. However, I wasn’t thinking: usually, I needed about half a family-size bottle to do the business, and I emptied the same amount as ever on to my newly shriven head. There was a colossal quantity of foam: foam everywhere, foam by the gallon, foam in industrial quantities. Rarely have I felt such a prat.

I still use the same salon (another odd word). Julie’s gone, but she’s been replaced by a wonderful woman called Jo, who now operates as Rage, as in all the rage, I guess. Like all great hairdressers, she is a natural communicator, a mistress of entertaining chat. And she is going to end our session, as ever, by showing me just how bald the back of my head is.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. The only thing that follows me round these days is the sight of my scalp. Twice a year, I am reminded. That’s the one thing I’m not looking forward to.

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