Pandemic Objects: Hair

Throughout the current lockdown, there has been lack of access to professional haircare. A service that many had taken for granted was in one stroke unavailable for the near future.  As the lockdown extended, anxiety grew among the many people used to going at regular intervals to hair professionals. Assorted videos promptly appeared on social media and news sites, offering advice on how to cut or dye hair during the lockdown. People posted photos and videos of their unsuccessful or unflattering attempts to master the skill of hair cutting, with hashtags such as #LockdownHair or #CoronaCuts. Politicians, journalists, or anyone appearing on the news via their laptop’s video software had to do so without access to the usual hairstyling services. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon cheerfully posted on Instagram her attempts to cut and colour her hair, as she was talked through the process thanks to a live Face Time session with her regular hairdresser and makeup artist, Julie McGuire.

Nearly all current responses during the pandemic are focused on lack of access to professional hair services, but one hair salon in the neighbourhood of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, has revived a hairstyle, to appeal both to reduced incomes caused by the impact of the virus and to raise awareness of its spread. The hairstyle consists of threaded braids, that resemble the virus’ characteristic spiked shape. It had declined in popularity in recent years to the import of real and synthetic braided hair. Now Sharon Refa braids young girls’ hair, as they wear gloves and masks, into the nicknamed ‘coronavirus hairstyle’, which is cheaper than styles involving braids and reminds people of the need to follow precautions against the virus.

 

An elaborate braided hairstyle featured in J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s series of photographs documenting the hairstyles worn by Nigerian women in the 1970s. HD-849/75 (Abebe) from the series Hairstyles, photograph by J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, 1975, Nigeria. Museum no. E.231-2013. © The Estate of J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere/ Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Now, in the UK, hairdressers are not scheduled to be open at the earliest before July 4. However, it will be a different world for clients and hair professionals when they do. Countries that have already allowed them to open, such as Denmark, Germany, and Italy, have seen a huge surge in demand, while hairdressers attempt to comply with safety regulations. Following UK government guidelines, being ‘Covid-ready’ will involve an entirely different operation. Clients will be staggered. Social interaction should be kept to the minimum, and the traditional chat between hair professional and client will likely be a casualty, with both wearing masks or even in the case of the hair professional, a full-face shield. Screens and barriers will separate them from others, with the same professional carrying out all the hair services on the same client. There will be no waiting area and clients will be booked in advance to reduce the flow. No magazines or reading material will be offered, nor refreshments. The entire relaxed experience will be turned into one fraught with hidden danger, in need of protective equipment, reducing the social aspect to a purely functional one.

Hair care has developed in the UK in the last century into what many consider an integral and regular part of their life. At the turn of the twentieth century few women accessed hairdressers, who until the outbreak of the First World War, were mostly men. As long hair was in fashion, there was no need to regularly cut it, and women dressed their own hair, or in the case of the affluent, had it styled by a maid. The popularity of marcelled (waved) hair and short hair styles, along with a growing number of female hairdressers saw the exponential growth in visits to salons.

Portrait of ‘Elaine’ by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1874 showing the typically long hairstyles worn by European women in the 19th century. (RPS.1092:8-2017) The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A, acquired with the generous assistance of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Art Fund

By mid-century, a weekly visit for a ‘shampoo and set’ was a regular part of many British women’s lives. Barbers lost a large portion of their regular male clientele with the introduction of the Gillette safety razor in the early twentieth century, as men would only need their services to cut hair. By the 1960s, both men and women were regularly attending salons for haircuts and colour services and today, people are used to regular sessions at hairdressers and barbers for assorted services, from dying to beard trimming or braiding.

‘Cousin Mary at the Salon’, Michael Bennett, 1973-76, ( E.337-2013) Victoria and Albert Museum.

A visit to the hairdressers or barber is not just a quick functional one, but a social experience, greatly cherished by the clients. Salons may keep the same client for decades, who might be incredibly loyal to their styles, combining the roles of a saviour of their locks and a friend. As we ease from lockdown, it will be intriguing to see how both salon and individual attempt to adapt to the new limiting regulations, which might be in force for a long time.

Further Reading:

Coronavirus: How to cut your own hair at home in lockdown’, Produced and edited by Kirsty Grant, BBC, 23 April 2020.

‘#CoronaCuts & #LockdownHair with Nicola Sturgeon’, Julie McGuire, 12 April 2020. 

Coronavirus: How to open a hairdresser’s after lockdown’, BBC, 5 May 2020.

Related Objects from the Collections:

Scissors, Thailand, 18th century (402-1894)

Scissors, Thailand, 18th century (402-1894) Victoria and Albert Museum

Comb, Mughal Empire, 18th century (02545(IS)

Comb, Mughal Empire, 18th century (02545(IS) Victoria and Albert Museum

Shaving Set, Netherlands, 1700-1730 (192:1-1881)

Shaving Set, Netherlands, 1700-1730 (192:1-1881) Victoria and Albert Museum

 

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