A Snippet of Politics and History
Maybe your hairdresser is your friend, or sort of your friend; someone you like seeing, even if not someone you’d ordinarily hang out with. You might welcome your time in the chair. It’s a chance to unwind, to chat, to be fussed over. And you’ll like the way you look when you leave.
But let’s face it: hairdressers make plenty of people uncomfortable, too. Small talk is awkward. And hairdressers invade your body space, hovering over you, touching your hair, probably touching your skin, too. They have to, you know, to do their jobs. And that makes some people squirm, even before you add the generous dollop of homophobia sometimes in play.
For the would-be aristocrats among us – those who imagine themselves as superior, whether it’s because of education or social class or posh accents or whatever else, and those who indulge in the pernicious fantasy that hairdressers are menial labourers, what the English once called ‘the lower orders’ – all this nastiness is even more pointed. How dare this lesser mortal chat with me, touch me, as if we were equals? How dare they adopt a stance of casual informality, and not be ceremonious and deferential? My mom found it infuriating that hairdressers called her by her first name.
None of this is even a tiny bit new. All of it goes back centuries. After the French Revolution, England exploded in paroxysms of contempt for hairdressers. You can shrug it off as strangely funny, but it tells us something important about equality. It tells us something about ourselves and our politics, too.
Even the casual chit-chat of hairdressers’ shops appalled the great and the good. In a nineteenth-century farce, Adam marvels about one hairdresser: “He can talk politics and give news about the minister chaps; he can say what they’re going to do.” “He must be an impostor if he talks in that way,” snaps back Crop, “for it’s more than ministers can say themselves.”
Hairdressers talked politics. They had newspapers on the premises. These lowly subjects weren’t humble. They dared to mock their betters: corrupt ministers, crazy George III, and depraved aristocrats. They dared to see themselves as the victims of social injustice. Some even sold Sunday newspapers – a dastardly innovation in the ways of Sabbath-breaking.
So they were showered with contempt. “The occupation of a hairdresser,” snarled the great conservative Edmund Burke, “cannot be a matter of honour to any person.” Those on the left sometimes agreed. Listen to Francis Place: “I can imagine nothing except being a footman or a common soldier as more degrading than being either a barber or a tailor.” But Place himself worked as a tailor, and he was indignantly recalling how rude his customers were, how they demanded that he fawn and scrape. He even had to hide his books, lest they think he was putting on airs. Place wanted all this pernicious contempt to go up in smoke. Burke embraced it. He thought social order depended on keeping the inferiors in their place.
No wonder others insisted that the lowly will always be lowly, come what may. Take an 1840 sketch by William Makepeace Thackeray: Barber Cox’s wife inherits a lot of money, so Cox hands off his shop to his apprentice, Crump. But Cox can’t navigate the demands of polite society. He can’t hunt. Opera and ballet leave him baffled. He tries betting at billiards and promptly gets fleeced of a cool £1,000. Boarding a boat for France, he plunges into the water. Finally he lands in debtor’s prison. When he gets out of prison, Cox returns to working as a hairdresser. And he’s relieved to regain his rightful place. “And if we are not happy,” he demands, “who is? I can’t flourish out of my native hair.”
Thackeray’s sketch came out in The Comic Almanack. You might wonder just who’s supposed to find this funny, and quite what they’re laughing at. But Burke wasn’t trying to be funny. He was taking deadly aim at what he saw as the pernicious fantasy that we’re all equal.
I hope you’re committed to seeing your fellows as proud citizens, as free and equal. I hope you see their work every bit as dignified as your own, your work every bit as dignified as theirs. I hope you notice that the work hairdressers do, often rises to the level of art. And so I hope you flinch at Burke’s contempt. But I also hope you notice that our lingering ambivalence about hairdressers suggests that we’re not as cheerfully democratic as we might imagine.
Don Herzog is the Edson R. Sunderland Professor of Law at the University of Michigan. He joined the Political Science Department at the University of Michigan in 1983 and holds a joint appointment with that department and the Law School. His main teaching interests are political, moral, legal, and social theory; constitutional interpretation, torts, and the First Amendment. Don i s the author of numerous books, including Sovereignty, RIP (2020), and A Little Book of Political Mistakes (2020), as well as Defaming the Dead (Yale University Press, 2017).