Social Roles of Hair Salons
Hair salons provide a central place for women to tend to their appearance, enjoy the companionship of other women and exchange information. Compared with other social institutions, such as churches, the informal atmosphere of a salon enables women to forge bonds not only with their stylists, but also with the salon’s clientele. The various social roles of a hair salon can encompass a support network, a haven from everyday life and an arena for political change.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, hair salons proliferated due to technological progress, the onset of World War I and shifts in fashion, according to “For Appearance’ Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Beauty, and Grooming.” Whereas only wealthy women could afford professional beauty services in the 19th century, women of all economic classes could have their hair styled in a salon of the 20th century. The hair-dressing industry took its cue from the role barbershops played in the cultivation of male culture and offered women a friendly place to commune with and seek support from other women.
Trips to the hair salon typically serve as legitimate reprieves from familial routines and responsibilities for women, as put forth by the book “Ideals of Feminine Beauty: Philosophical, Social and Cultural Dimensions” by Karen Callaghan. Hair stylists will often extend themselves and invite intimate conversations about their patrons’ lives. Neighborhood stylists can even become lifelong friends and confidantes. For patrons who live in areas rife with crime, a hair salon can offer a temporary respite from violence. In this setting, individuals are introduced to cultural norms that inform behavior with regard to sexuality, identity and community relations. For example, a patron leafing through a beauty magazine might chat with another patron about a local school event.
Hair salons can offer women a sanctuary to re-evaluate their roles in the family and community. During the Cold War, they also became locales for political resistance. According to “Containing America: Cultural Production and Consumption in '50s America,” African-American women congregated in hair salons to debate the status quo during the Civil Rights Movement. When Louis Martin -- a black-newspaper publisher, civil rights activist and deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the 1960s -- sought African-American votes, he recruited hair salons to circulate political material on candidates.
The beauty industry employs various marketing tactics to stir a woman’s anxiety concerning her appearance. In capitalist societies, self-adornment has been turned into a profit-making activity. As an intermediary between corporations and women, hair salons instill in stylists and patrons the perceived need for cosmetics and hair products to meet reigning standards of beauty and elevate self-esteem, says “Ideals of Feminine Beauty." Hair stylists typically promote an array of products, ranging from shampoos to curling irons.