Is Masculine Anxiety Fueling the Rise of Nostalgic Barbershops?

 (Mark Fiore/KQED)

In Bay Area cities, a new kind of barbershop is popping up to attend to men's beards, coif their hair, even perform manly manipedis. The shops have an old-timey look and relatively high prices. Men are drawn to these nostalgic barbershops, and the reason may go beyond the desire to sport a craft haircut and shave.

In a lot of ways Fellow Barber in San Francisco is like any other corner barbershop. Hair gets snipped, buzzed and blow-dried. The barbers and clients banter -- about dating, work and travel. But the place doesn’t look like any old corner barbershop, at least not one from this century.

Fellow Barber has a distinctly turn-of-the-20th-century feel. There is lots of wood, antiques, old maps and black-and-white photos of Yosemite National Park. The guys getting trimmed sit in front of mirrors built into a sculpted wooden fixture along the wall.

It’s from the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The fixture embodies the aesthetic of the space. It’s solid mahogany, 9½-feet tall and has carved mermaids.

Jonah Buffa co-owns Fellow Barber with his brother, Sam (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Jonah Buffa owns the place with his brother, Sam. Barbershops like theirs are popping up in San Francisco, Oakland and cities across the country. The aesthetics of the shops range from frontier Gold Rush to 1960s "Mad Men."

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The male beautification or “manscaping” that happens inside these places has a whole new lingo, explained Kristen Barber, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University. She’s written a book about these new barbershops.

“Manicures become hand-detailing and pedicures become foot-detailing, like their cars. Highlights become man-lights and hair color becomes color camo,” Barber said.

Barber said the rise of these kind of barbershops is connected to anxiety over masculinity and the improving economic position women have in society.

“It is certainly a shift in economics and shift in gender relations that is pushing men to buy into a consumer masculinity in a way they haven't in the past,” Barber said.

She said men are shelling out for haircuts and beard trims to get in touch with the masculinity of bygone eras.

Sean Trainor said the nostalgic atmosphere of these barbershops hearkens back to a time when white men had more power over women and minorities.

“Invoking them, even if in a very different way, still seems very problematic to me,” said Trainor, who teaches history as the University of Florida and researches male grooming.

He said male anxiety is nothing new. When women were gaining political power in the 19th century, men started growing beards.

“The beard became this way for men to more visibly distinguish themselves from women when they felt like a lot of the old distinctions between men and women were being eroded by the women's rights movement,” Trainor said.

Fellow Barber’s co-owner, Sam Buffa -- who lives in New York where he has several other barbershops -- said he’s just focused on bringing back the craft of barbering.

“I really do truly feel that people are looking for authenticity," he said. "They are looking for something that is solid, something that is tactile. It happens to be that that era, around a hundred years ago, there was craft there.”

The clients I spoke with at Fellow Barber said this isn’t about being masculine, but just looking good. That’s why Clifford Chiu started coming to get a trim.

“It was summer, and I'm like man, I'm single, I should try to look better!” Chiu said.

And Chiu and others are willing to pay for it.

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Haircuts at Fellow Barber cost between $45 and $55. Whatever the reason, in 2017, men are willing to pony that up for a new look.

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