Among all the hardships of Melbourne’s lengthy Covid-19 lockdown, not being able to get a haircut has been rated by many as one of the most psychologically taxing. With salons now reopened, a palpable sense of purpose and identity is returning to the city. By Rick Morton.

Time for a haircut and catch-up

Hairdresser Neel Morley at his Fitzroy salon.
Credit: Elle Marsh

When Neel Morley heard the news on Sunday, there was a sharp intake of breath. “The truth is, I was like, Oh, my goodness. Oh, we’re going to be flooded,” he says from his Fitzroy hair salon, Neel Loves Curls. “It was like four hours of messaging for me trying to get all the replies, and I’m not going to lie, I did a few auto replies, because it’s just the same question.”

The question was: Can I get an appointment? Perhaps more than any other change to Melbourne’s Covid-19 restrictions last Sunday, Daniel Andrews’ announcement that hairdressers and barbers could reopen at midnight sent a frisson of possibility across the city. One of the most locked-down metropolises in the world was reopening and its residents would meet their first semblance of normalcy in a salon chair.

Dr Hannah McCann, a cultural studies lecturer at the University of Melbourne, says that when she heard the news she understood a much larger moment was in the making.

“I think that there is a widely held cultural assumption that salons are, for the most part, vain spaces where people merely manage their outer appearance,” McCann tells The Saturday Paper. “What all of my research so far has revealed is that there is something much deeper going on in the salon environment. These are spaces of touch, emotions and identity transformation … of care and ‘renewal’.

“Even without considering the issue of the emotional or physical aspects of salon work, the identity aspect alone reveals a deeper side to the salon visit than mere outer appearances.”

Melbourne’s three-month lockdown has taken its toll on the city, but for some the sense of a loss of control – of their lives, their identity, their hair – has been particularly acute.

One Melbourne mother told The Saturday Paper her son experienced anxiety as his hair grew out. He’s trans and the lengthening locks contributed to a sense of gender dysphoria. “I gave him a ‘mum cut’ but he was very self-conscious,” she says. “My wonderful hairdresser has squeezed him in for an iso fix before he returns to school on Monday.

“For many, their appearance is part of their identity. It has been much more than simple vanity.”

For those living alone, lockdown often stirred intense feelings of loneliness. That human beings are social creatures is not a controversial fact, but it’s often forgotten that touch is one of the most important senses. Social animals kept apart tend to come undone at the seams. These psychic ruptures might be gentle, or severe, but they are all very real.

McCann says the theme of touch emerges over and over again in her surveys. “My research so far has found that touch is really central to the salon experience,” she says.

Many clients in her survey spoke about the fact there is no one else in their life that touches them with this intimacy or care. “Touch can be key to a sense of feeling cared for and ‘pampered’, and to feeling transformed by the salon visit,” says McCann.

“These are spaces through which people curate and manage their identities. Some survey respondents spoke about the profound identity crises that they felt in no longer being able to visit salons. Some people felt like they were losing their sense of self.”

One young man, who works in the creative industries, says his trip to the barber shop this week was “the first time I felt a human touch around my neck in over four months”.

“Even though it was my regular barber … the way they looked in that uniform, shreds of white hair around the floor, the smell of shaving cream and constant spraying of water, it felt like I belong there,” he says.

When he was done, he felt compelled to call his grandfather to say he looked like him again. He’d lost himself, and his family, in the mess of hair.

The lockdowns have also produced some truly terrifying isolation home cuts. There’s a father whose clippered hair looks as though a lawnmower ran over his head during a coughing fit. Overgrown bouffants and kitchen scissor mullets. Jade St Claire confesses to dyeing her hair a deep purple in a fit of “madness”. She can’t get an appointment to fix it until mid-November.

Some people sent photos to their hairdressers, inducing something of an anticipatory panic among salon owners before the doors even opened. “My hairdresser thinks he is going to have a nervous breakdown,” says Joanna Knight.

But not every salon made it through the lockdowns.

“My hairdresser messaged me through lockdown to say that she was not coming back,” says Monica. “That’s what broke me. Having to find a new hairdresser that understands me, my hair, my need for quiet – it was too much to process.”

Hairdressers, meanwhile, are steeling themselves for the serious task of being on-the-side trauma counsellors and life coaches. To hear one story of relationship breakdown, lost jobs or mental health concerns is a lot – but to carry that load for an entire city emerging from lockdown?

“Even before Covid-19, salon workers were at the coalface of emotional disclosures,” says Dr McCann. “Over years of interviewing salon workers, they have told me about client disclosures including relationship and marriage breakdown, mental health issues including anxiety and depression, family violence, sexual violence, chronic illness, terminal illness, gender transition and even suicidal ideation.”

Carlton salon owner Zowie Evans is an ambassador for HaiR-3Rs, a program that provides family violence training for hairdressers. She takes very seriously the responsibility if a client makes a disclosure while in her salon.

“It is about being able to provide a safe space for clients that have experienced any form of family violence. You know, to be able to come in and talk. I think that is our job,” she says.

“We are going to be that initial step for those clients to be able to walk through that door and be able to provide that information. And the issue with having such a heavy lockdown, you know, family violence has grown. So, it is being able to tackle that and understanding our responsibility as a community to be able to just sit down and talk with somebody and just ask, ‘Are you okay?’ ”

Neel Morley is similarly trained. He only deals with curls – his was the first studio in Australia to specialise – and the niche brings clients from across the country. With the border closures and 25-kilometre travel limit, some still can’t make it.

Morley sees people who used to hate their hair, were teased for it, didn’t know how to manage it. He works with women from a broad swath of cultural communities for whom hair is deeply ingrained in their identity. But, ultimately, he just likes people.

“You can be a really amazing hairdresser, but you have to like people. It’s so, so important in hairdressing,” he says. “I like colour. I like joy. I like escapism and, you know, I think that’s what places should be like … It’s not just the haircuts. It’s an experience.

“The irony is my salon is called Neel Loves Curls. I just love curls, but I don’t have curly hair myself. I stumbled into doing this. I realised that a lot of people couldn’t do it, or weren’t interested in doing it, and here I am. And, you know, I’ve been fully booked, you know, ever since the day my salon opened.”

Overall, demand for hairdressing has never been higher. One stylist was booked five weeks in advance, even before the premier’s announcement. Many have gone from having their businesses shuttered to being totally overwhelmed within hours.

Mal Maiden was lucky enough to get an appointment just minutes after the Sunday announcement. He says on Monday “it was near chaos with phones ringing off hook and people coming to the shop in the hope of just grabbing a seat”.

By then, the salon was already booked out into the following week.

Outside of barber shops, orderly queues of men – socially distanced, masks in place – waited patiently to resume an abandoned ritual. “Grey older men in the morning, kids with their parents in the afternoon,” Melbourne writer Anna Spargo-Ryan observed of the lines outside the shop on her school run.

Ross Floate bought a bottle of Moët & Chandon for his barber, an elderly gentleman who moved in with his children during lockdown. “It was like getting to catch up with a mate,” he says.

At its core, the reopening of salons and barber shops in Melbourne represents a chance for reacquaintance with self. It is easy to persuade ourselves that, even in loneliness, our essence remains. But there is something about being in the world at large, something unknowable about the shape of its absence. Such things remain difficult to define until we are faced with the magnitude of what that reconnection requires of us.

“I had my first haircut in 10 months yesterday,” says Tanyia Harrison. “I was not prepared for how anxious I would be getting there and navigating close contact to people after such a long time. Had to talk myself out of a full-on panic attack. It made me realise it is going to take time to readjust.

“But the hairdresser was amazing, and it was so lovely to have a long conversation with a stranger. Before Covid she was a flight attendant and has returned to hairdressing – a very 2020 story.”

Additional reporting by Elle Marsh.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2020 as "Hair triggers".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.