IT’S an image from another age. Hot towels, cut-throat razors and a whistling barber stropping his blade.
For decades the sole preserve of far-eastern holidays and the wealthy with time to kill, the old foam and brushes are returning to a barber near you. Real shaves are back and booming.
Today you can get one in every town. Even Mexborough.
Cheap shot I know, but would anyone expect to find a first-class, three-towel wet shave available in a former mining town with a no-nonsense reputation?
Probably not but they’re working up the foam right now at The Gentry on Doncaster Road as another grizzled chin is prepared for a close one.
As they are at Savill’s on Devonshire Street in Sheffield.
So what’s it like to get a shave in a barber’s?
No-one I know has had it done in this country and ever since we saw Laurel shave Hardy with a carpenter’s plane in Busy Bodies the idea of another person wielding a blade so close to your throat has been fascinating and terrifying. A double edged sword you might say - though the blades are disposable these days.
But duty calls and if the company wants me to sit for two hours and be pampered, oiled, powdered and moisturised I suppose I’ll just have to put up with it.
First stop Mexborough. The Gentry salon on Doncaster Road is smart, modern and welcoming, the staff warm and friendly.
Caroline Brookes is ‘doing’ me today and she’s a treasure.
“We had a French chap from London come up here to train us in shaving,” says 38-year-old Caroline, who’s been cutting hair since she was 16. “When he left we looked at each other and realised we were on our own. It was a bit scary at first but we soon got into it and you all develop your own style.
“I had one lad who was claustrophobic and couldn’t have the towels on his face another who was getting married that day and still hungover so we sent out to the cafe for cucumber to put on his eyes we while I shaved him. It helped.
“People get relaxed in the chair but I daren’t let them fall asleep. They might wake with a start or jump in their sleep. You don’t want that with a razor near your face.”
Quite. But relaxing though it is I managed to stay awake throughout. No blood, no stubble and £22 for the privilege.
Wedding day packages are a speciality with Champagne and beer, cooked breakfast, haircut, gift pack and a wet shave - for the groom and best man of course for £160.
“We do about 15 a month during the wedding season and I really enjoy doing the shaves - besides the hot towels machine keeps our bacon sandwiches warm!” adds Caroline.
Over in Sheffield Joth - short for Jonathan - Davies is the man with the blade and he does a pretty good Sweeney Todd impression for our camera. It crosses my mind about now that the recently-imported, 100-year old, Chicago-made barber’s chair I am sitting in might have once been occupied by Al Capone. I dismiss the thought immediately. Joth has been a hairdresser since he started at S&L in House Of Fraser in Sheffield when he left school. He has also worked as a consultant and trainer in the industry for Wahl shavers and American Crew hair products and went to New York to see how the pros shave.
“I used to work at Harrods and Selfridges in London cutting hair and I got them to train me in shaving,” said 39-year-old Joth, born in London but grew up in Jordanthorpe after moving to Sheffield with his family when he was two.
“I went to New York to Paul Molé, a famous barber for five generations whose customers include John Steinbeck, Henry Fonda, John F. Kennedy and Joe Di Maggio. I went there for the day and watched how they work. Everyone shaves in their own way but I learned lots of little things that make a difference.”
And he uses them. He’s importing an American hot towels machine and a hot foam machine too. His bill comes to £18.
Like Caroline Joth uses oil to soften the beard, then foam and hot towels. It’s all about the heat, apparently.
“The heat on the face brings the blood to the surface which opens the pores and makes the hair stand out more, making it easier to shave close. Then we use cold towels at the end to close the pores before moisturising.”
Tips for shaving at home?
“Men often complain of a shaving rash from shaving at home. That’s because the hair on your neck grows in different directions. You get a rash from shaving against the grain of your beard. I give people a bit of advice and it makes a massive difference.
“Get your skin warm and relaxed, use a pre-shave oil and a good quality, natural shaving cream without parabins. Always shave with the grain of your beard. When you feel resistance on the razor, try another direction until there is less drag, don’t force it.
“If you want to go over a second time go at 90 degrees to the grain but not against it.”
Better still, relax and let someone else do it. Just don’t fall asleep.