Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Cut and Dried: A Selection of Fictional Hairdressers

On Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf (my weekly literature show on North Manchester FM), I turned my attention to hairdressers – most likely because I’ve been missing mine so much and can’t wait to get an appointment! The show featured a little selection of fictional hairdressers, barbers and stylists. You can catch the show again on the player at the end of this post, but, as promised on the show, here’s a list of the books I featured.

The String of Pearls; or, The Sailor’s Gift (1846-7)

What better way to start a Hairdressers Special than with possibly the most notorious barber in literature: Sweeney Todd? So today’s list begins with a nicely grisly bit of early Victorian pulp fiction.

The String of Pearls was published in instalments between 1846-47 by the King of the Penny Dreadfuls, Edward Lloyd. The actual writers weren’t credited, but it’s now believed that the story was written by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Preskett Prest. While modern readers will be likely be familiar with some elements of the story from modern retellings, there’s quite a bit more plot to The String of Pearls than just those mysteriously meaty pies. The title (and the alternative title) refers to a gift sent to a young woman named Johanna Oakley from her sailor lover Mark Ingestrie. Before getting lost at sea, Mark entrusted a string of pearls to Lieutenant Thornhill, who promised to take them to Johanna when he reached London. But Thornhill disappears before he’s able to fulfil his promise, and Johanna teams up with a naval colonel to discover his fate. It seems he was last seen going for a shave and a haircut at a certain barber’s shop in Fleet Street…

Even if you think you know the story, I would definitely recommend reading the Victorian penny dreadful. There’s a lot in it that will surprise you and – if anything – the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is actually more sinister and more unpleasant here than in any of the later versions!

Legally Blonde by Amanda Brown (2001)

A bit of a change of pace with this next one! When I first starting thinking about this list for the show, the genre that immediately sprang to mind was Chick Lit. In fact, it was Chick Flicks that really popped into my head and, in particular, one of the more iconic beauty salon scenes in cinema. Fortunately, the film that I was thinking of was based on a novel, so I can happily include Legally Blonde on today’s list.

Brown’s novel was published in 2001 and adapted into a film very shortly afterwards. It is – as if you need to be told – the story of So-Cal girl Elle Woods’s escapades at a prestigious law school, and it’s partly based on Brown’s own experiences studying at Stanford Law. The film was a relatively faithful adaptation of the novel, but there are some differences between the two. For one thing, it’s set at Stanford, rather than Harvard Law. For another, Elle’s determination to win back ex-boyfriend Warner doesn’t actually wane much in the novel – despite the fact that, as in the film, he’s not very nice to her. And I do have to admit that the novel is also a little lighter on the beauty salon scenes, and we don’t get to see the same development of female friendships and support networks as we do in the adaptation, but it still uses the beauty parlour as a place that stands in contrast to the competitive, unfriendly, and very masculine environment of the law school and the courtroom. Legally Blonde has definitely earned its place on today’s list. (What, like it’s hard?)

Hair: A Journey Into the Afro & Asian Experience, edited by Pete Kalu and Shirley May (2006)

This next book takes us more into the realm of hair styling, rather than hair stylists (though there are a couple of mentions of hairdressers dotted throughout the collection), but I have some personal affection for this book that means it was one I really wanted to include on the list. I have some fond memories of helping to workshop some of the pieces included in the book at a Commonword writing group in Manchester, and one of the editors (the fantastic Peter Kalu) has been a guest on Hannah’s Bookshelf in the past.

Hair is an anthology of short stories, creative non-fiction, poems and styling tips, in which the writers explore their personal relationships to their hair. There’s a lot of personal experience described in the poems and stories here, but also a powerful consideration of history, identity and legacy. Racist attitudes towards Afro and Asian hair are confronted head on – there is real anger in some of the pieces – but this is combined with a sense of love and admiration for the cultural identity expressed through hair styling, as well as the communal experience of dressing hair. Hair is a collection I’m really fond of, and not least because it brings back some happy memories for me of old writing groups and book launches. It’s full of powerful and thought-provoking pieces by some wonderfully talented writers.

Even Monsters Need Haircuts by Matthew McElligott (2010)

A very definite change of pace now… and a change of genre, style and target audience too! Even Monsters Need Haircuts is a children’s book aimed at the 4-7 age range, with some comical illustrations and a charming (but easy to follow) storyline.

McElligott’s main character is the young son of a barber who sneaks out to his dad’s shop every full moon to cut the hair of a very special set of customers. Because, well, even monsters need haircuts. This is a fun little book with a child-friendly Halloween twist. Young readers – or listeners, if the book is being read to them – will enjoy the pictures of various monsters getting their hair styled. How do you cut a vampires hair since they have no reflection? And how do you get round the difficulties of braiding Medusa’s locks? Parents and teachers will also appreciate the subtle reassurances the book provides to children anxious about going to the hairdresser’s – or facing other anxieties about unfamiliar experiences. I always like to include a children’s book in my themed shows, and this one seemed like a very good fit. I started the show talking about a monstrous barber, so it’s only right to balance that out with a monster’s barber!

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu (2010)

Continuing the wild journey around genres and styles today, the next book on my list is actually the only one with the word ‘hairdresser’ in the title!

The protagonist of Tendai Huchu’s debut novel is the eponymous hairdresser. Vimbai is a single mother, estranged from her family, who has managed to secure a reputation as the finest hair stylist at the salon where she works. This is threatened by the arrival of Dumisani, a new hairdresser on the scene with very different background and life experience to Vimbai. Although jealous of Dumi, Vimbai strikes up a friendship with her rival, but she doesn’t realize that there are secrets being kept that will totally change her view of the world in which she lives. The Hairdresser of Harare is a really compelling novel with a very strong sense of both character and place. I loved the way Huchu uses Vimbai’s rather mundane perspective (and, as I’ve said before, ‘mundane’ is never really an insult on Hannah’s Bookshelf – I love books that create powerful stories out of the quotidien) to present Harare as a place that is at once ordinary and extraordinary, filled with both the boring inanities of life and the striking scars of Mugabe’s rule and colonial legacies. The beauty salon emerges as the perfect place to set such a story – its familiarity and intimacy works to set the scene for both Vimbai’s world and her character. And even though much of the novel is set outside the salon, and as the title reveals, Vimbai’s identity is bound up with her occupation. She is a hairdresser, and a very good one at that.

Beauty is the Beast by Jennifer Zamboni (2018)

Let’s end with another good hairdresser then… though a somewhat different character to Vimbai, in a very different type of book. My final fictional stylist of the day was Gretchen, the 24-year-old hairdressing protagonist of Jennifer Zamboni’s Beauty is the Beast.

Except Gretchen isn’t actually 24 years old. She’s 150. And she’s a werewolf. (She is a hairdresser, though, that bit is true!) Gretchen lives and works with her two best friends, who happen to be a vampire and a Classical goddess. Together they work in a beauty salon, but their world is rocked by the murder of one of their friends and colleagues. Zamboni’s novel is described as urban fantasy – which it undoubtedly is, as it is set in a version of the ‘real world’ that includes magic and Fae – but it is also a murder mystery. Gretchen and her friends have to work out who has committed the murder and keep themselves safe from the threat at the same time. I know I keep coming back to monsters on today’s show – and I’ll be honest, I really didn’t expect to talk quite so much about vampires in this list – but I wanted to include Beauty is the Beast here because it has so many great scenes in the salon itself. As in most of the other books on today’s list (not The String of Pearls, I hasten to add), the hairdressing salon here is an intimate and personal space where nurturing and supportive friendships can develop. And I love the fact that, while Gretchen is a werewolf, it’s almost equally important to her character that she is hairdresser. For that reason, this seemed like a very apt book on which to end today’s show!

To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen again to the show here:

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