Hairdressers seem to appear with civilization itself. Comparatively little is known about history's earliest coiffeurs, those who curled the beards of Sumerian princes and built the fabulous headdresses of Egyptian princesses, except that the Egyptian deities included a barber god. The market squares of ancient Greek cities included barbershops, where people could laze and gossip. Roman towns also contained hairdressing salons, visited mostly by the middle classes, while slaves dressed the heads of upper-class women. These practices survived in the Byzantine east, long after they had been destroyed in the Latin half of the empire.
The Viking hordes and Arthurian nobility of the Dark Ages doubtless continued to cut their hair and trim their beards, but hairdressers as such disappeared along with the cities where they had always practiced their trade. They return to recorded history with the revival of urban life and fashion in the Middle Ages. Medieval towns organized guilds of barber-surgeons who, in addition to shaving clients, lanced boils and pulled teeth. The hairdressing profession continued to develop during the Renaissance, particularly as women's headdresses became more popular and elaborate. More often than not, the ladies' hairdresser was principally a wig maker.
The modern era of splendid hairdos and celebrity coiffeurs, like "Champagne," who opened the first beauty salon in Paris, emerged with the development of court society in the seventeenth century. The courts of Charles II and Louis XIV were among the last places where men's coiffures were as important as women's, but as the elaborate headdresses of the era depended on the skills of wig makers—the French court contained more than forty of them in 1656—barbers became superfluous.
The eighteenth century belonged even more decidedly to the wig makers. While men's wigs generally took on more modest proportions, by the middle of the 1700s women's headdresses reached unprecedented dimensions and raised their architects to a new level of prominence. Léonard became the most famous of his peers, under the patronage of Marie-Antoinette. So much confidence did the queen place in her coiffeur that in 1791, as the royal family tried to flee Revolutionary France, she sent him ahead to Brussels with a collection of crown jewels—although she and the king were arrested before they could reach him there. The French Revolution hurt hairdressers by repressing extravagant coiffures and the taste for wigs and by hastening the destruction of the guilds that had protected barbers' monopoly on shaving and bleeding.
The fashions for clean-shaven faces for men and long, natural hair for women, made the century of industrialization and urbanization an unspectacular one for hairdressers. Barbers sunk to being among the poorest and worst paid of tradesmen. The appearance of King Gillette's remarkable safety razor in 1903 threatened them with the loss of much of their remaining business. As for ladies' hairdressers, the mass of working women in cities and on farms had neither need nor money for their services. Society dames might call on a hairdresser artiste for a very special occasion, but most of the daily work of arranging hair fell to their ladies' maids.
It was only near the end of the century, with the appearance of the "marcel" wave, that the hairdressing profession began to take on its contemporary shape. The beautiful, long-lasting waves that Marcel and his imitators created attracted women to beauty salons in unparalleled numbers and gave hairdressers a huge new source of revenue. The success of "marcelling" also reflected important social changes, in particular women's growing independence and the expansion of the market for fashionable things among the popular classes, especially among young women. Ladies' hairdressers became pioneers on the frontier of mass-consumer society.
World War I further revolutionized the hairdressers' trade. First, by adding to women's economic and personal autonomy, it increased the market for hairdressers' services. Second, by pulling men out of the salons, it set in motion a process that feminized what had always been a predominantly male trade. The vogue for women's short hairstyles that swept through Western societies in the 1920s accelerated these developments. The majority of ladies' hairdressers initially rejected what they considered a threat to their "art," but they soon came to embrace the radical new fashion for the revenue it brought. For short hair was not only cut, it was shampooed, "permed," and often colored, making salons more profitable even as they became more numerous. As the fashion for short hair spread beyond Europe and America, modern hairdressing salons began to open in Shanghai, Tokyo, and other major non-Western cities.
Although most shops remained very small, the number of large, chic salons multiplied. These usually belonged to the profession's luminaries and often were established in the more fashionable department stores. Antoine, the most luminous of all, expanded his operations to the United States through an agreement with Saks Fifth Avenue, which also sold a line of beauty products bearing his name.
In an era when new fashions and products gave ladies' hairdressers fresh business and artistic opportunities, barbers' fortunes continued to decline. Men's conservative haircuts proved barren ground for the sort of value-added services that fueled ladies' hairdressing, while, at least before the 1960s, the ethic of maleness sharply limited the market for cologne and cosmetics.
The consumer revolution that followed World War II carried more women than ever into the hairdressing salons. At the top of the profession, a host of new stars, led by Alexandre, the Duchess of Windsor's protégé, joined Antoine in the hairdressers' pantheon. Yet even as the trade became increasingly feminized, few women rose to the summit. The Carita sisters and Rose Evansky are rare exceptions.
In the 1950s, the modish styles of Vidal Sassoon and the "poodle cut" of the campy Raymond made London the second capital of hairdressing. Beginning with Jacques Dessange in 1976, the best-known coiffeurs began to attach their names not only to products but to salons, as well. In the 1980s and 1990s the practice spread rapidly, and in the early 2000s franchises bearing the names of Jean-Louis David, Jean-Claude Biguine, and others control a large portion of the hairdressing business all over the world.
Other fashion capitals turned out their own prodigies, who performed in international competitions and opened chic salons far from home in what by the end of the millennium had become an international society of hair fashion.
Cooper, Wendy. Hair: Sex, Society, Symbolism. New York: Stein and Day, 1971.
Corson, Richard. Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. London: Peter Owen, 1965.
Cox, Caroline. Good Hair Days: A History of British Hairstyling. London: Quartet Books, 1999.
Graves, Charles. Devotion to Beauty: The Antoine Story. London: Jarrold's, 1962.
Willet, Julie T. Permanent Waves: The Making of the American Beauty Shop. New York: New York University Press, 2000.