A cut above
For many men, a visit to an upscale 'grooming salon' replaces the old 'shave and a haircut.'
The modern male once looked no further than the candy-striped pole of the classic barbershop for a haircut and shave. Old-time treatment still suits thousands, but many men - young and old - appear to have outgrown the Brylcreme and talc ideal.
Over the past decade, many men have become increasingly concerned with personal hygiene, body image, and style. Their tastes are more suited to a fashionable boutique-style hair salon. But many flinch at primping in front of women.
Enter the all-male salon. Exclusive enclaves for guys have germinated across the country - catering to a population of men with new priorities. Cosmetic manufacturers are responding, too, outfitting the grooming-conscious with products for men only.
The surging popularity of male grooming isn't an isolated trend. Many experts say it stems from a broad shift in America's social mores - affecting men's views of gender roles, beauty, and body image.
According to Sara Mason, editor of Skin Inc. magazine, men now comprise 30 percent of the US spa clientele - a 20 percent jump in the past 10 years.
Most men interested in finer grooming are well-heeled. One possible reason: heightened competition in corporate America. Less job security over the past 30 years, according to some experts, has driven many men to focus more on their appearance.
"On Wall Street, where a guy's smile sells stocks and bonds, one must have that grooming level down pat," says Pierce Mattie, a skin-care specialist and men's grooming columnist and editor.
Historians date significant pressure to look good in the office back to the early 1970s, when corporations began laying off thousands of middle-class employees.
Lynne Luciano, an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Dominguez, says that the nation's preference for youth is particularly pronounced in the workplace, where middle-aged employees feel constant pressure to innovate.
Grecian Formula hair-coloring products were one of their first tools for appearing on the cutting edge. At the same time, some men were tending to wear their hair longer and stopped identifying the barbershop as an exclusively male domain.
It's taken a quarter of a century for men to win back a grooming shop of their own.
Their efforts may not have been prompted only by workplace competition.
In her book, "Looking Good: Male Body Image in Modern America," Ms. Luciano posits that the movement of women to the workplace shook men's standing in romantic relationships. As a consequence, men are now feeling the pressure to look "beautiful," not just dependable.
"Financially independent women," she says, "are going to use the same parameters as men, like, 'how good does he look?' "
Most hair-care boutiques geared primarily toward men are equal parts chi-chi salon, gentlemen's club, and sports bar, representing a rough composite of stereotypical maleness.
Gentleman's Quarters in Denver is indicative of the basic mold. Cherry-wood floors and forest-green walls set a distinguished tone. Antiques of special interest to men, such as a speedometer from an original Model A Ford, are spread throughout, according to Trish Brady, owner of the two downtown branches.
Services at Gentleman's Quarters contrast sharply with the limited offerings of a classic barbershop. A basic haircut lasts more than half an hour. It includes a shoulder massage, shampoo and conditioner, scalp massage, and a hot-towel wash. Manicures and pedicures are common requests.
The most unusual offering: an Ashiatsu treatment (i.e., Asian back-walking massage).
When Ms. Brady opened Gentleman's Quarters in 1996, it was the first salon of its kind in Denver. At the time, male grooming services focused on little more than a shave and haircut.
In contrast, many elaborate salons catered to women, guided by the assumption that women are willing to pay more to look better.
Societal expectations are more varied now, according to Brady.
"Our culture has given men permission to take care of themselves without it being considered gay," she says. "Twenty years ago, a manicure elicited an odd look."
The current shift is reminiscent of the 1920s, when women were first able to wear makeup in public without drawing censure.
"It was a generational shift," says Kathy Peiss, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "Makeup comes to be a sign of what women need to do to be considered modern."
Brady admits that men in Denver initially shied away from pedicures and facials - services traditionally directed exclusively toward women.
Like millions of women, though, many men have raised their investment in appearance, advancing from the basic categories of clean and kempt to a new vocabulary of cleansed, toned, and moisturized.
American men spend $4 billion on hair and skin products each year, according to Global Cosmetics Industry Magazine. And they pay much more attention to looking good than they did even five years ago.
Household and Personal Products Industry Magazine reported that men now take as long as 51 minutes to get showered, dressed, and groomed compared to 55 minutes for women.
Male cosmetics are no longer a fringe product. Ben Coler, president of makeup manufacturer Studio Five Skin System, estimates that 10 percent of American men wear cosmetics.
Their tastes differ significantly from women's. The most common "makeup" includes hair coloring and bleaches, blushes that conceal wrinkles, and bronzing powders that cast a warmer skin tone.
The key to marketing cosmetics for men, Mr. Coler says, is understanding that men fear detection.
"I designed these with the fear factor in mind," says Coler. "Men are sneaking into their girl friends' medicine cabinets to experiment, but they don't want it to be detectable."
Male salons offer a sort of macho refuge from women's gaze. It's an important retreat, salon owners argue, because both men and women tend to groom themselves with the opposite sex in mind, and prefer to keep their preening secrets private.
The Men's Grooming Center of Boston, in the city's Back Bay area, has drawn a range of men - from baby boomers to college students.
The shop combines the clubbiness of a barbershop with the style of a salon. "A lot of guys enjoy the environment of a men's club," says owner Carl Cwick.
The Grooming Center's clientele use words like "liberated" and "relaxed" to describe their state of mind in a salon of their own.
"I really felt uncomfortable at my girlfriend's salon," says Boston resident Caleb Ho. "The first day I got a manicure and pedicure [here] really set my mind at ease."