Article Thumbnail

What Expensive Men’s Haircuts Are Really Selling You

It’s not just your back and sides getting a shape-up — it’s your ego, too

Last month, in a spree of unintentional self-owns, Republican lawmakers took to Twitter to show off their cheap haircuts. The men were proud to spend little — in former Gov. Scott Walker’s case, maybe too proud — to try to prove the “hypocrisy” of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez paying $300 for a cut and highlights.

For lots of guys, spending as little as possible for a haircut is a point of pride. We think it suggests we’re easygoing, fiscally responsible and not too vain. What, though, of the man who dares to violate the guy code and spends in excess of $30 (and maybe even, gasp, $50 or more) for a trim? Isn’t he somehow less manly than the dude who heads over to Sport Clips for a $10 cut and 10 minutes of whatever ballgame is playing on the chain’s ever-present flat screens?

What’s more, what does he know that we don’t? Could the experience at the fancy salon actually be worth it?

Masculinity has long been tied to hair. There’s a reason one specific cheap cut is still in fashion, says Kristen Barber, associate professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University and author of Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry. “The World War II soldier was a key figure in selling especially young white men on a particular aesthetic,” she explains. “And since the military is a masculinized institution, whereby men ‘become’ masculine just by participating, the high-and-tight is culturally a masculine haircut.” 

In other words, the cheap, no-nonsense, high-and-tight flattop became the masculine hairdo of choice

That’s academic theory, however. So again, what of the real-life men who splurge for something not so militarized (and cheap)?

Mack, a 27-year-old who recently moved to Dallas for a job in manufacturing, says he followed the cheap-haircut manifesto for most of his hair-growing life before changing his mind. “It’s a much better cut, and I enjoy having confidence in my stylist, knowing I’ll never risk a bad cut,” he explains. And so, Mack now spends about $50 per cut. “I personally think it’s worth the splurge for the overall experience,” he says. 

At his salon, Mack is able to chill on two or three beers while he’s there, and obviously gets much more than a mere haircut. “It comes with a wash, cut and style,” he says. “Plus, I get my neck shaved. They also put a towel on your face during the wash, and it smells nice.”

“It’s a fairly cheap way to ‘treat yo’ self’ if you factor in $5 beers for ~free~,” he continues. “It’s also a little darker inside and not so fluorescent, which is a perk because it’s a better emotional value if I’m comfortable and calm.” 

Justin, a 30-year-old in Chicago, followed a similar path. “I used to do Great Clips and pay around $10,” he says. “But the haircuts were pretty bad. So as I moved up in the corporate world, I felt I needed something more consistent.” These days then, he’ll shell out $56 a cut. “I tried a few $30 cuts at less-expensive salons, but I wasn’t as happy. So $56 including tip is the cheapest I’ll go now, even though I can’t really pinpoint why the $30 cuts weren’t as good.” 

“Interacting with co-workers or clients, I needed to present myself better,” he adds. “I used to like Great Clips because I could walk in and out quickly, but looking good is more important at the moment — and you get what you pay for. The $56 haircut just looks better.”

Justin’s experience echoes some of the class issues Barber found in her research. “Men who go to high-end salons do so as an investment in their professional-class masculinity,” she explains. “It’s a class sensibility built around the demands of their white-collar jobs, not only to appear professional and ‘ready for the boardroom,’ but also to distinguish themselves from working-class, blue-collar men, who they believe don’t care about their looks.” 

Maybe most of all, though, it’s giving men something they’re seriously pining for (and completely lacking in, especially when they hit 30): friendship and camaraderie. “Over time, you get to know [your barber or stylist], their families and what they like,” says Justin. “It’s not so transactional like a Great Clips, where it’s in-and-out in 15 minutes. Not to mention, he knows my hair and pretends I’m not balding.”  

“I’ve been seeing my stylist for three years now, and I can count on her,” Justin adds. “If she left to open up her own place, I’d follow her. So yes, on one hand, I’m happy to pay the $50 for the environment of my current salon, but I’d leave to keep the relationship — even if it meant paying more.” 

As more men are venturing into salons and the world of high-end self-care, Barber says this kind of bonding is definitely worth the price of admission — no matter the cost. “In a culture where straight men are discouraged from having close physical and emotional relationships with each other — and close relationships to women outside of their wives or girlfriends becomes suspect for romance, hairstylists serve as someone who can touch and care for them,” she explains. “The stylists I interviewed said that they’re the only ones other than their clients’ wives who can touch their hair, massage their scalps and otherwise fulfill the human need for touch.”

Thus, she adds, “In order to really understand what it takes to sell men on pricey, involved and pampering salon services, there’s a great degree of interpersonal work cosmetologists — who are mostly women — have to do to soothe masculine egos and cultivate repeat business. They essentially have to make their male clients feel like men not despite their investment in their appearances, but because of it.”