Recently, my friend and I did what is the sure-fire way to cure the winter and recession blues: curled up for a matinee show of Billu Barber. After watching Shah Rukh Khan and Irrfan Khan together, even the hardest of cynics emerged from the theatre with a loopy grin. Which brings me to the point of this article. The film in London was thankfully called Billu Barber, and not just Billu, the protests in India by hairdressers who thought the word, ‘barber’, to be “demeaning” not having reached Blighty.
Here it would have raised a quizzical eyebrow. Far from demeaning, the word, ‘barber’, is used almost exclusively by posh hairdressers. The term, ‘gentlemen’s barbers’ refers to those exclusive grooming parlours for men, situated mostly around St James’s and Mayfair, usually set up by royal appointment.
Take Truefitt & Hill on St James’s Street, the oldest barber shop in the world, which has been serving “discerning gentlemen” for over two centuries. I have always been drawn to the shop window when I walk past it. It speaks of old-world grooming — manicure sets in smart calf-leather cases, walnut shaving bowls, badger-shaving brushes, colognes — the sort of comforting things I still find on my 80-year-old father’s bathroom shelf.
William Francis Truefitt opened his first Gentlemen’s Barber Shop in 1805 at Long Acre in London and moved a few years later to 40 Old Bond Street where he established himself as “Court Hair Cutter” and “Court Head Dresser”, soon becoming Wigmaker by royal appointment to King George III.
The Truefitt brothers were England’s hairdressing aristocracy, and the shop found its way into the novels of Charles Dickens and William M. Thackeray. Over the centuries, famous names that walked through the shop’s doors included Dickens, Thackeray, Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Winston Churchill, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire and many others.
Also in Mayfair is the other celebrated barber’s shop, Geo. F. Trumper, or simply Trumpers. Operating since 1875, and given a royal warrant by Queen Victoria, George Trumper’s original business continues to groom gentlemen of taste. The original shop on Curzon Street in Mayfair still retains its old world charm with its beautiful mahogany-panelled private cubicles and its tasteful displays of grooming requisites.
Another famous address is 27 Whitcomb Street, home to Pall Mall Barbers, an old-style barber shop, which has been there since 1896. It is one of London’s hidden treasures and has at its shop-front the famous red-and-white rotating barber’s pole, which has an interesting history. In ancient Rome, barbers acted not only as shavers and hairdressers but also as surgeons and dentists, treating wounds, bloodletting, leeching and even extracting teeth. In England, barbers were chartered into a guild in 1462 by Edward IV as the Company of Barbers. In 1492, surgeons formed a separate guild and the two came together in 1540 under Henry VIII as the United Barber Surgeon’s Company.
The red-and-white barber’s pole became a symbol of the bloodletting: the white bandages were the clean bandages and the red ones the bloody ones. They would be hung out to dry after washing on the pole, and would blow and twirl together in the wind to form the spiral pattern of the present-day red and white barber’s pole.
Barbers have been featured in literature as well as in operas, such as The Barber of Seville. Barbers have been around for centuries, and they are proud of the fact. Indian hairdressers or hairstylists need not feel humiliated. It is time to restore the ‘Barber’ in Billu and be proud of it.