The body is not merely a given of nature but always the product of cultural expectations and practices
This basic fact written on a banner at the entrance to the exhibition dedicated to hair dressers, barbers and beauticians in Vienna, in the last three centuries, can be considered the theme of this display of tools, objects, and practices related to body, as well as to the way its beauty can be maintained. The exhibition of Vienna’s City Museum is curated by Susanne Breuss and it is on for the biggest part of 2018. The objects, mostly owned by the Museum itself, but also borrowed from the Medical Museum, range from the eighteenth century to the present. Of the most interesting exhibits on display we mention a set of shaving knives of Franz Grillparzer; an extended travelling kit made in 1900 by the manufacturer August Sirk; devices (so called tongues) for drying and curling the hair, as used in the nineteenth century and early twentieth; electrical hoods for drying or perming the hair and wash basins of the 1930s; a beard tie of the early twentieth century.
Yet, beyond the value and appeal of the objects, this exhibition mainly emphasises the cultural aspect deriving from the connection existing between the development of the crafts related to maintaining the beauty of the body, and the development of society as such. The rise and fall of occupations like those of barbers, surgeons, wig-makers, hairdressers, and beauticians are certainly related to historical epochs. Some professions like those of barbers and wig-makers fell into irrelevance due to modernisation, hence improvement of living conditions (e.g. in late nineteenth century for instance, apartments/houses started to have their own baths, thus the increase in hygiene conditions made easier for men to shave or trim their beards at home; as the concept of leisure time shifted from spending free time indoors to a culture of the outdoors, focused on sport and movement, complicated hair styles fell rapidly into oblivion, not to mention that the wigs had suffered a blow much earlier, in the 1790s, during the French Revolution).
Indeed, beard, hair, and the way we style them, or the way we remove them from the body, or the way we trim them, or the way we help them grow, all these codify the view of society at a certain point in time. Therefore it is nothing truer than simply stating: beard and hair can be political. Beard/facial hair, and hair can be associated per se with a political regime, with ideologies. As hinted before, wigs became the infamous symbol of the despised French aristocratic regime. All revolutionaries of the 1848 wore beards. Karl Marx cannot be imagined without his beard. Adolf Hitler turned the once innocent `toothbrush moustache` (e.g. a supposed American export to Germany) into the symbol of the most criminal regime of all times; Hitler`s facial hair has a life of its own, it can be recognised even in the absence of the other features of the face, its image is as famous as the Swastika.
Even on individual basis, beauty rituals like styling the hair or removing body hair echo the social interest rather than the individual needs. It is considered in the nature of women to be beautiful, hence to dedicate time to rituals of beauty, whereas in the case of men, the very same habits had been historically considered frivolous. A simple thing like body or facial hair is seen as repugnant in case of women whereas it is seen as masculinity indicator in case of men (e.g. in the nineteenth century, women with body or facial hair were part of the so-called freak shows that were staged within circuses or country fairs).
In the end, it is not so much about who we are, but more about how society sees us or, at least, about how the common practices shape our image of ourselves. Skin Deep: Hair Dressers, Barbers, Beauticians underlines the development of the rituals of beauty, these ancient cultural practices, into modern crafts. The exhibition also hints to the fact that, despite the increased modernisation and sophistication of the devices used in beauty rituals, the age old gender and racial stereotypes are still there.