One indulgence I cannot help but partake in whenever I get the opportunity is that of a straight-razor shave at a barber shop. Or, better still, the “hot lather” variation on the same theme. For anyone who has never partaken of this tradition, I strongly suggest that you do so at your earliest opportunity. I’d wait while you went and did so now, but it is a dying tradition, and one of which it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a practitioner.
For anyone unfamiliar, it is a masculine tradition, akin to sipping at a very fine glass of Scotch, or to smoking a pipe. Prior to the advent of the safety razor, the straight razor was the only way to shave, and it was considered such an art form that it occupied a great deal of training time for many an apprenticing barber. Today, the tradition is all but dead, however there are many barbers out there who still offer the service.
I myself have indulged quite a few times, and I can say that while the experience is relaxing beyond any sort of massage or new-age therapy, it is the sheer level of tradition involved that makes it so memorable.
In the hot lather tradition I prefer, the barber starts by placing a series of towels in a small machine. This machine produces very hot steam, and heats the towels until they’re almost too hot to touch. With a single flip to cool them just a touch, the barber wraps them around your face in a particular pattern. While they sit, he prepares his tools.
There are multiple steps involved, and I’ve never bothered to ask what each of the salves are, but one-by-one, certain tonics are applied to your face. There is one that tingles, one that burns, one that cools. After each has been appropriately massaged into your skin and fresh hot towels replaced, the barber will turn to a small machine that has been humming away beside you. This produces a piping-hot foamy lather; with a flip, the hot towels are removed, and a very generous helping of hot lather is spread over your face.
That is left to sit for a moment, and it is here that the best barbers will indulge in a bit of theatre. A straight razor, you see, utilizes a blade that is, according to my barber, as much as five times sharper than the sharpest safety razor. The edge is so sharp that if not properly maintained, it can fold in on itself. As such, before each shave — and sometimes during — the blade must be “stropped” against a coarse leather belt. This process is, again, something to see, because it requires a deft skill and a nimble hand. With an impressive flourish, a great barber will sharpen the blade up and down the taut strap, before carefully balancing it against his fingertips.
It is worth noting, at this point, that most barbers take a great deal of pride in their razors. They are expensive, delicate, and beautiful. Many will have carved ivory, bone, or hardwood handles, and some blades have intricate engravings on them. Some may even be inlaid with gold. If it looks intricate, ask to see it, and ask the story behind it. Many barbers utilise antique blades, and they often have a story of how they acquired that blade.
From here, it is an astonishingly short process. A good barber will shave your whole face in as little as eight or nine strokes, which may take less than twenty seconds. The art is not in the flourish, the art is in the knowledge of how to execute a perfect shave with as little effort as possible. Indeed, it is over so quickly, you almost feel disappointed. Fear not, however. Some more meticulous barbers prefer to do the whole process twice to ensure the best shave.
From there, a further salve is applied, similar to the after-shave balm that is still used today, although far stronger. It will sting, quite a bit, and is quickly covered for a moment with another hot towel (if memory serves). Then, a quick rinse, a cooling salve, and a very careful pat (not rub!) dry, and you’re done.
It is an anachronism in this day of faster-cheaper-better, but it is a tradition that should be undertaken at least occasionally. The whole process has a distinctly masculine air about it, far more than I can hope to evoke with these words. The scents are all musky and manly, and every step seems designed to deal with the problem of the harshness of a man’s skin and stubble. The tradition is as theatrical as it is effective, and there is a certain pride in being a practitioner of a dying art.
It’s not easy to find a shop that will still do it, but if you can, take them up on it. It’s not cheap, but I promise it is money you will not regret spending.