When I was first joined hairdressing college over 14 years ago I remember being already set on what I was going to get out of it. Learning how to cut and straighten mens hair, and learning how to cut and straighten women’s hair. That was the fashion at the time, and I didn’t see beyond it or think for a minute about it changing!
My patient instructors would attempt to teach me braiding, perming, heated roller sets, wet roller sets, backcombing, up do’s, round brush blowdrying, and using a curling tong. I wasn’t interested in any of it, the truth of the matter was more that I felt completely out of my comfort zone, and thought I would never have to use any of this again. (Think algebra at school, and that’s how I approached it.)
I managed to get through my salon training, and the first few years on the salon floor with the cutting skills I had learnt, and I had become pretty proud of. But I would notice a couple of the other stylists on the salon floor curling and putting hair up on a daily basis, even offering to do it, and enjoying it! If I had a client book in for a blow dry who then mentioned maybe some hair put up, I would feel the heat of pure fear rising up before I passed them on to someone else.
Still none the wiser on much past cutting, I moved to London and soon realised that in the area where I was working the hair fashion was completely different to back home. So, throwing myself into having to learn all this new approach to haircuts, I still completely ignored every other aspect of hairdressing. Now, of course, there was plenty of time for me to learn along the way, but I had been quite happy avoiding it.
Then, this all changed. I was offered a day’s work as an assistant to a session stylist. I went along, passed up pins, held hairspray spray, felt completely out of my depth but enjoyed myself. I got on pretty well with the hairstylist too. A couple of weeks later and I got an email from his agent, asking if I would consider assisting on a few more shoots with the same stylist, I said yes, and these went well too. I eventually got offered a full time job to be his first assistant.“Can you blow dry?” he asked. Yes, I thought, I’ve done it enough on the salon floor. “How about a curling tong?” Well of all the things I’m afraid of this looks the easiest, should be fine! How wrong I was.
It was extremely apparent from our first training session that my ‘should be fine’ attitude was not going to fly with someone with over 20 years experience of working with hair in fashion. I remember starting with the very basics of curling, how to hold a Marcel curling iron. After a few evenings at home practicing this, I was allowed to turn them on at a dolly’s head, and then the real work started! What ensued was 3 solid years of learning. Learning every single basic that I had attempted to be taught years before. Tonging evenly from the root to create a 1920’s set, a 1940’s set, knowing the different techniques that makes the outcome unique. How to backcomb evenly and so it will create a firm structure wasn’t quite as difficult, but I still had absolutely no idea how to approach this correctly. Braiding was on another planet entirely for me, I would stand for hours feeling all fingers and thumbs trying to create tiny braids in a spiral around the dolly head.
Now, the unfortunate truth is that it crossed my mind many, many times that a lot of this had been offered to me, and I could have had practice in one way or another of all of it for many years. And I would often, metaphorically, kick myself. But, I stuck at it, and I improved. I stopped sweating so much, until I realised one day I was actually enjoying myself!
So a few years of working with my new found skills led me to slowly relax with them, realising they are all now in my control to adapt them to suit my particular style of hairdressing. But I could never have learned how to use them to my advantage if they weren’t there to begin with. And it’s nice to know I can do a full head of tiny scalp braids if called upon to do so on set!
The moral of the story here is simple, and I’ve never felt more of a proper adult saying it for the first time. Listen to your instructors! Learn the classics! Pay attention in school!
(All hair in the images by Thomas Silverman.)