November 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Hair care

By Robert Forster
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

At 17 I could have become a hairdresser.

In Brisbane in the early to mid '70s, the only places offering any kind of interesting shopping experience were in the inner-city arcades. Elizabeth Arcade, in particular, had a string of shops that not only offered goods found nowhere else in town, but also an enclosed tunnel-like atmosphere that threw off the city's tropical heat and its equally boiling corrupted political and police culture. In this arcade you could be in Brisbane and breathe. Here was the Red and Black Bookshop, beside the city's only vegetarian restaurant. Here was the Asian batik shop, with its cheesecloth shirts and dresses, and Discreet Records, with its eclectic mix of import records. At the arcade's end, opposite a Mexican restaurant, was Willy Bach's hair salon. I used to pass it as a schoolboy, noting the short glam haircuts of the staff, the Roxy Music blaring from the stereo, and the click and swish of scissors and hairdryers. For a sensitive 17-year-old with no fixed career plan, it was an intoxicating blend. I wanted to get in there.

My interest in hair is hard to trace. There are no hairdressers in my family but there are good hair genes, especially on my mother's side, which I thankfully inherited. Perhaps, in true adolescent style, I was accentuating or fixating upon a feature of myself that I regarded as special, or at the very least as presentable. It was also an era of good hair, and the king (and queen) of hair and much more was David Bowie. Bowie was the first rock star truly to understand the importance of hair. He was a hairdresser's dream, with his luxuriant carrot-coloured mop atop a beautiful face, and the subsequent ch-changes he put his hair through that sent his followers regularly to the salon. Another hair hero of the time was Robert Redford, then big in The Sting and All the President's Men; far less flamboyant than Bowie's various looks, his windswept collar-length cut was much closer to a style that I thought I could achieve.

One day I found the courage to ask Willy Bach if he'd take me on as an apprentice. He looked at me, thought quickly, and declined. A career in hairdressing was denied, but the interest in hair and hair care remained, and I began to gather information from whatever sources I could find. These tended to be in the back of women's magazines - here I picked up tips and stray facts that I cross-referenced with other information I'd sourced. The writers of these articles were hairdressers themselves; other knowledge came from casually questioning hairdressers, who would happily spill theory and practical advice as they cut. Over the years I used my hair as a monster on which to test products and techniques, while whittling down the knowledge and formulas to a set of guidelines that I have lived by ever since. Now is the time to pass this knowledge on. I must add one disclaimer, though. I am no professional, and what works for me may not work for others. But I have much to tell.

Shampoos. Hair care begins with the choice of shampoo. My major discovery - and really the defining moment in my quest for the perfect range of products with which to protect and display my hair - came in the mid '70s, with my first purchase of Redken Jellasheen Shampoo. Now, the Redken range is widely available at hairdressers (especially inner-city salons) but when I first came across it, it was something of a secret. My first wash with the American shampoo in the long yellow tube was a revelation. My hair had never been shinier or fuller, and besides these instant benefits the experience also taught me a life lesson: great products have to be searched for. Over the years I have seen the Redken bottles and packaging change - there is the sneaking suspicion that what is inside has never changed - and I have stayed with the brand to the present. A warning, though: it doesn't suit everyone. Different shampoos go with different people. In the past I have recommended Redken to friends, and some have been grateful while others have been disappointed. Trial and error goes with the search for the perfect shampoo.

Do I use Redken all the time? No. Hair likes a little variety. Ever noticed that when you check into a hotel and use the in-house shampoo, your hair can suddenly feel better than it has in months? This is not because the hotel shampoo is some wonder product; it's because your hair is responding to a change. I always have two shampoos in constant rotation: the Redken, and a health-shop organic shampoo that I use every second or third wash. This is the best of both worlds. The Redken (or other salon-style shampoo, if Redken does not suit you) is the chemical-heavy, rich shampoo and the health-store shampoo, full of natural ingredients, provides balance.

Conditioners. A controversy rages here. Over the past five years or so, there has been a school of thought that says conditioners are unnecessary. In short, that they are a con. I stand by them and believe, as with shampoos, that a rotation of the chemically rich with the organic can yield the best results. Conditioner, though, does not need to be added after every shampoo. It can make hair lank and flat, and generally hair seems to get by with conditioner every second or third wash. But again, hair type and especially hair length can come into play. Long and or curly hair needs conditioner to get the comb through. And one place conditioner is a must is at the beach. Sun and surf suck out moisture and life - the conditioner bottle has to go on holidays, too.

Washing Rituals. Hair can be washed every day. This is one of the big myths of hair care: that it cannot be washed daily. It can. A useful tip is to comb or brush your hair before washing. This loosens the hair strands and stimulates the scalp, to help the shampoo get in and clean. A good hairdresser will do this to your hair before cutting. The amount of shampoo needed to wash your hair is a blob the size of a 50-cent piece. People often over-lather, which is not detrimental to the hair, but it does mean that the expensive shampoo bottle is going to run out sooner rather than later. Massage the shampoo in well with your fingertips and leave for a minute before rinsing with warm water. Conditioner should be left in longer. Normally I apply conditioner, then shave in the shower, and by the time the shaving is done the conditioner can be washed out. For women, perhaps there is some other part of the body that needs attention under the shower while the conditioner does its job. Doing two things at once in the shower has to be environmentally friendly.

Where possible - and I am thinking of warmer climates - hair should be towel-dried. One of the pleasures of life is to wash your hair and let it dry in the sun. The hairdryer has its time and place, of course, but it is a substitute, and blasting tonnes of hot air into hair cannot be good for it (although I have no scientific proof for this).

Combs and Brushes. Avoid black plastic. This is the hardest piece of advice I have to give: the black plastic comb, the cheap thick comb and the cheap plastic brush are simply not good. Quality combs and brushes are needed. But remember that, as with all things in life, buying quality means buying time. Quality products last, and when it comes to hair the benefits are real and long lasting. My own discovery with combs came in London in the mid '80s, when I came across the Kent, which was available in some chemists. I currently use a Mason Pearson (I highly recommend their brushes, too) and for a long time, while living in Germany in the '90s, I used a wooden comb. All of these combs have one thing in common: they are not plastic, and therefore not harsh and scratchy on hair and scalp. Good combs and brushes are not readily available in supermarkets or, surprisingly, in chemists. The Mason Pearson range is found in upmarket department stores. One final point, and this is primarily addressed to men: a good comb is a fashion accessory. I often have my Mason Pearson on view in my shirt pocket. It is also stylish to be seen withdrawing the comb from inside a suit jacket.

A Few Stray Facts. Baldness cannot be avoided or delayed. I went into this subject in some depth in my tension-racked youth, when I thought this condition might befall me. But it's all to do with genetics - the hair of your grandfather, the hair of a great-aunt - and no product yet devised can reverse what nature has determined. In the '70s, vitamin B6 was thought to help, and from time to time a plant, medicine or tablet will be touted to help stem hair loss or promote hair gain. Try them, but I doubt they will help. The trick is to treat whatever hair you have as best you can.

This is the core of the information I have gathered. It is always changing; new ideas or products come along regularly. For example, I am very impressed with the Kiehl's range, which is available in good department stores. This is high-end stuff, retailing at more than $30s per bottle, and it's good - the coconut shampoo and conditioner especially. Here is a product that blends the art of hair care, which is the pleasing combination of chemistry and cosmetics, with the ingredients and goodness of nature.

So I did not have a career in hairdressing. And yes, when I pass a salon I feel a twinge, a slight sting of regret. The only hairdressing I have ever done has been for my wife, who wears her hair to one length - to the top of her shoulders. I trim her hair and have done so for various periods through our marriage. And when I stand there in our lounge room, newspaper scattered on the floor to collect her hair, with her standing and me circling her, content with comb and scissors, I realise something. I would have made a great hairdresser.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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