Toronto
3 min

Trade the A&F for a caftan

Hairdressers are more glamorous than real estate agents

There are few things more grievous to behold than the decline of the gay hairdresser.

Once upon a time hairdressers were us. If you were gay you were a hairdresser, and if you were a hairdresser, well, what else could you be? In the 1970s, screenwriters Warren Beatty and Robert Towne built an entire movie (Shampoo) around the then amusing premise that a hairdresser might actually be a straight stud.

I haven’t met a hairdresser socially in years and it’s something I miss. In fact, I sometimes think you could chart the decline of the gay and lesbian movement by the kind of people you meet socially. In the 1970s it was hairdressers, in the 1980s teachers and in the 1990s IT consultants and real estate “professionals.” Now it’s psychiatrists.

This is not a good thing. From fabulousness to good mental hygiene in just a few short decades. How very sad.

Now what are we supposed to look at? There are lots of cute people out there but nobody with any style.

Hairdressers themselves weren’t necessarily stylish but they propped up the idea that other gay people were supposed to be. Now it’s okay to wear jeans and a T-shirt, which is great for people like me who don’t want to stand out, but bad for anyone who wants to people-watch.

Years ago we had people like Murray “Momma” Cooper. A well-known hairdresser and club owner who died earlier this year, Cooper used to waltz around town in flowing white caftans. Few people work that vein of flamboyance anymore. It’s all transgression, no style.

Fags still spend a lot of time and money on clothes but only so that you can ignore them. Clothes used to be our first line of defence in our dealings with the world, a way of signalling status, occupation and interests. Now it’s the body that’s front and centre, and the clothes are just props. Why bother with Pumas and Diesels, when you’ve already got just the thing to set off a little black tank? Nothing like a nice pair of biceps to accessorize your latest muscle shirt.

A triumph of utility, the muscle-queen look is but one of many uniforms for hire. There a lot of them out there – martini queer, boy next door, jock – and I fully understand the appeal. They’re convenient, preassembled and they work. When a cute little surfer dude appeared at the baths last year wearing a ball cap that made him look like a tight little bundle of California fun, did I ask him to doff said cap at the moment of truth? Not on your life. If it was working for him, it was certainly working for me.

But that’s sex and we’re talking style. Sex is about power, manipulation and the endless reenactment of your festering first crush. Style is about whimsy, wit and play. It’s about turning everyday life into a theatrical pageant and we don’t seem to do that very well anymore.

Maybe this is a Toronto thing. Now weekly and New York magazine both run regular features on street fashion, but there the similarities end. Last May, New York profiled an aspiring writer with a day job as a club doorman. The guy was black with short grey hair and he was wearing jeans and a blazer topped by an enormous pink scarf tossed dramatically over one shoulder. He described his style as “gay Brooks Brothers.” He looked fabulous.

Compare that with the ragamuffins who crop up in Now’s My Style feature. They all look like they just crawled out of the Sally Ann and the worst of it is that they’re proud of it. Their main claim to fame is not usually their clothes but how little they paid for them. Invariably one item is an over-the-top expenditure bought on a whim during a fluke trip to Tahiti in 1977. The rest is all flotsam picked up from friends, roommates, exes and thrift shops. In effect, the feature is an ode to consumption by a magazine that technically frowns on consumption. It’s very politically correct and no fun at all.

With people like these as role models, who needs dreary real life? What we need is somebody like Nan Kempner. A rich New York socialite who died in July, Kempner was known for one thing and one thing only – looking good. She did a little charity work, but her true passion was fashion. She reportedly owned thousands of works by Yves St Laurent and claimed to have missed only one of his couture shows in 40 years. In the late 1960s, when women were just starting to wear pantsuits, Kempner wore one of St Laurent’s groundbreaking outfits to a chic New York restaurant called La Côte Basque. When the maître d’ told her she couldn’t wear pants in the restaurant, she promptly dropped the lower half of her outfit and dined in the very short jacket.

Almost 40 years later, she was still going to bat for beauty. In one of the last pictures taken before she died, she was posed in regal profile, dressed in Chanel and pearls. She looked fabulous.