As a true blooded Southerner down to the roots of my purplish/gray hair, I must admit there is not a more important business than a beauty shop. Now, I do not mean the SPA– seaweed, rock salons – I’m talking here a 2023 version of Steel Magnolias. The journey to weekly hair salon appointments was a life-and-death matter for my mother, her sister, and me. After we had our hair did, the three of us would re-enter the world in an optimistic and glamorous way. Sacred appointments. Nothing is more important than a beauty parlor shrine.
During the 1960’s, New Orleans was a white-gloved, Southern, fashionista city where no one would sweat; they only glowed; and rich or poor, your hair defined you. Every Saturday at 7:50 am., Mr. Steve, owner of the Blue Kitty Salon, awaited clients with his hand holding a silver chalice containing a Mimosa. The man had to have his Vitamin C. His beauty parlor was a hedonistic and mind-altering place. Mother and Aunt Joan tugged on their long-lined girdles while nesting in their salon chairs. Mr. Steve knew their arrival meant he was going to work as hard as a mule for his pay. It was a weekly, hellish experience for Mr. Steve when the Agony Sisters (as he called my mother and aunt) arrived each Saturday.
Unpredictable depending on the night he had had before, Mr. Steve was a sexually repressed, mentally unbalanced salon owner who had an abnormal fear of women. However, he was an institution. His clients were old guard New Orleans debutantes, the nouveau riche, along with suburban housewives hell bent on being coquettish. They were loyal to him despite his “slap yo’ mama” attitude.
Most days, a dab of Twinkie cream clung to the side of his mustache. He always wore a “Betty Davis” wig, his massive belly hung over purple velvet pants, and a very tight red polyester shirt was unbuttoned to mid-chest. It was beauty shop attire at its finest.
“Sit down, Missy. I’m working a hangover and it ain’t pretty,” Mr. Steve said to mother and Auntie Joan, “It takes a village to dress a drag queen and that includes you peoples! Embrace your inner glamour, already!”
Beauty salon machinery in the 1960’s was a torture chamber. Cone-head hairdryers were large, metal and oh-so-hot. A little carbon monoxide, anyone? The permanent wave machine is also a fond memory. A huge hose hung from the ceiling and attached to a cap attached to the client’s head. Electrocuted yet? No, just making it pretty. Vile odors of nail lacquer and hair spray infused the air. Chronic lung disease? Beauty first.
Mr. Steve crafted perfectly formed wigs, calling them “transformations,” while he firmly placed hands on heads shoving hair pins deeply into scalps… perhaps en route to brains. Wigs had to be welded into hair. They cannot relocate anywhere. Perfect and polished, hurricane-force winds could not have affected the hair, wiglets or even ruffled his transformations.
The beauty parlor experiences were reminders to my mother and aunt that nothing brings us closer to God than Aqua Net. Spray. Close your eyes. Hold your breath. Spray again. Repeat five times until the air is toxic enough to choke a small city. Mission accomplished!
Even though mother and Aunt Joan said their hair felt heavy, awkward and incredibly hot, nothing was more important than the piece of real estate on their heads. At the end of their appointment, wiglets morphed into huge, sculptured, sticky plumage’s. Due to Mr. Steve’s talent, The Agony Sisters had mammoth hair, high heels and attitude.
At twelve noon, mother and Aunt Joan’s hair had been scalded, pulled, overheated, colored, burned, and constructed into place. Big hair makes them ready to face the world. Adrenaline rushes continue until the day before their next appointment. But for now, they are confident, happy and ready to tackle anyone crossing their paths.