The Art of Shaving

Lather and lift.

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They’ll hardly admit to it, but men are vain. It’s just that women stereotypically surrender more willingly to it. So it’s quite endearing when I catch my man sneaking a peak at his backside and witness his reveling self-involvement. I like it; in fact there is nothing sexier than seeing him unselfconsciously admit to his vanity as he admires himself in the mirror working up a thick lather and preciously, yet cautiously lifting blade to the face for a shave.

Allure aside, shaving is a crucial part of male life. The average man has over 30,000 whiskers on his face. He will shave an estimated 12 metres of hair from his face, during approximately 22,000 shaves in a lifetime. It’s the ultimate passage from boyhood to manhood. In Byzantine times, pumice stones were used to sand off a man’s facial hair; elaborate dancing, singing and feasting preceded a boy’s first shave. In ancient Egypt and Greece it was an art that signified noble birth, status, divinity and rank, much more than mere hair removal. It wasn’t until the 1680s, with the invention of the straight edge razor blade, that shaving was elevated to an art form. Every lad in Europe had a straight edge shave by the barber, at that time one of the most esteemed members of society. The sophisticated barbershop shave became standard. During the reign of Russian Czar Peter the Great, beards were considered a criminal offense, and men who weren’t clean-shaven were severely taxed and sometimes jailed.

Shaving was revolutionized 100 years ago with Camp Gillette’s invention of the disposable double-edged blade, enabling men to shave at home. This new convenience brought multiple choices and loosened the conservative image of the shave. Shaving was now optional, more a matter of personal preference than dictated etiquette. Beards, moustaches, goatees and sideburns became stylish and the professional barbershop straight edge shave was now a luxury.

In the past twenty years, boutiques such as The Art of Shaving, which has spa boutiques in New York, Miami and Dallas, have redefined old fashioned barbershops with its appareled luxury and distinct men’s grooming services. You can find them, if you look hard enough, in almost every town. In most locations, men relax in a clubby atmosphere, exchange ideas, talk business and enjoy the treatment of a shave by a master barber wielding a freshly-stropped straight blade while reclining in leather seats, sipping Scotch whisky and listening to Sinatra.

The straight edged blade shave is an acquired skill, providing the closest shave, performed only by a master barber. It is more than just the blade, it’s the whole process that makes shaving an art. Reclined and relaxed, the gentleman leans back in the big leather chair, resting his head back on the cushioned headpiece. The barber applies a hot steamy towel to the entire face and neck. (Only the nostrils are exposed, creating a mummy-like effect.) Once the skin is moistened from the heat, the barber removes the towel and rubs in a gluey pre-shave oil.

Now the skin is perfectly prepped. A firm shave cream is applied, using a fine badger hairbrush. The barber, using a quick dance-like circular motion, coats the entire face and neck with a thick lather. The thicker and higher the lather, the closer the shave. With a sharp straight edge blade, one that has already been pre-stroked and sharpened on a leather strop, the barber pulls the skin tight at the neck and carefully scrapes lather from skin in the direction of hair growth. First off cheeks, then lip, chin, inside the cleft and finally the neck, tapping the blade clean when needed. The barber then lathers the skin for a second shave, this time with a quicker flick of the wrist. The master technician then applies a cool towel, cleaning up any small nicks and rinsing off remaining patches of cream. Pores are closed and an after shave balm is soothed onto cleanly shaven skin, followed by a relaxing, soothing, mini massage. During these finishing stages of the shave, gentlemen may receive a shoe shine or mini manicure if desired, to complete the grooming process.

The ritual can also be observed at home, using a regular razor. For best results, remember the following: shave after or during a hot shower, not before. Wrap a hot steamy towel over the face. Use hot water to soften a beard, open pores and cleanse skin. Use a glycerin based shaving soap or crème; stay clear of products with Benzocaine or Menthol which stiffen beards. Use a shaving brush made from thick, soft hair and work soap into a thick lather. Use a high quality disposable blade and avoid applying pressure on razor: this causes razor burn and skin irritation. Shave with the grain of hair growth. Start with cheeks, then lip, chin, cleft and finally neck, pulling skin tight as you shave. Wet face again, lightly re-lather and repeat. Slap on alcohol-free after-shave for a cool, invigorative sensation.

One of the first gifts I bought my then-fiancé was an old fashioned badger brush with a stainless steel and onyx razor handle. Four years later, I still peek at him while he is at the sink. But I have never once caught him spying on me while I am in the tub shaving my legs. I guess it is not such a glamourous ritual for him to watch. I think it is, especially when I use his onyx razor. If only he knew.


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May 1, 2002