Ask Your Barber is an occasional feature on the Beardsgaard Barbers blog where we answer your questions about whatever the hell. Got one? Ask it in the comments or by email HERE.
Do I call you a barber, stylist, hairdresser? I also heard of something called a cosmetologist. What’s the difference?
We get this question all the time, especially Natalie, who regularly has folks trying to convince her that she is a stylist (or cosmetologist or hairdresser, they all mean the same thing), because she is female.
Barbers and stylists are not defined by their gender, or even the gender of hair they cut (although stylists usually do more women’s hair, and plenty of barbers exclusively work on men) but by their license and schooling.
Two different schools, two different licenses, and while there are sometimes differences in practice (short hair vs. long, clippers vs. shears, etc.), those are wide generalizations more than rules. Here is what it really boils down to.
The specific requirements for licensure (or even requirement to have a license at all, in a few cases) varies greatly from state to state and country to country. For our examples here we are talking about Illinois regulation (where we are licensed), as it seems to be middle-of-the-road.
In Illinois, both barber and cosmetology schools require 1500 hours of training in a licensed school with a mix of practical and textbook work, as well as a State Board test. Both textbooks (and tests, for that matter) cover a lot of the same material.
Both disciplines study microbiology, infection control, anatomy and physiology, chemistry, electricity and light therapy, properties and gross disorders of the skin, hair and nails (I will admit I barely read the nail chapter – I have a strong stomach, but I could not handle those pictures at all), massage, perms, and color, as well as the more broadly useful knowledge of tools, hair cutting and styling.
Even though barbers don’t typically do perms and color and the like, we still study and in some schools practice these techniques, and are licensed to perform them in the shop. The same can not be said of shaving, which is exclusive to barbers.
Although the licenses (short of the shaving) are near identical, there are some practical (although generalized) differences between the two disciplines. Nobody get up in arms here, there are plenty of barbers and stylists that break these rules with a sledgehammer, us included.
Stylists have to pack a lot into that 1500 hours of school. In addition to the book and classroom work that both stylists and barbers study, stylists have to be adept with a wide range of cuts, styling and services, including chemical services like perms and color in which very very bad things can happen if you aren’t really good at what you’re doing.
Like, accidentally green, melting hair and severe scalp chemical burns bad. One does not fuck around with that stuff, and the stylists that perform those services are damn near chemists. Serious respect.
Because the majority of these services and others performed by stylists are on women, the shorter cuts and clipper work do not get as much practice. Many cosmetology schools only briefly cover clipper cutting, if at all.
With all that in mind, as a general rule stylists are better with shears than clippers, better with longer hair than the short stuff, are great with textures, styling, and due to the continuing education required for their license renewal, keeping up with trends.
Barbers also complete 1500 hours of school, but there is less classroom work, and less practice (or none, some schools only provide theoretical instruction) with chemical services.
Many barber schools, in fact, are pure cutting and shaving, all the time. Practice in school can be limited, however, to the cuts that walk in the door. School prices bring in a lot of the cuts that need more frequent maintenance for a low price, which means lots of clipper work, fades and lineups. This in turn means that barber students do not get as much practice with shears, and take a longer time to get comfortable with them.
The fact that they do not need continuing education to renew their licenses means that while many barbers actively pursue classes and education on their own, far more simply continue cutting the standards. They learn less formally, from those they work with and know in the industry, from instructional videos and from experimentation. They become experts in long-standing classic styles, but often do not gain as wide a range of skills as stylists.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of bashing in the hair industry on both sides of the aisle, one side calling the other’s work and whole profession inferior and much worse, often using the terms “barber” and “stylist” as a put down.
As barbers who have worked with plenty of folks from both sides, this bothers the hell out of us. We can all learn a lot from each other – some of the best cutters we have ever known have been been dual licensed, or at least have done extensive training in the other discipline. If you don’t learn something useful from each and every person you work with, you’re not looking hard enough.
The thing to remember is that you cannot judge or stereotype either side of the industry by their generalizations. The haircut you get will be down to the individual working on you, so to find the right person to cut your hair the way you like, ask people with good hair who cuts theirs, read Yelp reviews, and look for busy barbershops.
As much as we love our cosmetologist friends, we are barbers, and as such we have a deep love for the craft and tradition of our side of the profession (way way back in the day we performed surgeries and used leeches! bloodletting!!!) So we will let the holy ashtray called Schorem (our favorite barbershop on the planet) have the last word here on the subject of being a barber, because they say it so well:
Barbering is NOT about being creative, it’s about practise and perfecting your skills for me that’s one of the big differences between being a barber and being a hairdresser… It’s really not that hard to learn but it takes a lifetime to master.
I see [hairdressing] more as an art form where I see barbering as a craft. A hairdresser has more tools, textures and overall product (hair) to work with and it’s the creative process that keeps developing, growing and perfecting over the years. Barbering to me is about perfecting just a few classic haircuts and techniques trying to do that one haircut that has proven itself over decades as perfect as possible. I like to quote “A true master is he who mastered the art of always being a student” but I think that phrase should be for everybody with passion for what he does.