Is this a great haircut, or what?
February 6, 2022 7:36 AM   Subscribe

Over the years, I’ve had my hair styled by high-end salons, the nearest no-frills chain (think Great Clips), and everything in between. I’m not sure I can tell the difference. Please educate me.

After subtracting for the wash and blow-dry, hair products, swanky environment and banter, what's the difference between the haircut I get at my local high-priced salon and a no-frills salon? I’ve found I can walk into the nearest no-frills salon (without an appointment, yay), pull up a picture of what I want on my phone, and walk out with roughly that cut for a lot less time and money. What am I missing?

After visiting No Frills, will people look at me and see "cheap haircut"? And if so, what is it that signals that?

I’m a middle-aged female, and stopped coloring my hair at the start of Covid. I don’t get precision cuts, rather something along the line of a choppy shag or textured bob. I don't have "difficult" hair.
posted by mama penguin to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Honestly: there's no difference that I know of, if the stylist/barber is good enough. I've had cheap haircuts that have been, in form and function, much better than expensive ones. These days I go to a "pay what you can" barber with a gender neutral sliding scale and often end up overpaying because I like the place and want to support them.

In terms of a bad haircut, the things you should be looking out for are asymmetry (if you didn't ask for that), poor colouring, shape or size that doesn't suit your face or isn't what you asked for, and so on. For barbering it also might mean a bad or choppy fade. You can get any and all of these from a bad expensive stylist as you can from a cheap one.

I think the only thing that might make a difference between the two is how much time you get. In a cheap salon you might be in a queue and only get a set amount of time in the chair, so corners might be (pardon the pun) cut and rushed. In an expensive one you're more likely to be allowed to stay there as long as you want because you're paying to be "pampered". In my experience though you're not any more likely to be listened to or get what you asked for (actually ime it's the opposite: I find expensive places much more likely to try and upsell me on products and styling decisions I don't want, whereas cheap places will take me at my word).
posted by fight or flight at 7:52 AM on February 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

I used to go to a fairly expensive salon for a cut and colour but a few years ago decided to try a mobile hairdresser - she comes to the house and does both in a fraction of the time and for half the cost. Bonus: the cut is the best I've had since a cut in Cambridge, MA decades ago and (strangely!) both stylists are Spanish.

The only thing I miss is having my hair shampooed in one of those comfy chairs at the salon (I wash my own hair in the bathroom between colour and cut while she catches up on her phonecalls) but I certainly don't miss it enough to forgo the great cut and the £70+ saving!

If you find a great stylist, where s/he works is irrelevant.
posted by humph at 8:07 AM on February 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

It’s just a crap shoot, but if we’re talking in generalizations, I find that more expensive cuts stay looking good longer; in other words, they grow out more gracefully. I have medium-long, wavy hair, where the grow out can take a turn toward frizz. Maybe it matters less for other hair types?
posted by HotToddy at 8:20 AM on February 6, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: It probably also depends a lot on the haircut and your hair. If you're getting a fairly standard cut that doesn't depend a lot on very careful cutting or being up on new/unusual techniques, or if you have the most common hair type for your barber, you're probably going to get mostly the same cut in both places.

Also, it probably depends on your eye - do you care a lot about clothes, for instance? Do you notice the finer points of other people's hair and clothes or do you tend to think "oh, that's a pretty color, looks good"? For a lot of people a "looks pretty good" haircut is going to be about the same as a "that's amazing" haircut just like to most people a nice dress shirt from Nordstrom is going to be about the same as a $500 dress shirt from an Italian tailor.

However, I'd say that I've definitely gotten better cuts at moderately expensive places (with one exception, below) than I have at chains/cheap barbers. I have very thick, unruly hair that can only be successfully cut a few ways. I've learned that at cheaper places they've all been taught that a good haircut is thin and flat and doesn't move around much and so they hack at my hair and I end up with a mangled mess. At more expensive places, they're more used to a variety of cuts and techniques and are more likely to listen when I say that I don't want my hair butchered until it lies thinly and flatly on my skull.

I did once get good cuts at a Great Clips by going to a particular person..who was so talented and successful that she took off on her own and ended up moving to another city where she's a prestige stylist.
posted by Frowner at 8:32 AM on February 6, 2022 [6 favorites]

I have fine wavy hair. My current stylist is the only one of maybe over 20 I’ve tried who can cut my hair in a way that it air dries beautifully and I don’t have to style at all. She is expensive but it is worth it to me (and I am lucky enough to be able to afford it.) On the other hand my friend has stick straight hair and she gets it trimmed at the beauty school for $20 and for her hair type and style they do a great job.

I think it depends a lot on your hair and it’s “needs.”
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 8:35 AM on February 6, 2022 [6 favorites]

I've had a similar experience. If your goal is to just have a a fairly standard cut, pretty much any hair stylist can do that fine in my experience. And even cheap places often have a 'satisfaction guarantee' - my hair looks very different wet v. dry, and once when my hair fully dried after a cheap cut it was a bit wonky - I returned, they fixed it for no extra cost.
posted by coffeecat at 8:37 AM on February 6, 2022

I have lots of very fine curly hair and what I am looking for is someone who believes me when I say I don't want it stacked in the back or heavily layered. I have had marginally more luck with this in fancy salons and I think it's because you need a fair amount of experience to do something other than what you've been trained to do with 'not typical' hair. But I've also found some great people at less expensive joints. And since the pandemic I've just been cutting it myself with largely good results so I think I may be done paying for haircuts all together.
posted by jeszac at 8:42 AM on February 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

When I was in grad school, I was a hair model for trainees at extremely fancy salons. I have easy-to-work-with hair texture, but I still got better cuts, because they took into account the shape of my face and made adjustments to balance things out. Having said that, while I do think there was a difference, for me it wouldn't be enough to justify the full price of those haircuts.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:51 AM on February 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

I don't have "difficult" hair.

This makes a HUGE difference. I have very heavy, very straight hair with cowlicks. It’s made one stylist literally cry because it wouldn’t do what she was trying to get it to. I’ve only ever had one stylist who could make it look like something other than a Halloween witch wig, and when she moved from New York to South Carolina to get married I was seriously running the math on traveling there twice a year to get my hair cut. Nowadays I trim the split ends myself and just let it do what it wants, and put it up when I need to not look awful.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:55 AM on February 6, 2022 [10 favorites]

Same as The Underpants Monster: my hair makes stylists cry. But it equally makes expensive ones and cheap ones cry, so I go to the cheap ones.

I'd actually be wary of some expensive magician who was able to use products and tools to make something great-looking. I mean, good, but they aren't going to be in my bathroom every morning. Can I reproduce what they did?

(These days, I don't go at all, though. I got a set of clippers and blades and do a buzz cut myself. But my answer to the questions is - if it looks good to you in the mirror when you leave there it probably doesn't matter how much you paid to get it that way.)
posted by ctmf at 9:17 AM on February 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

My old salon used to periodically send its people to some sort of seasonal training to learn about the hot new styles and colors for the fall, or something along those lines. I could not possibly have cared less about keeping my hair up to date with Hair Fashion but I wonder if that sort of training happens with the no frills chains? That might be a difference if one were a person who wants to have the most current hairstyle.

I pay my beloved stylist anything she asks for, roughly in order of importance:

1. Not getting super weird about it when my response to a cut is "what can we do to make this look queerer?"
2. My need for updates on her dog
3. Stylist Small Talk with her doesn't make me want to crawl out of my skin, and she even has a "no small talk" option on her booking site"
4. Also the haircuts are good.

1-3 keep me coming back; the actual haircut I could eventually get out of a cheap place easily once I'd gone through a few rounds of YES I DO want my hair to look that butch even though I'm a woman.

I don't think I've ever looked at anyone else's cut and thought I could tell what kind of salon they'd been to.
posted by Stacey at 9:26 AM on February 6, 2022 [6 favorites]

I don't have "difficult" hair

This is what keeps me away from no-frills chain salons.

I have a lot of very thick, very fine, very curly hair, and I have had a lot of bad experiences with well-meaning stylists who have never cut curly hair before. The results look like topiary for the human head, or the brilliant comedian Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna on SNL. (Only my closest friends have seen photos of me from high school -- it was that bad.)

I'd rather pay $$$ three or four times a year and go to a boutique that specializes in curly hair and have my hair cut by someone who can show me many pictures of the other curly cuts they have done, who won't expect me to blow dry it straight in the morning (wtf?) and who will give me a low-maintenance daily routine. It is worth it to me when I look in the mirror.
posted by virago at 9:52 AM on February 6, 2022 [7 favorites]

If/when you get the next great haircut, take a selfie from all angles right away to show future haircutters. If you see a new haircutter about to do something you don't want (too short; wrong side part) stop them right away. I just did that when I had to go to a new stylist; he was about to do something I specifically had said not to do, plus I had a print out of my selfie and made him look at it again. I was nice about it, but sheesh!
posted by Elsie at 10:36 AM on February 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Tools can make a difference also. My kiddo worked at a cheap place (sports clips) and now works at an independent local barber. At the cheap place, not everyone had money for amazing clippers and shears and some also lacked time and money to maintain them. At the independent barber, tool maintenance is talked about and techniques are shared.

Everyone makes better money because no one is forced to give 10 or 15 minute haircuts. So everyone has nicer clipper and shears. And damn, nice shears can be very expensive.

Experience also matters. A lot of the kiddos coworkers at the cheap place were fresh out of school. Everyone at her current barber shop has experience.
posted by shmurley at 2:42 PM on February 6, 2022 [6 favorites]

Oh, that comment about the clippers and shears makes a lot of sense. I have very thick short hair with a lot of cowlicks. If it is not cut well it looks like a pile of straw, but a good cut makes it look like a symphony of movement. My long-term stylist, (who I was referred to by a stylist who said she could not work with my hair!) once mentioned, offhandedly, that she had just gotten her shears sharpened, as she did periodically. I was floored to hear that her shears cost her $1200. Well, of course, she said - they are my most essential tool! Made perfect sense when I thought about it. Stylists have to provide all their own equipment, and the newest graduates probably can't afford really good shears.
posted by citygirl at 8:03 PM on February 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

I get an expensive haircut. This started because I deliberately went to a trendy salon in town, and then booked a haircut with the cheapest stylist. He turned out to be really, really good and was promoted several times until he was the most expensive stylist. He gave me a very short haircut that works really well for my hair and face shape, and does not require styling every day (it does look better with styling but it's not essential). When he left I booked in with another stylist at the same price point for fear of having a bad haircut with someone cheaper. When she didn't return after Covid, I did the same thing again. Each time I've found someone who's done good things to my hair.

It's the combination of great tools, good and up-to-date training and great skills with your kind of hair that make a good hairdresser. You are more likely to find those at a more expensive salon than a cheaper one but it's mainly the person not the place. A more expensive place may allow for more time in the chair - I think my typical cut and blow dry appointment is for 45 minutes although it actually takes between 30 and 40 minutes.
posted by plonkee at 1:42 AM on February 7, 2022

I think it's primarily a time thing. In my 20s I had a strange thing about not wanting to make appointments for a haircut, which meant that I always walked into the barbershop and took the next available person ... who was invariably the newest. One time I walked in there and she leans over and says, "I'm new, they're all watching me, so I'm going to do a really good job. Don't expect this in the future." And it was the best haircut I'd had for the next ten years or so.

Years later I moved and I went to the $10 haircut place and she also said "You're thinning on top, so I'm going to cut it really short" and ran the clippers over the top. The advice that I got was to go to the fanciest salon in the city if you were looking for a new way to wear your hair, so that's the route I went, and that was the new best haircut I've ever had. Maintaining a haircut is apparently easier than a whole new thing, and now I have easier hair, I think.

The other thing is that when I was going to cheaper places and taking the next available chair it felt like each person was pretty much going to give you the haircut they specialized in, and if you wanted a different haircut, you had to go to somebody else. Whereas the fancy salon people were more than capable of doing different styles.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:39 AM on February 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

I once heard, although I don't know if it's true, that at the cheap chains they cut your hair using fewer... snips? Like, they open and shut their scissors fewer times than if you go to a good place. So they're cutting larger chunks of hair and getting you out of there faster. As a person with curly hair who got some really awful cuts at those chains, I believe it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:31 PM on February 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

I find that as a middle-aged guy there is a subtle difference between a short cut that looks military vs. like a business man vs. like an architect, so I keep going to the person that knows what I want, even if she is a little more expensive than a regular barber. There was a moment a few years ago when it was very clear how kinds of short hair can even be political (oh shit, does my hair make me look fascist?), but I'm not sure if that is as discernable now.
posted by umbú at 10:35 AM on February 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Nthing the difficult-hair thing. I have baby-fine, thin hair that radiates out in a circle from my crown (my current stylist said "Like a baby's hair before it gets the adult growth patterns!") and which is impossible to make look good with a cheap haircut. Especially so once it started growing in wavy. I now pay triple digits for a haircut, which probably just gave some of you heart attacks, but...I have to go in once every eight months, not once every eight weeks like I used to, so I end up paying half the money per year for haircuts than I used to ($140 every 8 months is $217/year vs. $75 every two months which is $450/year).
posted by telophase at 2:28 PM on February 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

My expensive stylist is a genius with color and turns my shitty, thin, fine, cowlick-y hair into absolute shining spun violet. I’ve gotten cheaper haircuts before that looked “fine,” but at this absurd price point I fucking LOVE my hair, and now consider it one of my best features.

I guess I don’t know that this never would have happened at a cheap chain hair salon? But in 40 years it sure as hell hadn’t done so yet…
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:20 PM on February 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

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