Kristin Rankin has been cutting hair for more than a decade, but two years ago, an experience with a client changed the course of her work.
The client, a transgender woman, came in for a cut at Ms. Rankin’s Fuss Hair Studio in Toronto’s east end. The next day, the client posted on Twitter about the experience. “She had tweeted that that was the first time she had a haircut and felt like a woman,” Ms. Rankin said. The sentiment spotlighted the importance of respectful salon spaces, and a glaring lack thereof. “After my goosebumps went down, I was like, ‘This is terrible. Somebody needs to do something about this.’”
The interaction led Ms. Rankin to create The Dress Code Project, a group of salons committed to providing safe, inclusive service. The idea began at Ms. Rankin’s studio in April of 2017, but in less than one year, Dress Code has spread to 137 salons across the globe in an effort to end the traditional divide between the salon for women and the barber shop for men and to provide space for people who do not conform to the usual definitions of gender. While the project is based in salons, Ms. Rankin notes the principles behind it tap into a societal shift toward more inclusivity and respect for people of all sexualities and genders, and that businesses in other sectors have expressed interest in aligning themselves with Dress Code’s principles.
For many LGBTQ people, finding a place that will respect their identity and hair preferences is challenging. Ms. Rankin said every step of the process is anxiety-inducing for them, from arranging the appointment to showing up for the consultation. Many are unsure of where they are welcome, and some trans people find that they are not. Last month, a barber in St. Catharines, Ont., refused service to a trans man after mistaking him for a woman.
Before she started Dress Code, Ms. Rankin held an information evening for LGBTQ youth at her salon. She and her staff answered their questions and advised them on hair care and product use, areas where they might feel insecure. Ms. Rankin said people who grow up cisgender (identifying with their birth sex) but experience gender dysphoria typically would not have learned these techniques from their parents, and anxiety would prevent many from asking. Ms. Rankin said Dress Code was developed to help salon owners make a commitment to providing a welcoming and supportive environment for such clients. They must ensure all staff support those values, and are encouraged to provide gender-neutral washrooms.
Ms. Rankin emphasizes that Dress Code is about equality. She said that when stylists ask how to provide a consultation for individuals who are not cisgender, her answer is simple: “This is how you start it off: You ask them how they want their hair cut.”
Ms. Rankin said the name of the project subverts a traditionally restrictive concept. “It’s kind of like we’re creating our own dress code. The point of Dress Code is to destroy those gender norms.”
Her motivation also has a personal element. “I’m gay. I’ve been out since I was very young. I had my own experiences growing up and not fully identifying with the body that I was in, and not understanding why, so I went through all of that myself,” she said, adding that a haircut is a crucial step toward shaping a person’s appearance to be in line with how they identify. When she was younger, she would put her hair in a ponytail to feel more masculine. “I was testing things out,” she said. “It’s the least expensive way that these kids, or adults, can change the way they see themselves, sometimes for the first time.”
To build Dress Code’s network, Ms. Rankin sent out mass e-mails and direct messages on Instagram to salons. In less than an hour, the owner of another Toronto salon e-mailed back with a declaration of solidarity.
As more salon owners responded, Ms. Rankin prepared a checklist for participating salons. With friends in the LGBTQ community, she developed a workshop for salons in the area that explained topics such as proper use of pronouns and inclusive language. Most Dress Code studios are also adopting gender-neutral pricing, where cost is determined by hair length rather than gender. A website was built, which includes a map for locating member salons.
Rowan McConnell, a 24-year-old queer woman and a client of Ms. Rankin, said she is excited to have places committed to helping her look her best. “I feel the way that I style my hair, or the way that I wear my makeup, or the way that I dress myself is an extension of who I am as a person,” she said. “Growing up, I was just kind of given the haircut that my dad would want to give me, and that was not what I wanted. But I didn’t feel like I had a place to express that.”
Ms. McConnell said it is comforting to know that Dress Code salons will respect all identities. She fondly recalls her first cut with Ms. Rankin. “That was the first time I’ve ever sat in a salon with someone and didn’t have extreme anxiety. She really changed my view on what it could feel like getting a haircut.”
Ms. Rankin said she hopes Dress Code can eliminate her industry’s gender-dependent nature, remarking that imagery and language in salons can often be blatantly feminine. Ms. Rankin notes that she even felt this was a barrier for her. “To me, a hairstylist meant that I was feminine, and I feel way more androgynous,” she explained.
Owners of other Dress Code salons agree that their business needs to progress. “You would think in the hairdressing industry that … we would all be open to everyone’s requests, and that we would be a little bit more forward, even in our pricing, but that’s not the case,” said Leesa Berry, who owns Klute Hair in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.
Ms. Berry’s salon hosted the first Gender-Free Haircut Club, a program started by Ms. Rankin that offers free cuts to low-income LGBTQ individuals. The club’s next event will be on April 23 at Queen’s Shop Hair on Bloor West. Jennifer Storey, owner of Adara Hair and Body Studio in Edmonton, notes that Dress Code is an overdue shift for the salon industry. “For years and years, we’ve been doing it one way, and it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Just like everything in history, it takes a little while to change, but I think eventually this will revolutionize how we look at gender within a hair salon.”
Wth salons in five countries joining, and an endorsement from Australian industry mogul Kevin Murphy, Ms. Rankin said she believes salons are ready to move forward. “I would like to change our industry, and I’m no longer afraid to say that is my ambition towards this.”