Life on a Razor’s Edge

The hidden joys of shaving


I joked recently on Twitter that I couldn’t understand how men of previous eras (and perhaps many today) found time to shave every day. Shaving my face with soap and a blade, as opposed to just running electric clippers over my stubble, has always been a forbidding practice. Not just because it’s one more obligation in an adult life brimming with them, but also because with my texture and skin type, the risk of physical damage felt insurmountable.

My father didn’t shave every day. For most of my life, he wore a wooly beard as a form of self-punishment until he met some goal (there was always something), similar to the cilice a religious penitent might wear. But sometimes he got sick of it, and he’d retreat to the bathroom and emerge with a perfectly smooth, unblemished brown face. When I was 16 or 17, he showed me how to do it— a masculine ritual, along with powdering his neck with talcum or shining his shoes to a mirror sheen, that until then I had watched from afar and adored.

The initiation was a success, but a week later, when I tried to replicate it on my own, I must have skipped a preparatory step. My face bumped up and burned for days and I swore I’d never touch a blade again. Nearly 20 years passed. In Rome one day, I walked into a cozy, unpretentious barbershop near the Vatican, the sort of place where the bill is tabulated by hand. I had intended to get only a haircut, but an older barber in a crisp white coat inspired such confidence in me that I lost my fear and asked for a full wet shave. A combination of hot, wet towels, soap lathered skillfully with a badger-haired brush, a very sharp blade, and aftershave left me with a face feeling fresher and smoother than I’d ever imagined possible. The next day there was no inflammation.

I began to seek out wet shaves from similar establishments whenever I found myself in Italy, and later, at similar spots in Portugal and elsewhere. The boom in fancy barbershops in cities from London to Paris to New York has allowed me to treat myself from time to time. But these hipster spots are grossly overpriced and a pale comparison of the real Italian thing.

The other day, having just returned from a couple of weeks and as many shaves in Rome and Calabria, I went to an old shaving supply shop in Paris the other day and decided to buy all the tools and products I’d need to recreate the Italian wet shave at home. There, I showered and prepped my brush and lathered my soap and tried not to remember the last time I shaved myself, that calamitous experience in high school.

I left my phone in the other room, put on a record, and lost myself in the at once novel and totally familiar ritual. It was an incredible sensation—I didn’t just come into communion with my father; it was as if I became him momentarily.

Done carefully, the process worked and was so enjoyable that I now, finally, think I understand how and why men made time for the experience.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.


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