Is traditional wet shaving a skill or technique, an art form, a philosophical frame of mind or a way of life? Arguments could be made for each and everyone of these. It depends upon what your personal needs are at the moment and your progression and growth in this growing trend in grooming habits. Bottom line: it could be one or all of them.
Wet shaving is simply using "wet" lather (soap) applied to the face and beard and removing it with a sharp object, such as a razor. We've all seen the YouTube videos or pictures of guys shaving with an ax or a piece of napped flint. Yes it is technically wet shaving but the novelty style used to at times make fun of us "traditionalists" by hipsters and uninformed who are joined at the hip to their ultra modern multi-blade cartridges. Traditional wet shaving boiled down is wet shaving that seeks out and uses the methods of wet shaving that for the last 150 years has been the tried and true way to remove whiskers from the skin (usually a man's face, but women's legs and under arms must also be included).
Traditional wet shaving focuses on using a razor blade, usually a double edge blade (DE). This is a confusing term and I have no idea where it originated. Single Edge shaving (SE) is an older method, even though King Camp Gillette popularized the two sided blade (DE) beginning in 1904, single edge razors such as the GEM and the earlier Wilkinson Sword style wedge blades preceded it. A better descriptor of a DE blade would be a two sided or double sided blade. But that's a mute point at this stage of the game. Traditionalists hearken back to the pre-1970's as the model for both form and function in their shaving techniques. One single blade edge to cut the whisker after applying the lather (hard soap or cream in origin) that has been applied by means of a type of brush (boar, badger, horse or synthetic fiber or a mixture thereof). These are the essential elements.
Now comes the interesting parts. How you do this simple practice of blade, brush and lather sometimes depends upon your own personal history and societal roots. In other words how old you are, what have you been exposed to historically, and in what culture you were raised or educated. How can that be? Isn't there only so much variation possible in such a simple process called shaving? Simple answer: Because that's the way it is. Complex Truth: Because we are the sum total of all our past, be it rich and colorful or barren and meagerly informed. There are some core principles and techniques that constitutes the foundation of a good traditional wet shave but once the individual needs factors come into play the variety is endless (YMMV and all of that stuff).
I'm now stepping into the mine field. Throw me a rope if I blow off a leg or something. I have attempted to have an ongoing chat with a shaving friend whose cultural and ethnic heritage is African American and Puerto Rican. I am a Caucasian male from the United States who has an English, Irish, Scottish and German heritage. I don't have the insight or even enough knowledge to have empathy with the average man of color on many subjects let alone know what he thinks about a subject. But I need to try and understand his/her perspective even though it is a touchy and emotionally charged environment. This is a subject we need to think about in the traditional wet shaving world but shy away from.
My friend and I have pondered why there are so few "black men" in many of the online shaving groups and forums. You would think that African American men, who have always had difficulty getting a comfortable shave due to genetically having coarse curly facial hair that causes in grown hairs and razor bumps, would be neck deep and enthusiastic about traditional wet shaving. The simple and inexpensive methodology of single edge and brush applied lather is the best solution to their shaving woes. But their numbers are few and presence almost non-existent. Why?
The social worker in me always turns to an ecological perspective of any issue or situation. What differentiates social work from psychology or counseling is that simple psychological counseling puts emphasis upon the individual. If their single individual needs are fulfilled and they "feel better" about themselves then the problems are solved...end of session.
For a social worker the emphasis is not how the individual feels exclusively, but how does the individual function in their surrounding society (environment) which should change how they feel about themselves and improve their life. Ecologically (environmentally) a black man raised in the United States has been economically suppressed and disadvantaged. This can also apply to many other ethnic groups around the world. Mainstream advertising until recent years has not focused on their needs nor has the focus of advertising even been pointed in their direction (they were ignored and excluded).
Consequently, the questions in my mind are: If advertising historically wasn't geared to their shaving needs (therefore less propaganda aimed towards them to change their shaving habits to multi-blade cartridges) and economically they should have been more focused on a less costly and useful option (i.e. DE and SE razor blades, mug soap and brush), why aren't the communities of color not a rich source of information and lingering product availability for the traditional wet shaver today?
If you want to throw in another historical perspective, I recently read an article in The Atlantic magazine on the history of the American beard where African American barbers played an interesting roll.
The African American community should be one of the first places we turn for good information about how to shave the traditional way, but it isn't. But more to the point. Why is it taking longer for men of darker complexion with troubling shaving needs to discover and embrace traditional wet shaving? Or have they found it and aren't joining the shaving groups and remaining quiet about it? The obvious reasons are again cultural, societal and economic. The shaving forums and groups are predominantly bastions of Caucasian men from both Europe and the United States. Culturally there are racial prejudice undertones scattered amongst the banter. Socially, we bring our friends to the parties we attend. Honestly, we may have "friends" from different races and cultures but for the most part they are usually just "acquaintances" and talking about personal care matters between men is a very difficult thing to do regardless of all the other "touchy" factors involved.
I would hope that barber shops would grow into the "go to" marketplace in every community where traditional wet shaving supplies and knowledge can be found, but not all barbers are into traditional wet shaving. I think they should be and those of you who are artisan producers should be seeking them out as avenues of distribution for your wares. Barbershops in ethnic communities are hubs of activity and far more centrally tied to tradition than the salon environment in the more "lily white" middle class communities.
Economically, maybe the simple factor of the corporately controlled supply lines are again excluding the working and lower middle classes people of color from affordable options suited to their specific needs. Let them eat cake or in this situation cheap disposable single and double blade razors. There are specialty products geared toward the "black shaver" but mostly they are razor-less options. They don't fit the mold of the "normal" cartridge shaver. It is painful to them so "to hell with them, we shall ignore them once again". Is that what corporate shaving product producers think? I hope not, but from this white boy's perspective it looks that way.
It is indeed a travesty that more men of color in the African American, Hispanic, Latino, Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern communities in the United States and Europe are not as active in the traditional wet shaving community. They are represented but not as active as they could or should be. They need the better shaving techniques traditional wet shaving has to offer (everyone does) and we need them, because demographically this is the richest and most essential growth field for the movement. Without expanding the field of exposure, traditional wet shaving as a social, philosophical and economic phenomenon is doomed to failure.
I personally can remember family members using traditional wet shaving gear and products. Emotionally there is a strong tie in for me to explore the "old ways" of shaving. I was there and experienced when traditional wet shaving lost favor in our society and mass marketed products and methods gained sway in opposition to the truth - that single edge shaving was the better method; brush and lather prepared the face and whisker better than canned creams and gels.
Younger folks today do not have that "heritage" and experience to fall back on. Their fathers and mothers probably used multi-blades and electric razors. Possibly a grandfather or great uncle or aunt shaved the "old fashioned" way, maybe not, depending upon their age demographic. Sadly, for many African Americans, particularly in the United States father's were often an absent commodity in their daily lives. Universally single parent households and female dominated homes over the past 50 years has gone from a minority to a majority reality. Shaving to our youth today seems to be whatever they view on television not what has been demonstrated in the home, and we wonder why our youth are so worrisome to us.
My daughter (daughter of my heart and not my blood) is African American and Latino ethnically. She grew up in a single parent household and has only seen her bio-father 3 or 4 times in her life. She just recently turned 16 and is so wrapped up in the media scene. If she is breathing she has headphones, cell phone or laptop plugged in. When they offer implantable neural hook ups to the internet she will be first in line. I will occasionally ask her if she has ever seen an episode of a certain classic television program or an older movie. One of her first questions back to me is: "Was it in color or black and white?" If I say B&W, she will flatly say "No. I don't watch shows like that," even though she searches and watches YouTube videos day and night. When we talk about the way things used to be, she is amazed of an existence before mass media and cannot grasp anyone can survive and be happy without a constant stream of media stimulation. It would be too boring to continue living, from her perspective.
We will never be able to counter the impact of mass media without using mass media and the social media conduits that are the life breath of our current world. The youth and peoples of color are the future and salvation of traditional wet shaving. I am an "Old Goat" in the total scope of things. My hope is to attempt to bridge the gaps that currently separate the perspectives of young and old, black and white, Asian and Hispanic, gentile and Jew, Muslim and Christian, believer and unbeliever. Those gaps are pretty wide and seem to be getting wider as our societies become totally enmeshed in the grip of corporately controlled messages of what is the truth and what is the lie.
For the masses, traditional wet shaving is a solution to an age old problem of removing whiskers from the face, but they don't know it. I believe it is the better way. The corporate world believes is it simply an unprofitable proposition; a cockroach from the past to be stepped on and destroyed. There are many things in our world that "needs a changin" as my grandmother used to say. Old goats like me, hope that at least some of the spring lambs are not lead down the path of slaughter and in time become a conduit of knowledge into the future. Multi-blade shaves may not be bloody but they can be bloody uncomfortable and our youth is being led to their slaughter.
Traditional wet shaving is a skill to be learned and the best way to learn it is from a teacher, guide or coach. The only way this is going to happen in our world today is to befriend someone and show them how to do it or talk to them about it via the social media.
Traditional wet shaving can be an art form but it is more so in the mind than on the physical plane. It is a philosophy, a point of view and potentially a way of life that respects the past and honors the future by standing up and saying "this is good...don't throw away the good just because it isn't profit worthy or exceedingly media friendly".
For me traditional wet shaving not only gives me a good shave but it gives me a pause to reflect, a method of remembering, and a mechanism of honoring, at least some of the traditions of the past. Racism may be a tradition for some but has no place in traditional wet shaving. That goes for just about all the other "isms" you can think of that has any hint of putting down, ridiculing, separating into factions, or making fun of someone or some group.
We've got a good thing going with our traditional ways of shaving and the traditional wet shaving community can be a powerful tool for not only changing the way men and women shave, but a way of bring people together. Learning about one another and appreciating a broader perspective of what it means to be human. Lofty ideas for such simple things as a sharp blade, simple soap and humble brush. Think about it.
Good Shaves, Be Happy, Be Safe