Irene Wiltshire reflecting on Barbados of yesterday when the hot ironing comb and curler were the tools of her popular hairdressing business. (Picture by Reco Moore.)
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IRENE WILTSHIRE gives a thumbs up to the variety of hairstyles she sees women in Barbados parading.
They remind her of yesteryear and her pioneering years operating as only the second hairdresser in Bridgetown.
Now 84, she has long since put aside the traditional ironing comb and curler and spends her days overseeing the operation of the small guest house she owns. Shrewd businesswoman that she is, long ago she planned and worked on progressing from the tiring job of hairdressing to playing hostess to Caribbean visitors for whom her Superville Guest House at Pickwick Gap, St Michael has become their home away from home.
She had been “doing hair” from age 15.
“I started home, pressing and curling hair in the house,” Wiltshire said.
This was after carefully observing the woman who taught her needlework, also styling the hair of clients for whom she made clothes.
Teenager Irene not only learnt to be a seamstress, but also copied the art of hairdressing from her mentor. At home, she made a little money practising on friends, heating the ironing comb and the curler on a kerosene stove.
“In those days it was press and curl and you would curl the hair right around in a rounding of curls, you used to put the ironing comb on an oil stove and the clients would come with the hair already washed,” she said.
A press and curl in those days cost a mere $5.
She migrated to England in the ’50s and during the three years spent abroad, she also engaged in hairdressing in her home, catering to a small West Indian clientele.
“I always liked hairdressing,” Irene said, hence her later decision to refine her skills at the Apex School of Hairdressing in New York.
“I used to send out brides and I would press their hair and curl it. At that time you had to get curling and ironing combs made,” Irene told the SUNDAY SUN.
Many a bride either slept on the floor of her home waiting for their bridal gown to be finished, or slept in their clothes awaiting their turn to have their hair done.
The annual Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition, once Barbados’ premier event staged annually in Queen’s Park, was another major fashionable occasion that drew heavily on her services. “I used to have so much hair and still the needlework to do.”
She keeps the ironing combs and curlers she had made at the now defunct Barbados Foundry, as prized mementos of her hairdressing business in a Barbados of yesterday.
Irene recalled it was a time of thriving entrepreneurship among black Barbadians. She credits one of Barbados’ successful Bridgetown businessmen, the late Lloyd Wilson with opening the door to the business opportunity that would not only enable her to go on to build a successful hairdressing business but would also become the launch pad for her expansion into another business venture – the hospitality industry.
Wilson had already established his name among those black Barbadians of the period who owned the buildings in which they operated businesses around Bridgetown. There were other names like Pickering, Rollock and Daniel.
“One day Lloyd Wilson came with someone to get their hair done and he said, ‘You have now come back here (to Barbados from studying hairdressing in the US) and you have all these people here and you need a bigger place. I have a place that you can use’.”
Ignoring her protest that she was not yet in a position to pay rent, Wilson encouraged her to “make a start” and offered the use of a section of a building he owned on Swan Street.
“I started to work, and for six months he never came for rent.” She only began to pay Wilson rent when she moved down one floor to better accommodation for which he charged her just $600 a month. By then her growing clientele was coming from all 11 parishes, and again it was Wilson who pointed her to the Barbados Development Bank for a loan to assist with purchasing equipment.
Many a morning when she turned up at her salon at 5 a.m. there was already a large gathering of clients awaiting her arrival.
She was one of the first local hairdressers to bring in hair for weaves, and she fashioned woven hairstyles using her hands as the loom, long before the process was replaced by machines. Women paid as much as $600 for the woven hairstyles she offered.
“You pressed and curled that weave and people loved it,” she said. As word about her expertise spread, young women also sought her out for training in the hairdressing techniques for which she became known.
Competition came later from other hairdressing businesses springing up around her after she moved locations, forcing her to sit down and reset her business course.
After a quick glance around the 18-room complex that is her Superville Guest House, she said: “Hairdressing made this possible.”
Her home once stood on the same spot. Over time, encouraged by friends from Trinidad, she opened her doors to provide homely accommodation for Caribbean visitors. Now the rooms of the expanded property are hardly ever empty and she is still there to ensure the comfort of her guests, directing the operation with assistance from her son.
She has passed a lot of her business acumen on to her daughter Cheryl Newman, whose upscale restaurant Champers is a favourite with Barbadians and visitors. Irene is gratified that the results for Cheryl and her husband and restaurant co-owner Paul have translated into a well-run and successful business.
This octogenarian will tell you she is a committed Barbadian who wants to see this island continue to thrive. The baton, she insists, must be passed to young Barbadians prepared to use their ability to succeed.
Whenever there is an opportunity to impart her knowledge to any young man or woman interested in learning, she is ready, willing and able to assist.