Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

Exhibit explores the waning culture of neighborhood beauty parlors

Sarah Gjertson sees beauty in the wrinkled faces and strength in the gnarled hands of the patrons of the Sixth Avenue Beauty Salon in Denver.

Gjertson, director of the Core Art & Media Program in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Denver, spent six months visiting beauty parlors throughout Colorado and the Midwest documenting the disappearing parlor culture for posterity.

The resulting body of work, “Parlor Project,” a combination of video, large-scale photography and sculpture will be unveiled at DU’s Myhren Gallery on Jan. 4.

Gjertson’s work captures a generation of women who seek beauty, personal attention, comfort and camaraderie at the beauty parlor. As women’s hairstyles have changed and require less maintenance, Gjertson says younger generations haven’t participated in the weekly routine of visiting a neighborhood beauty parlor. As elderly clientele are lost, the parlors are closing at a steady rate, taking with them their unique social culture.

“Beauty parlors offer a microcosm of comfort to their patrons,” Gjertson says. “Their weekly visit provides them with more than a roller set. It is a social outlet, a place to gossip and connect with others.”

Gjertson found her subjects, aged 78–101, in beauty parlors tucked away in storefronts and strip malls. The owner of Grayce’s Cosmo House of Beauté in Milwaukee has run her shop for 60 years, and at 91, still does hair.

“It’s so nice that Sarah is interested in the beauty industry, and in learning about our people,” says Nancy Allison, owner of the Sixth Avenue Beauty Salon since 1961.  “The ladies enjoyed chatting with her.”

Rather than interviewing, Gjertson simply gave women the opportunity to approach the camera.

“The familiarity of the parlor environment allows them to open up and speak about their lives,” Gjertson says. “These women are huge people in what may appear like small, frail packages.”

Gjertson’s project was funded by a Creative Arts Materials Fund grant provided by the Division of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at DU.

The exhibit runs Jan. 4–Feb. 25 in the Myhren Gallery in Shwayder Art Building. The exhibition is free and open to the public. For more, visit or

Watch the video: Low-resolution version or high-resolution version.

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