Desmond Morris, the famous British zoologist who wrote The Naked Ape, put together a six-part BBC series called The Human Animal: A Personal View of the Human Species during the mid 1990s, in an attempt to examine and explain human behaviour.
During the series, he explores humans as “hunting apes”, looks at our body language, genetics, and tackles the differences of the sexes. During part 6, Beyond Survival, Dr. Morris, the brilliant zoologist that has moved the study of body language further ahead than anyone else in history, says, “Every time we go out in public, we’re making complex statements about ourselves”. Dr. Morris is absolutely right, but his statement reeks of irony because he talks about complex visual statements while wearing a wicked comb-over.
Comb-overs, a ridiculous “style” that balding men create to cover their baldness was extremely popular during the 1970s, as I recall from childhood. The comb-over was so big that it was actually patented in 1977. The patent is officially 37 years old as of December 23, 2014, and was the brain-child of smooth-headed father and son team, Donald and Frank Smith. Below is the U.S. patent. Click on it to read the details about the Smith’s “invention”.
The patent info explains the correct way of covering your bald spot by “cross-hatching” (FIG. 6) three sections of longer hair and combing them over one another. Original illustration at right–it’s a dandy, isn’t it?
Instructions: “To begin with the subject’s hair must be allowed to grow long enough to cover the bald area, generally about 3 to 4 inches. Of course, the length of the hair will depend on the size of the bald area, for example, a person who is front to back bald, as in the illustrations of FIGS. 1, 2 and 3, will require more length than a person with a bald spot either in front or in back of the head. In addition, the particular hair style to be performed will dictate the required hair length.”
Can you imagine losing your hair and thinking that the best thing to do is to grow sections of your existing hair quite long, strategically comb it up to cover over your bald head, then paste it to your scalp or on top of existing strands with some sort of adhesive (probably hair spray) in an attempt to fool others into thinking that you still have your full head of hair? Only the wind could betray your clever ruse! It’s genius!
“Wearing a comb-over is like sweeping your baldness under the rug; it’s still there,” says Jason Kearns of Toronto’s Kearns & Co. hair design.
Kearns began his professional life in the late 60s in swinging London, when hair, and everything else, was all about fun and free expression. He watched the music stars of the time mature and change–some of their hair left the building before they did, and grace didn’t necessarily follow. He says of an aging rock star like Robert Plant, “If the hair is long and you’ve got all of it, wear it.” Guys like David Crosby or Max Webster-era Kim Mitchell who have lost it all on top but keep the bottom long? “Cut it.”
Clumsy, fragile comb-overs are an attempt to camouflage or hide something; they may even induce suspicion. It was no surprise to hear Mr. Kearns say that men who do comb-overs have no sense of self and are probably clinging to their youth. I imagine it could be quite upsetting, even devastating for a man to lose his hair; it may be seen as the loss of youth and possibly a loss of strength, and therefore a blow to masculine identity (could all men have a Sampson complex?). But this belief is a choice.
Bald and bald alternatives
Perhaps it was the unforgettable Yul Brynner who made bald okay for the first time in the 20th century. Biography UK describes how Brynner’s bald head became his trademark:
“For his role as the King of Siam [in the 1956 Academy Award-winning The King And I], Brynner shaved his head and following the success of the film, he continued to shave his head throughout his life but wore wigs for certain roles. This was an unusual and striking look for the time and became known as the Yul Brynner Look.”
While Brynner wasn’t bald, he was balding. Below left is a shot of the intense, Russian-born actor with a receding hairline; at right below, with a hair piece in his second bald role as Pharoah in The Ten Commandments. To my eye, he’s much more striking without hair.
As the 50s moved into the 60s and 70s, a fully bald head was still scary to people, but someone came up to the plate and made baldness sexy. Telly Savalas rocked the bald head in the early 1970s in his hit TV show, Kojak. Unlike Brynner, Savalas didn’t shave his head for any particular role–his hair loss was well under way, as seen at left in a screen shot from season two of The Untouchables (1961), when Savalas still had some hair. Compare that to the second shot at right—which is one attractive than the other?
So why did bald work for these two when so many other men at the time chose the comb-over? First, they’re both actors, and they’re already confident (I have read in my travels that actors and football players have the highest testosterone counts of all occupations). Second, once they took to the look, they “owned” their baldness and made it work for them. Third, they have good shaped heads that are in proportion to their bodies–this is important.
Shaving one’s head is definitely an alternative if a guy is losing his hair, but shaving your head bald isn’t for everyone. Why? Proportion. I have a small head and I notice that when I put my hair into a tight ponytail, my head looks smaller, and I look out of proportion. Men with small heads who intend to shave their lids should take heed of this; I often see (usually white) men walking around with tiny shaved heads perched above hunched shoulders, their expression embarrassed and apologetic. Just because you’re losing your hair doesn’t mean that you have to shave right down to the wood, fellas; instead leave a 1/8″ or 1/4″ of stubble to break up the visual expanse of skin, and avoid large collars and scarves that can make your head look even smaller.
Probably the most important thing around hair loss is acceptance. I discussed ways to deal with hair loss in my last post, but ultimately gentlemen, it’s all about embracing and making the best of yourself, not making an awkward attempt to hide what is gone and in the past. Jason Kearns says that baldness is a way for modern men to make their lives simple and to deal with hair loss with grace. He offers other alternatives to comb-overs and bald insecurity: “Instead of hiding your bare pate,” he says, “try to work with it and add accessories like interesting eye glasses or a neatly trimmed beard.”
Desmond Morris said in the Daily Mail in 2008 that the key to a long life is calmness. If you want a happy and long life, it’s best to relax about things you have no control over, including whether or not your hair will hold out. Don your look with grace, avoid the comb-over, and for goodness’ sake, have a sense of humour about it; it’s not the end of the world.
For a laugh, read this Cracked article: Inside the Mind of a Man With a Comb-Over.