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November 21, 2010

Naturally, Curly?

When I started losing my hair, which is to say developing patches of male pattern baldness, I started cutting my hair shorter. Way short. Now, I get myself "buzzed" every month or so with electric clippers with the little attached plastic gizmo set for the shortest length. It's a step-and-a-half removed from a shaved head, a length (or lack of it) to which I won't go because I don't like the sight of my own blood flowing from a scalp wound. (I also wear a short beard--the product of getting, several years ago, some god-awful skin infection from keeping my razor for the gym in a plastic bag in the locker, not being allowed to shave while it healed under some medicinal cream, and liking the release from having to shave. Since I'm white on the top of my head and white on the bottom, many people ask me--presumably not from intellectual indicators--whether I've got my cabeza on right side up.)

Wearing a hairpiece--a.k.a. rug, hair hat, "Did something crawl up on your head and die?"--never occurred to me. Not having as much hair as I did when I was younger (thick brown hair runs in my family) never seemed a particular appearance detriment (I didn't have that much to lose), let alone a cosmetic disaster. The reason I cut my hair real short now is not to disguise the fact that I've gone fairly bald, but that combable-length hair with large patches of skin visible through the strands is ugly, like a big toe visible through the worn material of an old sock is ugly.

Granted, closely cropped and shaved male heads are much more tolerated now than forty, or even thirty years ago, and back then I might not have had the chops to go barely fuzzy among all the Elliott Goulds of the world. Today, however, I'm mystified by men who concoct elaborate comb-overs to conceal (don't they wish!) their baldness. For some reason, the most baroque comb-overs I've ever seen graced the skulls of college basketball coaches, e.g., Lou Henson of Illinois (people called it a "Lou 'Do") and Gene Keady of Purdue. Something to do with hair >> virility (that's ancient, of course) >> athletics >> being indoors and not blown around outdoors on a football sideline, I suspect. (Donald Trump's comb-over is in an engineering league of its own.) But hairpieces are even more wack to me. And fascinating. I love to spot 'em on the subway or in airport waiting areas.

In the first place, they're almost always detectable. (Yes, I can't count the ones I can't detect, but I think the perfect rug is about as rare as the perfect crime.) While hardly any today boast the grotesquely visible foundation web of the late Paul Harvey's, there's always a slight but telltale difference in color, texture, sheen and curl between the toupée's hair (or plastic) and what's left on the neck and sideburns of the wearer. Next, there's usually no front hairline, i.e., no place where one can see the root of an individual hair rising out of skin. Wearers often attempt to finesse this with "curly" hair, à la early-days Art Garfunkel, that naturally doesn't show a hairline. But even if that works, sweat on hot days is a problem, because perspiration makes a few conspicuous artificial strands hang down, wet and heavy on the forehead. Nobody thinks the wearer is a reincarnation of Elvis or Jack Lord on the original "Hawaii Five-O." The toops I like best are the ones located at the bald prow of an otherwise fullish head of hair, and that try to mimic a part. When the part is natural toward the rear, but the toupée is subtly constructed so as to try to have it both ways (i.e., a "part" but with the toop's structurally necessary contiguous adherence to other, natural, hair)--that's when I find a rug especially fascinating.

OK, what's this got to do with the arts? Well, it's got to do with the difference between trompe-l'oeil and a tour de force. In the extreme of the former, you're not supposed to be able to tell the difference between the real and the fake, as in the famous ancient Greek painting myth (which, in the interest of hurriedness, I'm going to synopsize without resorting to Google or Wikipedia): The first painter in a competition pulls the cloth off his painting to reveal grapes so "realistically" painted that the birds come down and try to pluck at them. When the second painter declines to unveil his picture, everyone present thinks he knows he's beaten. Somebody then steps over to his picture to pull the cloth off, and can't. The second artist's trompe-l'oeil cloth is even better than the first's illusionary grapes. With a tour de force, by contrast, you notice the means, as in, say the dazzling lace cuffs and collars on 17th century Dutch burghers painted by one of my four or five all-time faves, Frans Hals. (I prefer him to Rembrandt, but that's another blog post.) The noticeable brushstrokes are proudly part of the deal.

Toupée wearers seek trompe-l'oeil, not tour de force. Probably a greater--though still very small--percentage of females who sport the results of breast augmentation procedures, e.g., Pam Anderson, want people to notice the artifice--that a couple of old teakettles, or something, have been concealed beneath the skin. Still, I sometimes fantasize about saying to a guy wearing a toop, "Hey man, that's a really great rug!" But given the issue at stake--masculinity itself--I'd probably be taking my life into my hands.

November 21, 2010 9:45 AM | | Comments (0)

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