Erected by Sydney Goldsmith of the Universal Hair & Scalp Clinic in 1962, Georges Street’s “Why Go Bald” sign is one of Dublin’s oddest and best loved landmarks. Rescued from the jaws of the scrapheap in November 1999 (after a campaign by a group called the 20th Century Trust) and restored to its former glory, it is now a cult tourist attraction that has won plaudits from admirers including U2’s Bono. Which is kind of appropriate when you consider… Well, we’ll come back to that later.
Sadly though, the fond relationship I’ve long enjoyed with our freaky little friend (the one on the sign) has soured of late. His eyes – once bubbling with lunatic good humour – now gaze witheringly into the darkness of my soul and, as I hurry off towards Temple Bar, I feel that dread question burning on my back until its all I can do not to break down in Dame Street traffic and scream back the pathetic retort that IT WASN’T MY IDEA YOU KNOW…
I haven’t actually gone bald yet. But as Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War; every battle is won before it’s ever fought. And looking at my scalp in the harsh florescent glare of a late night kebab house it’s clear that the battle is already lost. Receding on both flanks, my hairline is being swallowed in a textbook pincer movement that will eventually envelope the top of my head entirely. Once the noose is strung, what hair remains there will – like von Paulus’ 6th Army at Stalingrad – be doomed and doomed surely.
Which is a bit of a fucker. But life goes on. What I’ve now got to do is figure out what I’m going to do about it. These, as I see it, are my options:
Based in a discreet office just off Westmoreland Street, Alan and Monica Harrop have been in the wig business for over thirty years. Theirs is a family operation (the secretary who lets us in is their daughter) but they each have separate clients. Monica specialises in female wigs and Alan in men’s toupees. It’s not that simple though. When I call in advance I’m asked which type of wig I’m looking for. “A lot of our male clients are cross dressers” Moncia later explains, a little apologetically.
The Harrops see these clients by appointment. And on a busy Saturday morning I doubt I’ll get one if they know I’m only pricking around. So I have to pretend that I’m genuinely in the market for a ‘piece. The couple turn out to be two of the warmest, nicest people you could ever meet and I feel pretty awful to be lying to them as a result. For their part, they too seem a little bit troubled about something.
“Alan’s, er, probably going to be wondering what you’re doing here, love…” Monica gently informs me when we arrive. She’s puzzled about something, but she’s not quite sure how to put it. “You see, you’re… not bald.” Ah crap, I really hope I don’t have to bring Sun Tzu into this. Perhaps sensing my discomfort, she smiles reassuringly and adds: “But I’m sure he won’t mind having a chat with you anyway.”
We sit and shoot the breeze with Monica and her daughter for a few minutes. Then, when they get the signal that Alan’s previous client is ready to leave, they hastily erect a large screen in front of the door of his office. The effect is to create a corridor through which the client can exit the waiting room without us seeing him. Clearly, some of these guys are a little sensitive. “Oh yes” agrees Monica. “Most of them will ring from the carpark to check the coast is clear. If they even hear a voice they don’t recognise they turn around and go back.”
There’s a photograph on the wall of Alan’s office of former Labour leader Ruairi Quinn being fitted with a toupee. (“It was for the newspapers. The last time someone asked about that it was twelve years ago so it must be nearly fifteen years ago now. He said if the Labour party weren’t doing so well in the polls he’d have kept it.”) The office is set up like a barber shop because the wigs are long and shaggy when Alan gets them. He trims them down to fit the clients here. The cost is usually around €800 for a rug but mine would cost more as the suppliers he deal with in England probably wouldn’t have a match for my red hair.
Unfortunately though we’re not going to be able to do business. “Gents wigs have to be taped to the front of the head. We can clip them to your hair at the back and the sides but it has to be taped at the front. To be honest son, you’re not bald. You’re receding at the front alright but it could stay like that for the next fifty years.” So basically I have to go bald first before I can get a wig. Isn’t that kind of like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted? “Your lady friends will notice, yes” he concedes. “But I guarantee you if it looks good, they won’t mind.” I can’t help noticing that Alan’s thick, white hair is definitely his own. Bastard.
With his repeated assertion that I’m not necessarily going bald ringing in my ears, I stand up to leave his office feeling like I’m walking on air. Visiting Alan and his Monica was like visiting two much loved older relatives and I’m half expecting one of them to slip me a twenty pound note on the way out. “You keep an eye on his hair and if he does start to go bald send him back to us” Monica tells the photographer accompanying me. “I assume you’re his girlfriend, are you?” “Er, no” she replies. “I’m his sister.”
Monica doesn’t bat an eyelid but, as we make our way back out to the street I know she must be thinking we’re the strangest customers they’ve ever had.
Verdict: Not keen on the rugs but if they invited me back for tea and fancy cakes I’d be round like a shot
Deciding to wear a hat all the time (even indoors) is a fairly drastic step for anyone to take. But, as those who’ve managed to pull it off this manoeuvre can attest, it really does the job. It’s cheap, straightforward and – if you find the right hat – you’ve got yourself an instant trademark. Constant hat wearing though can have its drawbacks, especially if you don’t work in show business. So just how viable is the hat option if your job is in, let’s say, an office? I spoke to Anne Marie, a HR Consultant who works in the Financial Services sector.
What would happen if I reported for work in your company wearing a hat?
There nothing specifically about headgear in our dress code here. I don’t think it’s an issue that’s ever come up to be honest. What kind of a hat specifically are you talking about?
Anything. A Stetson, say.
Well we’ve definitely never had anyone turn up wearing a Stetson, I can tell you that! Would there be a problem if someone did? I suppose it would depend on their line manager really. Certainly if you were to be meeting with clients you might be taken aside beforehand and asked to take it off.
What if I refused and pointed out that there was nothing in the dress code to stop me.
Er… And why do you want to wear the hat?
Because I like it. I think it looks cool…
Would it count against me if I was up for promotion against someone else who didn’t wear a hat?
(laughs) Yes, it probably would.
So wearing a hat all the time might not be good for my career.
Verdict: Very, very tempting
A young acquaintance who knows I’m doing this piece emails asking “what about those crusty types you see here in galway with the massive stirpey [sic] jumpers, a lot of them are bald on top but still hve long dreads??”
Well dear, those people are called hippies. We have nothing to learn from them. In fact, many of them have fleas. So stay well clear.
Surprisingly, the clinic that originally put up the ‘Why Go Bald’ sign forty three years ago is still in business at the same premises. And while slaphead science has moved on a bit in the intervening years – the clinic now specialises in hair replacement surgery – their marketing strategies haven’t changed that much. Their leaflet asks:
“Why do people still go bald? Put simply – scepticism or ignorance of the facts. They have been told by so many people so many times, that nothing can be done about baldness that they accept it, or give in to it. Or, perhaps they do not know of the clinics [sic] existence… If you need advice about your hair you must do something about it now. Possibly you have thought about doing something about it before this, yet have let it slide. THIS TIME YOU MUST ACT.”
Reading that I get the uncomfortable feeling you get when someone’s trying to induct you into a religious cult or left-wing political party. And the prices involved (not advertised) are as outrageous as the leaflet’s syntax: Surgery starts at around €4,000 – with advanced treatments running to much more than that.
Not that the money is the problem for me. Believe me, I’m good for it. Oh yeah. It’s more that blowing cash on meaningless things like hair implants or forty-story vanity skyscrapers or suing someone over a pair of pants is anathema to me. Of course, I don’t want to sound preachy or anything – I’m just being true to my fervently held religious beliefs and using the platform afforded to me to tell everyone else how to live their lives.
Verdict: Only messing. Too expensive
We’re not going to waste any time on this one. I’ve done some reading and it turns out monks shave bald spots into the backs of their heads (or at least they used to) for the same reason they wore sandals, donned unflattering brown robes and lived in shabby accommodation. It was all intended to help to them in the observation of their many vows. The monk look, in other words, is basically a celibacy aid. Which isn’t exactly what I’m looking for.
Verdict: I’m not even going to dignify it with one
SHAVING IT ALL OFF
Celebrity endorsements: Bruce Willis, Billy Zane, Mussolini
Pros: If it’s good enough for Il Duce…
Cons: Ah, to hell with this
“We do a wide range of nourishing shampoos and conditioners here” says Stuart from The Trinity Barbers in Drury Street. “So the first thing guys would usually do when they notice that they’re beginning to go thin on top is to have a go with them. But if that doesn’t work then, yeah, they’ll – whish – get it all off.”
Shaving off all of one’s hair really appeals to a certain aspect of the male psyche. Medieval warriors and football hooligan used to shave their heads so their opponents couldn’t grab their hair in a fight and, until about ten years ago, having a shaved head was a sure sign that you were a hard bastard if not a fully fledged psychopath. The problem now though is that so many IT managers and recruitment consultants have adopted the style, its impact as a badge of toughness has been completely diminished. Also, in my experience, if a style has been in fashion long enough that even I’ve picked up on it, then its days in vogue are probably numbered.
Despite these reservations, the lack of any better ideas means and the advice of 99.99% of the people I’ve spoken to on this subject means the number one cut still looks to be in poll position as I’m leaving Trinity Barbers. But before I go I have one more question. “You don’t think there’s any chance the combover might make a comeback, do you Stuart?” “No way” he replies. “Definitely no way!”
Verdict: Close but no cigar
Celebrity exponents: Bobby Charlton and, er…
Pro: It looks like you’ve still got a fine head of hair
Con: NO, IT DOESN’T!!
On the face of it, there would seem to be no way back for this much derided hairstyle. But couldn’t it yet turn out that, for the combover, the darkest hour came right before the dawn? Think about it: It’s a design classic. It’s retro. And its got je ne sais quoi coming out its ears. Stranger things have certainly happened. If it does make a comeback then Combover King Barry Butler – the Mayo accountant who has stuck with this haircut through a quarter century and counting – will surely become a style icon to a new generation. Speaking on the phone from his home in Ballyhaunis, this unlikely trend setter reminisced about his life and times.
When did you first start experimenting with the combover style?
Sure, I’ve always had it like that – it’s the natural way to brush your hair. Left to right. Maybe you have some people who brush it right to left, like you have some people who are gay. But most people brush left to right. Sorry? No, no, I’m not bald. Are there people who are bald and don’t realise it? Maybe, but I’m not bald. I have hair.
Who were your influences (hair-wise) back in the day?
[mulls it over] My influences, my influences… Bobby Charlton? No, not him. I can’t think of his name now. Hold on your mother might remember… [pause] No, it’ll come back to me.
After all these years of being shunned by the fashion community, the combover now looks set to make a dramatic comeback. Do you feel vindicated at all?
I’ll remain equally oblivious I think.
If you do emerge as a figurehead for the burgeoning combover revivalist movement (as looks likely) will you be expecting your followers to try and emulate what you’ve done, or will you be urging them to forge their own paths and write their own combover histories?
[blatantly not even caring] Well, the latter I suppose. But sure you know primitive man was completely covered in hair. So baldness is just another evolutionary step towards the final state.
Meaning complete hairlessness?
Verdict: Enough said. We have a winner.