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Silver Threads: Comb-over culture

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

A comb-over catastrophe is embarrassing — for the onlookers as well as the unfortunate man whose coiffure has collapsed.

One of the single, middle-aged guys in our group of Orleanians traveling in Italy had a wide swath of combed over hair that began an inch or so above the top of one ear and traveled across his head to just above the other. The weather was cold and a bit windy, so he anchored the ‘do with a cloth cap.

When he took it off for a walk through a famous church and then stepped back outside, he didn’t replace the cap fast enough. The comb-over was blown to the originating ear and hung to his shoulder in a long, thin curtain ’til he glimpsed himself in a store window. (I mentioned that he was single; there had been no vigilant wife at the ready to nudge him in the ribs.)

I got to thinking about that the other day when I saw the movie “American Hustle,” in which actor Christian Bale engineers an elaborate comb-over that’s a hoot. I’ll remember it long after the rest of the action in “Hustle” has become a blur; the structure atop his head made Donald Trump‘s famous flip-over seem casual and uncontrived.

A mere comb-over accident wouldn’t have embarrassed at least one of my husband’s old high school friends. Walking down Canal Street one day in opposite directions, the two of them stopped to chat, and his friend surprised him by raising a toupee high in the air, and saying laughingly, “Look, Anding; new hair!”

Guys used to start worrying about going bald when they were old enough to take critical looks at their fathers and grandfathers, whose heads are sure predictors of what the future holds. My husband says that when he was a young teen he found a photo of his father with a full head of thick, dark hair and had to ask his mother who “that man” was.

But many of the baldies of today have forsworn comb-overs or toupees, not even retaining their “fringes“ as my father-in-law and his contemporaries did. They choose instead just to buzz everything off. Call it “Beyond the Fringe,“ after a famous British stage revue performed in London and on Broadway in the ‘60s that had nothing to do with hair.

In retrospect, though, that’s the headline I should have given the story on the baldness trend that appeared in the T-P’s Living section almost 20 years ago, before the ascent of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and even former Mayor Ray Nagin. Has bald become beautiful that long since?

On the other hand — or head — and despite the example of Sigourney Weaver in the 1986 “Aliens” movie, today older women are growing and keeping more and more hair. Historically, those who lived in the west wore theirs long, and when they left the schoolroom or married, put it up. The “bob” was introduced in about 1915, and by the ‘20s was pretty much a standard hairstyle, and shorter versions followed.

Fast forward to Jennifer Anniston and other actresses whose long, lank locks set the current trend for ladies in their 50s, 60s and sometimes 70s to let their crowning glories flow down their backs.

“Is a puzzlement!“ said famous baldie Yul Brenner in the movie “The King and I.” He wasn’t talking about the fashions embraced by humans, or differences between the genders, but he might as well have been.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her


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