This weekend, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that seven of this year’s movies had made the shortlist for the makeup and hairstyling Oscars category: American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, The Great Gatsby, Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger. Movie fans who have seen the contenders may have noticed that at least one of these films is part of a long-running cinematic tradition: the bad toupee.
American Hustle, which opened in select theaters this weekend and goes wide on Friday, features many noteworthy ’70s-era coifs — Bradley Cooper’s manufactured curls, Jennifer Lawrence’s updo wig, Amy Adams’ crimping — but it is Christian Bale’s hair that gets the star treatment, with its own getting-ready scene and specific mentions in dialogue.
In an interview with New York magazine’s The Cut, the film’s hair-department head, Katherine Gordon, says that Bale’s hair was “all of his real hair, except for a small hair strip we used once in a while” — but what a hair strip it was! As Gordon points out, elaborate comb-overs and glue-on, volume-creating hair strips aren’t exactly en vogue in men’s fashion at the moment (“In today’s world, the only comb-over is Donald Trump,” she says), but they have a history that’s almost as elaborate as the process of creating the style in question. And, though all of the Oscar shortlisted films contain hair and makeup worthy of note, Bale’s hairpiece deserves a deeper look. After all, its history is not just a matter of fad but a question of supply-and-demand curves, the free market, scientific innovation and the very definition of what it means to be a man.
Toupees have been around pretty much forever. Even Julius Caesar is said to have worn a galericulum. But, as Gersh Kuntzman explains in his book Hair!: Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness, the toupee — a small wig, attached temporarily or semi-permanently to the top of the head, a category into which the American Hustle falls even though Gordon has said she wouldn’t classify it as a toupee — came into its own in the 1970s. Big hair was in style, and men who didn’t have the goods naturally had to find a way to get around their lack.
Even then, there was some shame in the toupee, perhaps a hold-over from the 1950s belief, as explicated in Lynne Luciano’s Looking Good: Male Body Image in Modern America, that a man who spent too much time on his hair was somehow morally deficient; toupee technology was not advanced enough to allow the wearer to effectively hide the fact of what he was hearing or to eliminate the fear that the hairpiece would fall off. But, despite the toupee stigma, studies showed that being bald could hurt a man’s persona even more, especially at work. Luciano estimates that 350,000 Americans wore toupees by 1960, and quality had improved slightly. As of 1970, TIME put the number of wearers at 2.5 million. The reign of the toupee gave rise to the hairpiece’s own cinematic trope, mostly involving toupees that won’t stay put. From Laurel and Hardy to Seinfeld, a toupee falling off could provoke instant laughs. In 2000, toupees provided the whole plot for the movie An Everlasting Piece.
Eventually, weaves and hair transplants grew in popularity, but the toupee never totally went away. Instead, competition and innovation helped them, quite literally, blend in. So the reason they’re less noticeable today is not that nobody’s wearing toupees — it’s that the toupees got better. That meant better fit, better hair, better adhesion, higher prices — and the death of the actual word “toupee.” (Today’s wearers prefer “hairpiece.”) Rather than lose their negative connotation, toupees disappeared even more fully into the shadows of styling shame, seeming to become more absurd even as they actually became less so.
So, though such hairpieces are now best known as the banana peels of headgear, the award-contending toupee scene in American Hustle can be seen as something other than just one of the movie’s comedic moments. Bale’s hair may symbolize a crisis of male vanity, a lack of better options and a desperate desire to fit in. It’s also an artifact that, all joking aside, does as much as the clothes and cars to set the movie in a very specific historical moment, the exact moment in time at which a toupee was probably least funny. And it’s not just the “hair strip” that represents the 1970s: though a comb-over may seem like an idea anyone could have, the style was actually patented in 1977.
(MORE: Top 10 Bald Movie Villains)