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In 2010, the Sony Corporation sold more than $70 million worth of eight-track cassette players, horse and buggy sales topped $70 million at General Motors, and Hair Club generated more than $70 million by peddling tiny patches of human hair to bald men. Preposterous, you say? Well, sure, especially that last one. But of course only the last one is that true. The Hair Club chain is now owned and operated by the Regis Corporation, and according to the Regis Corporation’s 2010 annual report, Hair Club generated $141 million in revenue in 2010, half of which came from its hair replacement service. Technologies come and go, and yet in the age of Rogaine, Propecia, and increasingly sophisticated hair transplant techniques, the old-fashioned toupee — employing the same basic technology it has for the last 5,000 years — remains a solid seller.


Oh, sure, refinements have been made to what those in the business prefer to call “hair replacement systems.” But the general components involved, and the process by which they’re turned into a simulated head of hair, have evolved little over the millennia. In 1954, Life magazine showed how a toupee maker fashions a base by tracing a client’s bald spot with a heavy black marker then making a pattern based on that outline via a sheet of wet paper. In 2008, Michigan Baldy demonstrated essentially the same process on YouTube.

After a pattern of the bald spot has been obtained, a few simple steps follow. First, you use the pattern to create a base out of Swiss lace or some other fine, porous material, then you sew strands of real or synthetic hair into the basis. Finally, the base is secured to the client’s scalp. In some cases, adhesives or double-sided tape is used. In others, hair from the toupee is woven together with hair still growing on the client’s head. The ancient Egyptian toupee unearthed from a tomb in Hierakanpolis in 2001 used the latter approach. “Around the edges on the underside [of the toupee] were darker, straighter strands of hair, apparently human, with bits of scalp adhering,” an archaeological newsletter reports. “These strands, it would seem, served to secure the animal hair to the head.”

But if the toupee is a relatively simple technology, it’s also an time-consuming one. While toupees are commonly called rugs, they’re more like lawns, requiring vigilant tending to maintain their verdant appearance. A 1926 article in the New York Times entitled “Modern Men Also Aspire to Beauty” reports that “a toupee costs $25 and last less than a year.” In the mid-1950s, anyone who bought one of the “career-winning toupees” for sale in the Sears, Roebuck catalog did so with the knowledge that he would have to return it to Sears every month or so for dry-cleaning. Frank Sinatra is said to have employed a man solely to care for his more than 100 hair pieces, and when Burt Reynolds filed for bankruptcy in 1996, he owed Edward Katz Hair Design $121,796.62.

It’s easy to understand why a balding pharaoh in ancient Egypt  — worrying about his career possibilities, doubting his touch with the ladies, feeling old before his time — might rope his hair to a swatch of sheep hide. Minoxidal didn’t exist yet. Surgeons were already performing brain surgeries, but excising a single hair and replanting it elsewhere on the scalp in a way that looks natural is a far more delicate art than brain surgery. A balding pharaoh had no option but go bald or wear a toupee.

Today’s men have more choices — choices that are more technologically advanced — and yet significant numbers of them still choose toupees. One reason is economics. A low-end toupee can be had for a few hundred dollars, while a hair transplant costs at least a few thousand. But high-end toupees cost can easily cost that much, too — an Edward Katz hair piece goes for as much as $3500 per unit, with a minimum order of two units required — plus they require ongoing maintenance and have finite lifespans. A cheap toupee may need replacing after just a few months. Even the best ones tend to last just a few years or so.

Ironically, it may actually be their impermanence that makes toupees attractive. In general, toupee makers have always tried to stress the steadfastness of their products. In 1949, Louis Feder, who started making toupees in Manhattan in 1914, told the New York Times that his “hurricane-resisting hairpiece” would stay on “in high winds and when swimming” and could be “worn for weeks without removal.” In the 1970s, some hair piece innovators began securing toupees onto their customers’ scalps via Teflon-coated sutures. The purveyors of a system called Medi-Hair advertised the strength of their product via a photograph that depicted a client hanging upside in the air with a 12-pound weight dangling from his toupee. In his the informative and entertaining book Hair! Mankind’s Enduring Quest to End Baldness, Gersh Kuntzman reports that some toupee artisans harvested flesh from their clients’ abdomens and sewed it to their heads, thus fashioning a kind of “belt loop” to which they would then affix the hairpiece.

But what truly distinguishes the toupee from competing hair restoration solutions — and perhaps more important, what makes it feel so timely — is its improvisational nature. Hair restoration medications might not work, but even worse, they might work — in ways you don’t want them to. Propecia, for example, may cause irreversible sexual dysfunction or make you grow breasts. Hair transplants may be the most economical and trouble-free solution in the long run, but what if your surgeon’s having a bad day, or even a bad few minutes, and you wind up with doll hair for life?

A toupee presents no such risks. Try a dark one, try a wavy one, see what works. If you don’t like the results, the solvent is your Delete key. Before there were AOL chat rooms, it was toupees alone that could instantly transform an anxious, aging bald man into a dynamic go-getter taking life hard to the hoop. Toupees were an early foray into virtuality. They made the case that biology need not be destiny, that identity could be both mutable and retrievable, as easy to create and delete as a pseudonymous email address. They are undoubtedly the most contemporary 5,000-year-old invention on the planet. • 21 April 2011