Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dry Up!

Nineteen seventy was an epochal year for bad trends. Why this should be so has never been adequately explained. Nineteen seventy was so eager to break with 1969 that it completely separated from that landmass and floated away, high on aerosol from a can of Gillette Dry Look for Men.

The Dry Look, in case you weren't born yet or had a father who was a macramé-knotting hippie, was an attempt to fluff men's hair out of the wet look. This makes sense, they are perfectly oppositional objectives. Men had been sporting the wet look for years; it used to be achieved with something called brilliantine and historically was best viewed on racetrack touts and Clark Gable. Brilliantine is still used in Mexico and in a musical genre known as rockabilly. There is more of a connection between German polka music and Mexican norteño than there is between norteño and the Stray Cats, so there is absolutely no correlation between these two cultures' use of floral hair tonic. Brilliantine was a slick product that gave the user a sinister, menacing appearance and appeared to best effect on cheaply dyed black hair. Cads, pimps, and any character played by Mickey Rourke all favored brilliantine.

You could also achieve the wet look by means of a hair goo called Brylcreem, which came on the market in 1928 and had a far less threatening aspect. Brylcreem was a hair dressing, distinguishing it from the malefic brilliantine and making it safe for bathroom cabinets nationwide, where it would share space with Obtundia and Bactine. Men who worked at NASA used Brylcreem. Richard Nixon used Brylcreem. If you couldn't trust a man who used Brylcreem, then you were probably a closet Communist with a subversive agenda.

Both Brylcreem and brilliantine were invented because--unless serving Uncle Sam with a buzz cut--men needed some way to command their hair. Men were masters of many things--kingdoms, boardrooms, Colonial starter homes--and too smart to be done in by a badly behaved cowlick. Flyaway hair could do more than destroy a promising career. Women were suspicious of messy hair, finding it to signal mental weakness and probably the type of chronic alcoholism found in the more neurotic stories of John Cheever. A man with unkempt hair had an unkempt wallet and probably drank rum extract on his lunch hour.

The problem could have been resolved by using hair spray, but hair spray for men sounded less than manly and in any event was something used by the hustlers who hung around the men's room at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan.

With all of these expectations to keep hair short and controlled, men did not get the chance to try their hands at other, more exciting hairstyles. One look at a Scandinavian blue movie would tell them, however, that the men of Europe wore their hair longer and fluffier and that women--blonde Swedish women--responded with enthusiasm.

Thus was born the Dry Look, the first men's hair spray and a product of good old reputable Gillette, the Boston-based safety razor manufacturer. Gillette razors spared many a bloody nick and their integrity in the men's grooming business was unimpeachable. If Gillette said it was okay to tease and puff around the ears, then why, to quote Tennessee Williams, hang back with the brutes?

In 1970, the Dry Look revolutionized men's hair styles. Men who had been afraid to grow their hair over their ears lest they be branded a counterrevolutionary could spray with abandon and not only be found outstanding models of their sex, but also be deemed outstandingly sexy.

This is where Burt Reynolds comes in. We love Burt, he posed nude in Playgirl with a droopy cigar stuck between his choppers and a lascivious grin behind that. Burt Reynolds had more hair on his body than he did on his head, which is why Burt Reynolds was the walking embodiment of what the Dry Look could do for a man. Women loved Burt Reynolds, more than they loved the bonhomous George Hamilton, who always seemed as if he might be a wee bit slimy. Whereas Hamilton was a member of the global jet set, Reynolds was a down-home boy with a not-insignificant whiff of cracker wafting through a corona of cigar smoke.

If Burt Reynolds could wear the Dry Look and be more of a stud than ever, then what was stopping the rest of America from enjoying this unfamiliar territory? Soon, thin hair that had been subjected to tell-tale comb-over rose from the scalp like spun sugar. Those with thicker locks puffed until the hair became a resplendent nimbus; Donny Osmond perfected his until it looked like a thunderhead.

Gillette's success in revolutionizing men's hair styles opened the door for more galling products, like chest-hair toupees and that spidery paint you spray on a bald spot to make it appear as if it is alive and growing. So perhaps the Dry Look wasn't the worst thing about the 1970s--that was Ron Popeil and his Chop-O-Matic--but it lasted throughout the decade without a trace of self-mockery or any other sort of mea culpa. Needless to say, the most hapless hair was always the happiest.


K.Line said...

I laughed out loud while reading this. The thought of Donny Osmond, and Swedish porn from the 70s and Burt Reynolds' pic (aka American porn from the 70s)... Love this piece, Suzanna. K

Tessa Pugh said...

Love this post. Didn't George Clooney's character in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" have a slavish attachment to his special brand of hair goo?

Thomas said...

He was a Dapper Dan man, which precipitated one of the funniest lines in modern cinema:

"Well isn't this place a geographical oddity - two weeks from everywhere!"

That picture is ruining me, but you have perfectly captured what a conundrum most men face when thinking about hair styling products. Let's face it - most of us are horribly, horribly lost.

lady coveted said...

oh my... this picture reminds me of the wrestling scene in borat!


but yeah, the dry look, i always thought it was more of an influence of the hippie, freedom movement, it doesn't make it right.... but yeah, the 70's... full of questionable and beautiful snippets.

diamondcanopy said...

Hehe, I was quite horrified to see that picture right at the top! Love thi post :)

susie_bubble said...

Quite a few these days are still sporting the dry look... oh dear...

Anonymous said...

Gillette is responsible for more horrid things than I had previously thought...


Bobble Bee said...

haha :D
well, if truth is told, i miss hairy men, that is.

Lynn & Horst said...

that pic is so hot, hehe