The identification of a comb-over by its practitioner is one of the thorniest issues in coiffure studies. This chapter will address the two main components of this procedure: understanding the definition of a comb-over and applying this definition to one’s praxis.
The word “comb-over” suggests the most basic aspect of this cranial adornment: a strand or, usually, multiple strands of hair must be arranged so that they lie over otherwise bare scalp. Combing is generally not necessary or even advisable to achieve this effect. (See Chapter 2: Effectuation.)
Much more controversial is the question of how much and what part of the scalp must be covered for the design to merit the designation of comb-over. Some promising proposals have failed to account for the variety of phenomena generally agreed upon to constitute the universe of comb-overs. We will discuss three proposed definitions in this section:
Directional: Early theoreticians argued that any strand covering otherwise bare scalp was a comb-over, as long as the hair extended from the follicle toward the crown of the head, rather than downward, as might be seen in a medieval monk’s coif. This is known as the directional approach. However, it did not take long for experimentalists to determine that stretches of scalp intervene between all hair follicles, making every hair-do a comb-over by this definition.
Relational: In the 1970s, a relational criterion became popular among researchers. They accepted the precepts of the earlier definition but wanted to answer the criticism outlined above. From this perspective, the key factor was the ratio of the length of a strand of hair to the length of the part of that strand that covered a single, continuous stretch of otherwise bare scalp. While a lively debate emerged over the precise ratio that minimally would correspond to a comb-over, and how to handle idiosyncratic phenomena such as ‘sky-island flyovers,’ the inevitable historical alteration of hairstyles ultimately reduced the applicability of this definition. That is, with increasingly short haircuts and a newly developed desire to use hair-fixing gel, young men, with heads covered in active follicles, plastered diminutive hairs in multiple ways, often barely reaching the next follicle in the desired direction, if at all. Clearly, these were not comb-overs, despite the reigning approach to categorization among academics.
Pragmatic: In this volume, we acknowledge that the universal, objective definition of a comb-over has yet to be created. We take, then, an approach that has been called pragmatic. From this perspective, a comb-over consists of hair that has been arranged, in any direction, such that it covers a patch of otherwise hairless scalp that is sufficiently large for its bearer or other observers to consider it to be bald. As we will discuss in Chapter 4, this definition recognizes a sociohistorical dimension to identifying a comb-over. Yet it does not require that the comb-overer recognize that he or she is engaged in this practice.
We will apply this pragmatic definition throughout the text, starting in the next section, on identifying a comb-over.