Back in the days before mousse, gel, and hairspray, men had a different set of choices in terms of their grooming. Hair was cut to be styled with one of three products, namely brilliantine, hair oil, or pomade.
They're all variations on a theme, and though brilliantine such as Brylcreem (in the UK) and Consort (in the US) have been good sellers and are still available in your local drug store, and hair oil such as Vitalis is similarly as everpresent as Old Spice, pomades fell out of fashion until the rockabilly revival revived it. I'm talking about for whitefolks here, because Murray's has been a staple in its distinctive orange can in the euphemistically labelled "ethnic hair" aisle.
What it is is some variant of a paste-like petrochemical byproduct, ranging in consistency from thinned-out Vaseline to almost candle wax. The classic 1940's screen look of a man with slicked back, shiny hair or the 1950s greaser motif owe its looks to some variant of pomade hair dressing.
It's generally more used by people whose hair is naturally darker and thicker - people of mediterranean or Latino descent, as it works its way into the hair and "sticks" it together for a slickback or pompadour styling. Europeans with lighter, thinner hair follicles tend to find it weighs the hair down and makes it "soupy" - but for purists, using gel or hairspray in order to get ready for the show would be akin to showing up to a punk show with a fauxhawk.
The general rule of thumb is, the "lighter" the pomade (thinner, slipperier), the "shinier" it is, but the less hold it gives. Flat-top wax (if you ever wondered how J. Jonah Jameson got that hair of his to stand up at military attention all these years) is almost matte when put in hair, but is almost literally candle wax and tricky to even apply. To get your hair tall requires a thicker pomade, but that kills the shine. So when you see a guy with a tall, shiny pomp - he probably has a "base" of one kind of pomade, and a "topper" of a lighter one smoothed just on the hair surface.
Applying pomade is an art form. If it's Royal Crown or Nu-Nile or some other thinner pomade, it's typically scooped out with a finger, rubbed into the palms of the hands and combed through with the fingers, evened out with a comb. If you have Murray's or American Greaser Supply 50wt, you can either use the African American trick of putting the metal can on the stove long enough to soften the contents, or run a hair dryer over the surface to heat it, or in a pinch scoop some out as best you can with a finger and rub it vigorously between your palms until your hands are blazing hot and the pomade melts between them.
The truth of the matter is, you don't have to be a greaser, rockabilly or person of color to use pomade: Leonardo DiCaprio's signature and decades-worn haircut is styled with a few cents' worth of Murray's original.
Your mileage may vary in terms of how a given pomade can work on your hair, so you will probably engage in a voyage of discovery in terms of buying brightly-colored can after ornately-styled can. Pompadour'd skulls, tatttoo ships and retro clip art of 50's men (there really is a Dapper Dan now, thanks to a company in England) will adorn your shelves as you try out new contender after new contender. And experimentation will most certainly have to continue, because that great look you got in your bathroom might fade quickly or unravel quickly in the hot California sun with product A, or stand up like a champ with product B. Or you might prefer the "clean" scent of a given pomade over the cola scent of another, over the vanilla or slightly floral bouquet. There's even folks who start out with a Layrite which has a vanilla scent, "topping" with Mr. Ducktail's, which was designed by a legendary barber in London but is a French product with a delicious cola smell, ending up with a "vanilla coke" scent.
Which leads us to one of three potential downsides:
- you think you're going bald - the average man loses about a hundred hairs a day, normally unknowingly. However, with all the hairs trapped in with wax, they come out like a shedding cat with a comb. This has led to the wives' tale that pomades make you bald. If you really are concerned, there are some new-school products made with beeswax like Bee's Knees that combine the gentle honey scent of real beeswax with lanolin, avoiding petrochemical product altogether.
- you can't get this out of your hair - Don't Panic, we'll cover this in the next section
- Exxon has set up drilling rights on your pillowcases - no worries, just buy cheap ones and rotate em regularly
Alright, so you're using pomade and have a nice, soft, silky, easily styled hairdo that isn't rock-hard in place with hairspray or gel. The following morning, you wake up looking like Sid Vicious had a fight with a weed whacker, and you want to return your hair to its normal state. Most people who use pomades don't care that much, they just soften it all under a hot shower without shampoo and restyle, adding a touch more product. (You tend to wash your hair less often with this mode of hair styling). But suppose you're a weekender who went to that "Grease" theme party as John Travolta, applied way too much, and now cannot get it out.
Because you'll shower, and shampoo, and notice it's still there. You'll shampoo again, and find it's still there. And panic.
Relax. There are a few folk remedies for this: the most obvious being going to your kitchen, getting some dish soap, mixing in baking soda, and applying it to your hair dry, before getting in the shower and lathering it there. If you are leery about doing this, you can always comb oil through your hair first to dissolve it, using olive oil, Vitalis or even peanut butter. There are dedicated shampoos to rid you of pomade, Lucky 13's Royal Flush comes to mind but as of May 2015 it is backordered to December 2015. The German crew that make Rumble 59 have Schmiere-Ex, a lemon scented shampoo in a neat metal can that is like an atomic bomb. Slightly cheaper is Atomic Pomade Shampoo, which is basically repurposed dish soap and baking soda. In a pinch, you can comb Groom and Clean (in the US) through your hair, and whatever is in that will make pomade washable.
Because of these concerns, and barbers like Hawleywood hating dealing with cutting hair on greaser types with a few weeks' worth of pomade in the hair, a new breed of pomades have been developed using water-based ingredients making them easily wash out with water. Steadfast, Layrite and Suavecito were excellent brands, as was a Mexican product once available in any Wal-Mart and now discontinued called "Monkey Brains". The Japanese have lines of expensive water based greases but apparently are second to none.
There's even lines of pomades for the ladies, designed to give them that nice sheen and help in styling. They're usually a much lighter weight. Unfortunately they tend to the same kind of double entendres as some male versions - for example the distaff version of Cock Grease (goes in hard, comes out soft, etc) is called "Beaver Cream". (Makes your beaver wet and shiny, get it?)
A troll through various online pomade shops will reveal a myriad of options, from the standard beauty/supply store Murray's and Dax to artisanal hipster versions, to punk and rockabilly themed ones. Light ones, thick ones, whisky scent, rum scent, tobacco scent, it's all there. If you're fond of having your hair groomed artfully in place, having that vanguard or low pomp looking just so, give some a shot. But caveat emptor, it can be addictive.