Although typically  associated with  blue-haired ladies  and  mullet-wearing hair bands of the  1970s  and  1980s,  perms  have been  a fashion trend that  has helped to  define  the  20th-century beauty  industry. Perming hair  is a process that  has made  use of thermal and/or chemical combinations to alter the  hair  texture and to  make  it either  curly  or  straight until  regrowth. In African  American beauty culture, straightening or relaxing  curls is commonly referred to as a perm,  but the vernacular is most  notably associated with the beauty  practices of Euro-American women and  men  with naturally straight hair looking for curly tresses. Everything from  chicken bones to  orange juice  cans  have  been  used  to  make  curls,  but  a perm  meant it didn’t  wash  out.  Over  the  past  century, technology has  helped to simplify  processes, making perms  more  palatable to hairdressers and  their  clientele,  but  the  popularity of curls  also speaks  to complex racial stereotypes. For centuries, racial  identities have  been  based  not  only  on  skin  color  but  also  on hair texture. Distinctions based  on hair type have provided the basis for lingering caricatures that  defined  black  hair  as kinky  and  coarse. In contrast, straight hair has  long  been  a demarcation of Eurocentric notions of beauty, refinement, and conservativeness. Consciously or not,  whites  who curled  their  hair  have engaged in a kind of racial cross-dressing in popular imagination that has intimately linked curls  and kinks  with sensuality and uncontrollability.

Technology And Its Problems

In 1906  German inventor Charles Nessler patented the  original  electric  permanent wave machine, which  hung like  a chandelier attached to  heavy  rods  and weights  designed to protect the  scalp  as the  right  current and  chemical combinations were  used  to  transform straight hair  into  ringlets. Although it initially took  nearly  half a day to achieve  the  new look  and  at times  burned the  skin  and singed  the  hair,  the  odd-looking contraption became a mainstay of beauty  shop services  thanks to celebrity  endorsements, free demonstrations, and  the  persuasive skills of countless numbers of beauty  operators who  eventually won  over a loyal female  clientele. More  so  than bobbing hair,  permanents encouraged the growth of beauty  shops in the  1920s  and  ’30s as a distinct female  social  space that  aided  hairdressers looking to distinguish themselves and  their  professional identity from  barbers. Still, there  were problems with the  contraption. Not  every perm  came  out  the  same.  Some  looked  like haystacks; others were  simply  too fuzzy. Since  it was unbearably hot,  many  beauty  shops found perms  to be profitable only in the cooler months. Folklore has it that the occasional customer would faint from the heat and weight of the contraption and at least one tragic death was recalled  when  a not-so-quick-witted beauty  operator electrocuted her  customer when  she tried to revive her by dousing the customer with water. More  mundane problems could  simply be solved by using  the right  amount of towels  to support a woman’s neck and supplying her with magazines and conversations to keep her occupied until  the process was complete.

Changing Styles

The  first wave of popularity for the  perm  came  at the  height of Jim Crow  segregation. Flappers in the  1920s,  who  smoked cigarettes and  shortened their  skirts, famously challenged gender and  racial boundaries by bobbing and  frizzing their hair as they transgressed prescribed limits of proper femininity. At the same time, perms  helped to define  a new traditional female  space—the beauty  shop, a place distinct from  the world  of barbershops and  a rough masculine milieu.  Even during the  Great  Depression and  World  War  II, beauty  shop  profits  owed  much to the  permanent waves they  offered—Shirley Temple curls  were sometimes given in exchange for bartered goods  and  services.  In an effort to maximize  profits  and minimize absentees, some  war industries offered  their  employees free perms  for their  exemplary service. The  1950s,  however, ushered in something new: a cold wave-perm process with chemical solutions that could be sold in drug and grocery stores. Toni and  Lilt home perms  were popular with  do-it-yourselfers; however, salons  suffered  a little in the  following  decades because too  many  of the  housewives with children underfoot could  not attempt the process without interruption and  were unable to keep up with the latest  trends, sending many  women back to their  hairdressers. The  1960s and ’70s witnessed the rise of a range of styles, from precision Vidal Sassoon cuts  to the natural look, epitomized by straight, seemingly unprocessed hair  and  the  iconic  Afro.  Men  and  women would  achieve  a similar look with perms  that drove profits well into the 1980s, long after the Afro’s political implications had faded. The  1980s boasted designer jeans, shoulder pads, and  big hair  that  was often  permed to achieve  the  desired volume. Perms  once again  may make  a comeback for a younger generation looking for another walk on the wild side.

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