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.
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.