Woman wired up for a perm

25th May 2001 at 01:00
(Photograph) - Photograph by Owen Franken

One must suffer to be beautiful ("Il faut souffrir pour etre belle"), declared an anonymous French writer in the 19th century, voicing a truth which resounds down the ages. Since Karl Nessler demonstrated the first permanent wave in London on October 8, 1906, millions of women - and not a few men - have submitted to an electro-chemical process which uses an extreme alkaline solution to strip the hair of its enveloping cuticle, break the bonds which give it its shape, and reform it around metal rods. It's always been a process fraught with danger. Yet for most the allure of the prize - that of cheating nature and emerging with completely different hair - transcends the risks.

Today, having a perm is fairly routine, if expensive and surprisingly smelly. The crucial ingredient is the neutraliser, which must be applied at the right time to prevent the hair dissolving.

In 1906, having your hair coated in borax or ammonia, wrapped around heat-conducting metal rollers and hooked up to wires in the ceiling for eight hours, at a cost of several hundred pounds, seemed preferable to suffering structures of wires, horse-hair pads and hairpins to hold "fronts" of false curls in place.

By the 1920s, perms were commonplace, though still expensive. Hair was shorter and curls and waves were womanly; straight hair was drab and dull. A cut and wave could take five hours and leave you feeling hot and sore. By the 1960s, curly hair was frumpy and dowdy, and long, shiny hair was cool and swinging. In desperation, curly-haired women permed it straight or ironed it with their clothes-pressing iron. Hair, a dead outgrowh from living follicles deep within the skin, is tough stuff to alter.

Perhaps its very abundance has encouraged human beings to play with it. Minoans in ancient Crete oiled and curled their tresses; Biblical sages urged women not to mess with their "crowning glory", but rather to hide it lest it incite men's lust - which suggests that Israelite women spent a lot of time at the water pump trying out new styles.

For these women in Kunming, China, naturally possessors of long, straight hair, the waving process in the 1980s had not significantly advanced from Nessler's contraption. This girl's expression suggests that heat and discomfort remain a real danger, adding menace to the well-worn phrase, having a bad hair day.

Meanwhile, with 73,000 web pages listed on Yahoo! for haircare, and a market estimated at billions of pounds worldwide, hair design remains a top means of self-expression. From shampoos and conditioners to extensions, braidings, weavings, colours and dyes and on to wigs, having your hair done is seen as essential, morale-boosting grooming. Cancer patients who lose their hair are thought to have lost an essential part of their self-respect, so much so that an American charity, Locks of Love, exists to provide child sufferers with hairpieces.

Victoria Neumark Weblinks

Hair care and choosing hair styles: http:www.virtualhaircare.com VirtualSalonframe_vs.html History of hairdos: herald.wmich.edu1999jan281322.html FAQs on permanent waves: www.worldwidebeautystore.comperm-faqs.shtml A personal history of hair care: www.ukans.educarriekancollbooksrowebeauty.htm Database of hairstyles: www.hairdos.com.

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