Permanent wave goodbye

The curly perm has finally joined other taste atrocities in the fashion dustbin. But then, that's what they said about flares, says Jenny Turner
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The Independent Culture
Anne Hart, of Chingford, east London, is not in the mainstream of contemporary hairdressers. Her salon is called Permcare, because that is what she does. Pensioners, she says, go for a tight curl, pounds 16 for a style that lasts for up to three months. Middle-aged women prefer the softer demi-wave. But Anne doesn't style many heads much younger. Younger women have given up on going curly. The permanent wave, which has been with us for a century, seems to be growing out for good.

"Never again"; "Never, ever, so may God strike me down"; "Like Crystal Tipps and Alistair, both rolled into one"; this is what former perm wearers said, when I asked how they had looked back in the olden days, when frying your hair up with pins and perming lotions seemed like the obvious thing to do. "Sure, I did those Jimi Hendrix perms, back in the 1960s," says the legendary Keith from Smile in Chelsea, swinging London's original unisex salon. "But that was before people started wanting their hair healthy and easy to manage. I can't imagine ever doing a lot of perms again."

"I'd tell you no and do anything to persuade you," says my own hairdresser, Jackie of Willie Smart's in Clapham, south-west London. "You come in for an Andie MacDowell, and off you go with a Ronald McDonald, as we say - chances are, the film star you want to look like had natural curls in the first place. And there isn't a lot we can do about that." Willie Smart's proprietor, Paul, has been driven to invent a rare affliction with which to tactfully puncture a client's dreams of flowing curls. Trilobular hair may look normal from a distance. But its follicles turn out to be shaped like a Toblerone packet close up. It doesn't actually exist anywhere in trichological literature. But it does make it, as Paul regretfully informed a client, physically impossible for such hair to take a perm.

Women have wanted curly hair for as long as women have been born with hair that's straight. According to Vidal Sassoon, it was the early Egyptians who first came up with a technological approach to the problem, wrapping their hair round sticks and coating it with clay. It sounds dead back- to-nature-ish and chemical-free, but it wasn't and it isn't to this very day. You can't wave hair permanently without breaking down its structure and bending it and then resetting it in your chosen shape. It does your hair in, which is why hairdressers are not keen to do it.

The modern perm came along in 1904. Karl Nessler's electric waving machine was a spectacular contraption of suckers and snaking wires. Affordable cold-waving simply wasn't an option for most women until the end of the Second World War, when the neat little head of bouncy curls became an indicator of freedom just as much as had trousers and the shorter skirt. The perm was the bob of the 1950s. In its day, it was as much a sign of modernity as was the little black dress.

If the perm does start making a comeback, however, the augurs are that it won't be in its neat-and-tidy pre-Seventies form. "With crimping back on the catwalks ..."; "The new Farrah Fawcett-style Big Hair ..." I do but quote from the current Elle. Besides which, tunics and flared trousers; purple tights, for heaven's sake - with patterns on them. I'm saying nothing. It's just that Never Again has a way of sounding like Yes Please, I'd Really Love One, whenever the fashion fairy appears with her back-combed bedhead, waving her instant-sideflicks magic styling wand.

"This girl came in to see me," considers Terry Burgess of i-D magazine "with the most amazing perm: big banana clips scraping it tight at the side and then huge on top - really mid-Eighties white trash, you know, like Pamela Anderson in her high school photos. I thought she looked great. If you really went underground, you'll start finding a new wave of girls getting really extreme perms. And you'll maybe see it in the magazines, oooh, this time next year." But Burgess has no plans to go curly herself. "I had a disaster when I was seven. My mum warned me it would look crap, and she was right. Never again. No way ..."