Curls, chemicals and the cult of royalty
Who was Richard Hudnut, and what was he doing in our bathroom? He was there to curl my mother’s hair.
Mum had her first perm at age 12. Fifty years later, when she consulted her doctor about feeling unhappy, he diagnosed a chemical imbalance in her brain. I wasn’t surprised: four decades of bondage to my father might do that to a person. But hold on … chemical imbalance? Might the perming lotion have penetrated her skull? And, if so, mightn’t it have penetrated skulls other than hers? I pictured a Stepford Wives–type scenario, not confined to one Connecticut town in the crimplene zeitgeist but spanning continents and generations.
When she died in 1971, my gran—Mum’s mother—had the same hairstyle as Mum does today. I’d never seen their hair any different, either in real life or in the tartan-covered photo album that charted our family’s prehistory (pre-me, I mean). In essence, it was—and is—the same style adopted by the Queen when she took the throne in 1952, and kept up by her ever since, for its amenability to the wearing of headgear. If her perpetual hairstyle has a name, it’s the same as that worn by the original Barbie doll: the bubble cut. Doubtless it’s not preference but propriety—one must not deviate from one’s image on the currency—that’s condemned HRH to life in a hairsprayed helmet. (Rumour says that she wears a switch of long hair in private.) But her unyielding to the drifts of fashion or personal whim has normalised fidelity to the bubble cut. Unwittingly or not, she heads a cult of coiffurial petrifaction that outreaches her shrinking Commonwealth.
The Queen’s hair is naturally wavy; no perms for her, only a remorseless regimen of hair-setting—curlers, pins and VO5—to maintain a uniform shape. But, like many women glommed for all time onto the bubble cut and its variants, Mum and Gran were cursed with hair disinclined to hold a wave. To them, the perm offered ‘the wave you wish you were born with’.
• • •
In the decades either side of 1900—the period in which the suffrage movement grew and bore fruit—women’s hair was more loosely dressed than previously. Still kept long and fixed in a lump at the back of the head, the hair wasn’t pulled tight to the skull as before but was left soft and full around the face. Being unblessed by nature with Pre-Raphaelite hair, most women slept trussed up in ‘fierce’ plaits or relied on ‘horrible’ tongs to achieve the crimped halo that fashion dictated.
Needless to say, a solution arose in the shape of a high-priced product, whose sales pitch recast a mildly irksome grooming routine as a heroic ordeal that it took balls to overcome: Man has watched this struggle of woman throughout the ages. When he found he couldn’t bear the spectacle any longer, he gallantly came to her relief.
The Bavarian-born Karl Nessler had found his vocation in hair and, as Charles Nestlé, pioneered the permanent wave process in his London salon. He staged its first public demonstration in 1905, following experiments on his wife, Katharina, that burnt her hair off and scalded her scalp. (Not only that: he soaked her hair in cow’s urine.) The Nestlé ‘spiral heat method’ was patented in 1909 and, by that April, was being offered by a Melbourne salon at a price more than twice the basic weekly wage (for men) set two years earlier in the Harvester judgment.
It took up to six hours to wave the hair permanently using Nestlé’s process. After soaking in an alkaline solution, the hair was wound around 12 brass rollers, each weighing nearly a kilogram and heated by electricity to 100 °C. To support their weight and keep them from burning the scalp, the rollers were suspended from a ‘chandelier’ above the customer’s head. Now look in the mirror. Your astonished and delighted eyes behold a perfect riot of curls where straight wisps disgusted you but a short time ago.
The permanence of the ‘riot’ lasted about six months, after which the new growth of unwavy hair at the roots spoilt the effect.
In mid 1909 the Nestlé process was touted as ‘The Talk of Feminine Europe’; by the new year it was ‘The Talk of Australia’. A leading Melbourne ‘toilet salon’ waved more than 1600 heads in 1909 and practitioners in Sydney and Brisbane stressed the Nestlé wave’s imperviousness to surfing.
Gran (christened Margaret, but always called May) was of just the right vintage to have witnessed the advent of the permanent wave: she turned 18 in April 1909. There exists no photograph to show the state of her hair at that age. Running a pub on the outskirts of Ballarat, her family wasn’t well off. Even the cut-price option of Nestlé’s ‘home outfit’—at 42 shillings, priced to match the basic wage—would have been out of her reach.
Come the twenties, women’s hair was bobbed—cut off bluntly at ear-length or shorter. What a revolution! As with most fashions, the young and the tastemakers jumped in first, but by mid decade the bob had spread to the backblocks and even to matriarchs and spinsters who still wore their skirts long. (Hemlines, remember, in that same handful of years, rose to knee-length and higher after dwelling around the ankles for … was it centuries, or millenia?) The bob’s original iteration was the Buster, or American, crop—cut straight round at sides and back; later came the Eton crop, angled shorter at the back. By 1929 ‘even the smallest girl with long plaits is a rarity. Big and little, young and old, we are all uniformly shingled.’
In an age where most households still bathed just once a week, you’d think that short hair would have been easier to care for. Doubtless some women’s hair, its weight reduced by cropping, revealed a degree of natural wave unguessed at since its wearer’s infancy. For the many with fine, straight hair, though, the bob was a hard style to carry off. Sleep-flattened and between washes, it lacked the pertness of the illustrations in the women’s pages. So the hair-waving industry hit its stride.
The Nestlé process, engineered for long hair, lost ground to the Marcel (or Marcelle) permanent wave, which gave the hair sleek S-shaped undulations like those made by the old curling tongs. (Exemplar of the Marcel wave was Wallis Simpson, the soon-to-be Duchess of Windsor.) Curling tongs, heated on the stove or fire, had themselves aimed for a more lasting version of finger-waving, which moulded wet hair into waves using just fingers and a comb. Since it cost 30 shillings to wave permanently a Buster crop, many must have continued to rely on tongs and finger-waving through the twenties and beyond.
Bobbed hair and curtailed hemlines have often been linked to women’s emancipation, following their participation in the workforce during the First World War and the widespread extension of the vote. The dramatic new fashions also reflected the growing virality of popular culture, in the shape of movies and magazines. Whatever their causes, though, the practical effect of ubiquitous twenties trends was to make women, more than ever and for all time, slaves to the salon. Crop the hair once and there was no going back.
• • •
The earliest photo of Gran I’ve seen dates from around 1935 and shows her hair in an unbecoming bob, cinched in a hairpin above one ear and with the suggestion of a finger-wave where it sweeps her forehead, but otherwise lank. Hoisted on one hip is a little girl, two or three years old, barefoot and with a fringe of white-blonde hair as straight as hair can be. That would be Mum, Gran’s youngest, born when she was nearly 42. Between Nestlé’s patent and then, there’d been her engagement to a Methodist parson, broken off after she met and fell for my Pop, followed by pregnancy, marriage, four kids and, after a long interval, two more born during the Depression. The couple’s second-born, Jean, died before she was two; there’d been only boys then, until Mum came along 17 years later. They named her Valda.
Pop had a glorious head of thick, wavy hair, the kind they used to say was ‘wasted on a boy’. But Mum inherited her mother’s hair. There’s a studio portrait of her aged three: round cheeks, bow lips and anime-big eyes, framed by a blonde bob. The fringe was straight, but at the sides floated wings of adorable fluff. Already, Gran had been at work with the rags. It was a curling technique she’d have learnt from her own mother, and so on back through generations. All it required was an old cotton sheet (or shirt, or petticoat), a comb and a cupful of water. The only cost was of time: time to tie the curls and time to let them set. Each lock of hair was combed and wetted and tightly wound from tip to root around a torn strip of rag which was then knotted close to the head. It was usually done before bed, so that the curls set overnight and no-one outside the family need see the wearer looking like the victim of an atrocity. Mum’s brothers called her ‘Bombhead’.
She wore a headful of rags to bed all through childhood. Once, early in her years at Hawksburn State School, Mum brought home a note from the headmaster, objecting to the cultivation of vanity that her curls represented. Gran wasn’t a woman easily riled, but she gave that bloke an earful. What kind of a world was it if you couldn’t curl your own kid’s hair? It being in the vicinity of 1939, she may or may not have invoked the name Hitler.
• • •
Mum’s first perm must have coincided with the end of the war that Hitler started. By then, the cold perm was the thing, relying on chemicals instead of heat for its effect. The ‘machineless’ permanent wave had been perfected in stages over a decade or more. One innovator, a British hairdresser, claimed that his process originated in experiments conducted by the RAF during the First World War. Madame Nanette of Bong Bong Street, Bowral, offered a ‘non-electric’ permanent wave, requiring ‘no heavy contraptions on the head’, as early as 1934.
In the process pioneered in 1938 and still used today, the hair is first drenched in a lotion that causes each strand of hair to swell, to maximise absorption, and penetrates the hair’s keratin to break the linkages that determine its natural disinclination to curl. Curling rods, between 20 and 40 of them, are arranged in a uniform pattern all over the head before a neutralising solution is applied, re-establishing the keratin bonds and fixing the hair in the shape of the curling rods. Softening, rearrangement, fixing: these are the steps by which hair is persuaded to renounce its own shape.
A bit of a whizz at maths, Mum stayed on at school longer than most girls of her time. At 14 she won a place at a girls high school, then did a three-year diploma of needlecraft at Emily McPherson College. She arrived home one day when she was 18 to find the house looking ransacked. The contents of a large chest had been roughly turned out on the lounge-room floor. Pop had taken the chest and left for Sydney, to live with his long-time lover. This ‘other woman’ had been a shadowy presence all through Mum’s childhood: the story goes that he took her for a week’s holiday at the beach, then, the next week, brazenly showed up at the same guesthouse with Gran, his other wife. There are rumours that he had a second, concurrent family, including a daughter about Mum’s age. (An acquaintance from Sydney once remarked that my mum and his could almost be sisters, they looked so alike.)
Pop shot through on a Friday; on Saturday, Mum met my dad. She was on her way to the footy (she just had to get out of the house, she says) and he was at the tram stop too, an old schoolmate of her brother’s. He paid her fare, kept her company (the Demons lost), and walked her home afterwards. Mum’s brothers were all married by then, which left just her and Gran. Dad, who worked in a paint warehouse but had his eye on a job in sales, lived in a boarding house nearby. Pretty soon he was a fixture at Mum’s place, the would-be man of the house.
Mum started work at the end of that year, as a designer and cutter in the rag trade. It was skilled work and she was well paid, earning far more than Dad did. Well before they were officially engaged, he instituted a stringent plan of saving for their shared future. Once, Mum had a dress on lay-by, to by paid off over months in shilling increments. Invited to a friend’s wedding, she wanted to pay off her new dress early,
but Dad forbade it.
They were married in the year of the royal visit. Dad moved in with Mum and Gran. Though the marriage certificate gave Dad’s occupation as ‘paint sales executive’, Mum still out-earned him; yet he soon insisted that she give up work and leave the breadwinning to him. It took a few years for the first baby to arrive, but next thing there were three of us and the family, including Gran, moved out to a brand-new suburb.
Dad drove to work in the city, leaving Mum marooned, with three kids and Gran (now retired), miles from any train or tram. But her hair kept its wave: she and Rowena, our nearest neighbour, would give each other home perms while their kids ran wild. Richard Hudnut was the brand I remember from our bathroom cabinet, but the market leader in home perms was Toni. Before my time, there was a doll on the market that came with its own Toni ‘play wave’ kit, complete with tiny curling rods and setting lotion made of sugar and water.
The lotion in Mum’s home perm kit was not so benign. ‘You Must Follow Directions—Don’t Guess Or Be Careless!’ admonished the instruction booklet. Timing was everything: five minutes too long or too little could mean days of humiliation, hiding indoors or under a headscarf. Once, when it came time for Mum and Rowena to rinse off the perming solution, all the taps in the house ran dry and they had to drain the kettle, the toilet cistern, even the dog’s bowl, to avert disaster. (In an episode of I Love Lucy, Ricky’s insistence that Lucy economise led to a bad home perm; naturally, he gave in and bought her the furniture she wanted.)
I never owned a Toni doll, but every doll I had came with hair styled just like Mum’s. And so did every woman I met—which must explain why, when I was seven, I fixed on our vicar’s wife as a hair-model for my future self. Mrs Morgan had long plaits that she wore Gretchen-style across the top of her head. I thought the style classic and elegant, though probably ‘grown-up’ is how I put to myself. I stopped going to Sunday school before I was ten, but Mrs Morgan’s hair stayed with me.
Dad got deeper into the world of paint sales and marketing. Too deep, really: out of his depth. He was an anxious man, who didn’t know what to do with his feelings. When he and Mum were newlyweds, he’d buy two bottles of beer on payday and drink just a glassful each night, stoppering the bottle between drinks. As the years went by, the stopper fell into disuse as he drank more and more. Even when sober he had a short fuse; with beer in him—boom. I have a memory of Mum sitting in our back yard one sunny late afternoon with her hair in curlers. Dad had thrown a glass of beer over her and, in an uncharacteristic show of spunk, she’d used the unwonted ‘beer rinse’ to set her hair. Curlers gave her hair a lift when a perm was due, or overdue, for refreshing; and beer was splendid for adding body.
In the seventies Gran died. Mum sold Avon and found purpose in weight-watching. Dad shifted a gear closer to madness: had affairs, squandered money, kept us in a state of terror. But, ‘I will always love him,’ said Mum. She was so complaisant (she would say ‘loyal’) that, if ‘her’ butcher was out of chops, she wouldn’t dare buy from his rival up the street, for fear of being caught out. Filling in forms, she always put her name second. Believing that a wife ought to vote the same way as her husband, she reluctantly voted Liberal; only late in Dad’s life did she discover that he’d switched his vote to Labor years before.
From the early 1960s, fashion had veered away from perms, so that by the late 1970s they tended to be worn by women over 40 who were loyal to their butcher, ticked the same box as their husband, and were tickled by The Benny Hill Show. In the disco era, though, perms made a comeback. Shaggier and curlier than the bubble cut (think Olivia Newton-John in Grease), the new-era perm arrived when I was in my late teens. Already—or still?—I felt resigned to living a life like my mother’s.
When I was a kid, I often used to wake in the middle of the night and sneak into Gran’s bed for comfort. After she died, I’d sometimes worm my way into Mum and Dad’s instead. Not often: Dad didn’t like it. He thought the marital bed was sacred. Anyway, once, as I scrambled into their bed, he noticed that I was wearing knickers under my seersucker nightdress. ‘You still wear underpants to bed?’ he said. ‘I reckon when you’re married your husband’ll have something to say about that.’ I would’ve been 11 or 12. If the thought of marriage had ever appealed to me, it ceased to at that moment.
Nonetheless at 18 I had a steady boyfriend and was on track to achieve the kind of adult life that I both feared and expected. At school my boyfriend let me know that he didn’t like me getting better marks than his. He had opinions about the clothes I ought to wear. He was sure I’d never learn to drive. When we met, I had waist-length hair which, yes, I often wore in plaits looped across my head. Leaving school, I got an office job and, to go with brown gabardine, had my hair cut to shoulder length before—inevitably—taking the plunge of a poodle perm. Just that once.
When I was 19 my perm grew out, I broke up with my boyfriend, got my driver’s licence, moved into a share house and began to live a life unlike my mother’s.
Mum is 83 now, with hair as fine and fluffy as a dandelion. And still, four times a year without fail, she subjects it to a perm. It is possible to discern in Mum’s 70-year perm habit a lifelong complicity in her own limitation. I prefer to blame chemical mind-control and the cult of royalty.
On the occasion of their grandson’s wedding in 2011, the Queen and her husband of 64 years alighted from a Rolls at the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. She was dressed in pale lemon. He wore spurs—not the dress-spurs favoured by the younger royals, but battle-spurs the size of pram wheels. Her hair was just the same as ever.