The perm’s 80s,90s, noughties and current day revival is an impressive feat for one hairstyle. Whilst the trend may appear dated to some, its recent conception is a far cry away from its ‘authentic’ model. From improved styling techniques to changes in the form of the curl, the perm has continued to evolve in perfect harmony with the demands of its time.
This widely recognised hairstyle can be traced all the way back to 1872 when Karl Ludwig Nessler, a German hairdresser, invented an intricate hot iron machine to create tight curls in women’s hair. He first practiced the technique on his wife, who was left with singed hair and scalp burns.
It wasn’t until the 1930s, that a ‘cold wave perm’ which used ammonium thioglycolate was introduced – a practice which avoided harsh heat but still created these long-lasting waves. As with other trends, the perm’s development has been heavily influenced by popular culture. At the helm, with Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts brought her curly locks into the limelight. This hairstyle (later coined, ‘the maxi perm’) quickly became the object of desire to many women, pushing long wavy hair into the mainstream.
In more recent developments, we’re noticing the ‘digital perm’ gain in popularity. Unlike its predecessor, this look is achieved through the use of infrared heat and chemicals to create a softer more natural and lived in looking style. Keeping hair in loose curls like this doesn’t require the same amount of commitment as a tight perm of the 80s may have, which in many ways, is reflective of a modern, more transient way of life.
For some, the 70s and 80s are predominantly remembered as the years of disco but for many, this period also marked the rise of the Jheri curl – famously flaunted by Michael Jackson on the cover of the biggest-selling album of all time, Thriller. This two-step process for black hair – which created a head of shiny curls – proved to be relatively transitory, spanning both decades then phasing out before the 90s. Although fleeting in its existence, its cultural impact is palpable. From its appearance in Pulp Fiction – donned by Samuel L. Jackson’s character, the scrupulous murderer, Jules Winffield – to being sported by Ice Cube in the film Boyz n the Hood, the hairstyle coupled with a mustache quickly became an iconic look.