26 February 2024

Coiffure Legendaire: The Great Marcel

Inventor of the curling tongs bearing his name, which defined the fashion of late 19th century and early 20th known as the: ‘Marcel Wave’ or simply ‘Marcelling’

Nicknamed ‘Le Roi’ (the King) by his colleagues and multiple clients, French hairdresser Marcel Grateau became famous at the end of the 19th century by inventing curling tongs which were known by his name. In 1882, when he was 30 years old, he was quickly conquering the market of hairdressing in France, and  after all over Europe, Marcel patented his revolutionary invention. In fact, his famous iron continued being used for decades with few variations and improvements, demonstrating how successful his idea was!

By then, irons existed in to shape your hair, but the truth is that they did not meet the taste of the most demanding clients. The inspiration came from family: the mother of Marcel had beautiful natural wavy hair and her son decided to invent a few irons that imitate her beautiful hair waves. In this way, he thought  of how he could change regular irons and give them different thicknesses depending on the curl that you wish to get and Voila! – the first step towards glory!

The ‘Marcel Wave’ began to take during the Belle Époque, halfway between 19th and 20th century in France, and continued marking the fashion world for five decades! Marcel started working in a small room on the outskirts of Paris and ended up highly successful.

The beauty of the ‘Marcel Wave’ started to spread around Paris and hundreds of clients called to get it. Initially Marcel decided to keep his technique secret, only he knew he used tweezers and carried out its services in a closed room. For 15 years, between 1882 and 1897, Marcel charged 500 francs per hair ripple, when his colleagues just managed to bill between 10 and 20 for service! Once he managed to amass a fortune of 1 million francs, Marcel decides to retire, already rich, buying a castle in Normandy and revealing his technique by sharing it with his fellow colleagues.

Like all the great inventions of mankind, the Marcel tongs reached success because they allowed a hairdresser to create a perfect undulation of a form while being ‘brilliantly’ simple: warmed on a gas stove, Marcel irons had the (empty) concave part below, and the (full) convex side up, facilitating to the maximum marking of waves.

In addition to the barrel carrying his name, Marcel Grateau also patented his own hairstyling glitter water, among many other inventions, consolidating his reputation and his fortune. Marcel had clients that were women of the nobility: the very admired Princess of Sagan, the Princess of Fürstenberg or the Countess of Castellane, in addition to great actresses of the Paris of the time such as Rejane and Otero, and famous ‘courtesans’ Liane de Pougy, and Irma of Bury as Emilienne d’Alençon.

Marcel was a character loved and hated in equal parts within the hairdressing world, attracting numerous jealous critiques – because once removed already in Normandy, Paris, he was still referred to as ‘the most brilliant artist in hairdressing’ of the era, referring to him as the ‘Angel of the Ripple’. In fact, on the occasion of its 70th anniversary, in 1922, Marcel returned to the capital to receive a massive tribute that is celebrated in the legendary Luna Park. By then, the ‘Marcel Wave’, still in force, were marking 40 happy years in the published world…

The Museum of History of Hairdressing of Raffel Pages in Barcelona houses a original model of the famous Marcel iron, as well as multiple photographs of the time and bibliographic material of wealth on which was the ‘King of Hairdressing’ on horseback between the 19th and 20th century.


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