1 April 2023

115 Years of Long-Lasting Curls: The History and Rebirth of the Perm

In 2022, the perm turns 115 years old! A long way from the fleeting fate linked to the evolution of times and fashion, the perm has also been a major influence to the change of woman in society, and needs to find its way into salons without seeming like a flight back to the past.

London, October 8, 1906. German hairdresser Karl Ludwig Nessler, best known as Charles Nestlè (in those days a pinch of Parisian charm was indispensable for success in the field of coiffure), performs the first “official” perm in his beauty salon on Oxford Street in front of a crowd of colleagues. The exceptional model was the wife of the inventor himself Katharina Laible, a courageous woman obviously in love with her husband and a lover “at all costs,” since she had come out of previous experiments with burnt hair and skin.

It must be said, however, that the desire for a long-lasting curls was widespread among the ladies all over the world at that time (most of them still wearing long hair) and consequently Nessler’s discovery corresponded to what we would call today a market demand. Unlike some of his predecessors, he focused on rolling their hair around hot metal chopsticks to turn them into fluffy bushes, where the acute German found a fundamental question:

To make the change “permanent”, the heat was not enough: the hair had previously softened and made more docile thanks to a chemical treatment with an alkaline substance. Only then could they be rolled around metallic and heated curlers. Technological progress also helped the scientist in his discovery: electricity was becoming a commonplace item in the household, heating and the operation of small appliances were a reality for many people.

So Nestlè created a system of electrically heated bronze curlers, which hung from above and to which the hair was rolled up so as to be away from the head, to avoid frying the skull of the customers. Each curler weighed between three and four pounds and warmed up so much that sometimes it ended up burning the hair… (!)

And this is precisely the invention that was presented on October 8, 1906. Néstle’s colleagues were not very receptive to the idea, and very few would adopt the system for many reasons. In addition to being very long and laborious, the process was also very expensive for customers and the machine was very cumbersome, without neglecting the possible damage to hair and scalp. But there is more: the fear of the hairdressers that innovation obscures the creative aspect of the profession, which has always been considered a priority.

Nevertheless, Karl patented his invention and the improvements he would make in the following years. When the First World War broke out, Nessler moved to the United States where he found many copies of his technology had been on the market for some time. It is said that in a few years Nessler set up an empire of beauty salons with employees and branches in Chicago, Detroit, Palm Beach and Philadelphia, where they also offered the other German inventions: false eyelashes and kit for perm at home. He lost everything in the 1929 crisis but continued to work for several decades during which the perm would continually change.

Research, Improvements, Inventions

The great launch of the perm happens when fashion imposed the look of their time.

SHORT HAIR. Despite the war, the general euphoria that characterized Europe at that time lasted for a while, women almost did not realize the dramatic nature of the situation. Things changed drastically after the winter of 1916/17. Following heavy losses of human resources, reserves were called to the front and women were forced to take over as the bread-winner of the house while men were out at war. Obviously the vogue is also affected by the events. The first women who would “dare” give a sharp cut to the hair also happen to be the ones that give rise to general admiration and many who would come to follow the example. Whether smooth or wavy, cutting first to the jawline (we might call it bob?) followed by the page boy cut, which was considered a real rebellious conquest.

And in the meantime what’s going on with the perm? Research improved machinery and innovation goes forward, but it is between 1920-1930 where we find significant changes. The merit goes first of all to the Swiss Eugene Suter and Spanish Eugenio Isidoro Calvete, who developed a tubular system in which two coils were inserted into an aluminum tube with coiled spiral hair. But Czech hairdresser Josef Mayer (1924) and African-American Marjorie Joyner, who in 1928 patented a system in which their hair was rolled in cylinders, gave their greatest contribution.

As always, an invention pulls the other and each is the daughter of the former. In 1934, the company Calvete created iCall, an innovative method in which pipes were disconnected from electricity. This new technology was introduced to London in 1935 during the Hairdressing Fashion Show and was a success without equal.

Among the major and earliest hair and short hair fans (we are around 1920), Mademoseille Coco Chanel, emblem of modernity, was soon imitated by many. Even the stars –Hollywood and non– of the period and could not withstand the charm of the wave or the perm, which makes such a great “femme fatal.” From Mary Pickford to the blond Jean Harlow, magnetic Marlene Dietrich, and the beautiful Ava Gardner were just some of the few who gave the perm its fame.

Among the technological innovations of the 20s and 30s, we have deliberately left the most revolutionary last: that of Arnold F. Willat, who in 1938 invented the “cold wave”, the prototype of the system most in use today, which coincided with the beginning of the first real research programs in cosmetic laboratories.

At this point it is curious to make a leap backwards, even for a few centuries. And yes, because the urge to curls accompanies the woman (and in the case also the man) from time immemorial. One of the first methods of permanent ripple, in fact, was that used at the time of Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), known as “hellish hell” or “devil’s curls.” The strings were rolled onto terracotta cylinders, held in boiling water for three hours, “cooked” and dried in the oven. It requires a clarification: all this happened on wigs and not directly on the heads.

The history of the perm

As we have mentioned, from 1940 onwards the perm becomes a prime area of research for the labs of major hair companies. In 1945, Oréol by L’Oréal was created and then 1947 saw Testanera, known today as Schwarzkopf Professional. Finally in 1924 Wella launched its first permanent hot ripple.

During the 50s the suits that were then in vogue –generally medium size, very composite and bon ton– were adorned with curly builds (never a hair out of place!). And reflected the need to return to the woman –who during the war conflict had not got any way to think of her own beaut– a reassuring, bourgeois, pleasing image. Perhaps she was aging a little bit, but she made her perceive (herself and others) as a perfect wife and mother.

In the 1960s, the thing becomes more complex and the perm lives its first dark moment. If ladies of a certain age wear “bulky” coats, and in some cases even permanent, young people begin to make their voice heard by claiming all kinds of freedom, including their look. Thus, two distinct universes emerge: the over and the under (the unit of measure may be 25).

Not to mention that in that period the bob “invented” by Vidal Sassoon is all the rage, look where cutting and styling give to geometric and straight looks, defining them as the fashion invere of the fluffy perm. Even the “flower children” disdain any artifice for their hair, except for rare exceptions to copy the super-curly head of an icon of dissent: the activist of the African American movement Angela Davis and her signature ‘fro. Musical ‘Hair,’ first performed at Broadway in ’67 and followed in ’79 by the same film, is a perfect compilation of this reality.

It is safe to say that perms are a real fashion phenomenon that would no longer be spoken until the 1980s. Excessive by definition, the 80s are the ideal setting for many hairstyles. Overaccesorizing, the famous shoulder straps of which no garment was devoid of? Not a single small, composed ironed out head. For a change, the curls were set free. No additional styling, just big bold hair (this is the golden moment) excessively colored!

Raised waistband, steamy curls, tight leggings… the important thing is to exaggerate. And even men are subjected to long sessions by the hairdresser: they come in smooth, leave curly.

Certainly, the perm-mania, which often led to the abuse of treatments, could not have done right. And here is where metropolitan myths are born, and the health of hair becomes the priority. This, together with the evolution of fashion, slowly leads to the fall of the perm in the modern woman. The ’90s have a great desire to downsize, minimalism, understatement in all areas. And the hair adjusts: pixie cuts, often with fringe, long, and extra-liss hairs practically free of volume inspires the youth. Of course, those having the natural curls resort to chemical ironing as a result.

From now on, there is a dilemma for companies: how to restore to the ancient splendor the permanent which, one cannot deny, has good quality in terms of business and also from the aesthetic point of view?

There are two answers: working on the formulations so they are getting softer and changing the name. It is enough with the “perm” word, which evokes something old-school and not always positive. From now on it will be called ‘form service.’

In hair fashion, there is a need for a new movement. One where companies can solve problems by offering super-reliable technologies with modular, durable or temporary results, as never before. Form Service is the use of technology to change the silhouette, the classic permanent ripple, and rebrand for a renewed, and once again in vogue, service that stands on its own name. In such manner, we can offer various shapes and diversifications of a service that need to come back to salons… 111 years after.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Estetica's official newsletter and receive all the latest news and information from the world of hairdressing - no charge, spam free!