Thu, Dec 07, 2006 - Page 13 News List

RIP the perm: 1906 to 2006

The hairstyle beloved of 1980s power dressers is on the wane, thank goodness


It is a century since a German hairdresser invented the perm, but the technique that long gave fashion victims and footballers an extra bit of bounce has finally gone out of style.

"I will not even allow that word to be mentioned in my salon," Berlin's foremost society hairdresser, Udo Walz, recently told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily.

The problem with the perm 100 years on is still the same as the day it was born in a salon on London's Oxford Street in late 1906 — it will give you curls but at considerable cost to the health of your hair.

Nobody paid more dearly than the wife of Karl Nessler.

The hairdresser from the town of Todtnau in the Black Forest twice scorched off his spouse's hair and burned her scalp in a torturous process of trial and error.

Once Nessler had perfected and patented the perm, it still involved vast amounts of sodium hydroxide and metal rods heated to 100°C, which were hooked up to a chandelier to supply an electric charge.

But it meant an end to going to bed in uncomfortable curlers and took the world by storm.

Nessler left London in 1915 and emigrated again, this time to the US. He died in relative poverty in 1951, never having recovered from the stock market crash in 1929 that swallowed the fortune he made from his invention.

The perm, however, went from strength to strength, providing hope and relief for the straight-haired throughout the decades.

When women cut off their hair in droves in the 1920s, it was adopted by flappers who did not care to copy American actress Louise Brooks' sleek "bob" and later by 1950s housewives who would not have a hair out of place.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the perm was bigger than ever.

Hair, the emblematic musical of the hippy generation, was a hit on Broadway and beyond, and soulful pop singers like Leo Sayer and Art Garfunkel launched the "Afro" look for men.

Hairdressers today look back in horror at the 1980s when the volume was turned up a notch still.

"It was awful ... curls, curls everywhere," Josef Kueveler, the artistic director of the federation of German hairdressers, sighed recently.

Women may argue that at the time they needed big hair to match their shoulder pads but German star hairdresser Martina Acht said: "More often than not it made you look as though your hairdryer had exploded in your hands."

The perm cut through social barriers and was sported by the stars of the American soap hits Dallas and Dynasty, heavy-metal head-bangers and footballers alike.

Years before former England captain David Beckham brought his capillary cool to play, legendary West German striker Rudi Voeller, who helped his country win the World Cup in 1990, sported a mop of grey-blond curls that earned him the affectionate nickname "Auntie Kaethe."

But these heady days came to an end in the mid-nineties when the grunge movement made natural the new look and long, limp locks the norm.

Since then the quest for shiny, healthy hair has only grown. Women are reaching for organic shampoos and shunning the perm that could still leave hair brittle and dry despite refinements in the procedure.

A poll conducted by the German research institute GfK showed that only three percent of German women still have their hair permed.

But the father of the perm will not be forgotten. There are plans for a museum in Todtnau to celebrate Nessler's achievement.

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