When I was a young girl, we got all dressed up in our best clothes to go to Sunday mass. We wore dresses and gloves and our best shoes reserved for Sunday’s only. And my mother styled our hair.
On Saturday nights, my sisters and I would have a bath and my mother would wash our hair and sit us down to try and curl our poker straight and wispy fine hair. Our wet hair was carefully parted into many segments and wound around my mom’s fingers and secured with two bobby pins, crossed over like an X. We would fidget and complain through the whole process. My mother would wrap our head in a scarf tied in the front and we went off to bed to wake up transformed and sporting curly hair.
Sadly, and to my mother’s great disappointment. those curls never lasted long. The merest whiff of rain and all the effort would be ruined, sometimes before we even got to Church and almost always by the time we left. If we were very lucky a wrinkle or two would survive for one more day.
My mother rarely let us grow our hair long and so we wore it chin length or shorter. She would perch us on a high stool in the kitchen and use her sewing scissors – bangs cut straight across our foreheads, the rest of our hair cut like a pudding bowl just below the ears. No fidgeting or you might accidentally get a nick on the ear.
As we grew older, the pin curls changed to small plastic curlers that my mother would wrap very tightly and close with a snap and they would pinch all night long. Those curls fared slightly better than the pin curls but the process was only for Sunday church and special occasions. Then foam rollers became the fashion. Curling our hair was no longer just a Saturday night ritual.
My mother stopped doing our hair and we took over. So began a nightly routine, rolling segments of wet hair around the foam, always with envy of my friends naturally curly hair in the back of my mind. Somehow we managed to sleep with those great nobs sticking out of our heads, ignoring the discomfort in pursuit of glamourous locks.
It was in the early 1960s when having backcombed hair, teased and smoothed to the perfect height with the perfect flip at the ends drove us to greater efforts. Curlers got bigger, the fight for the perfect flip got more intense and some of my friends resorted to juice tins as rollers. The bigger hair rollers were absolute hell to sleep on but by then we had miniature hair dryers – big plastic hoods on a long hose that we could plug in and mimic a hairdressing salon right at home. The whole thing wound into a clever little suitcase.
Hairspray was needed before, during and after the curling and sculpting, especially to hold that flip for the day. We spend hours in clouds of spray, back and forth. The end of our rat tail comb was employed to lift that crown just so, here and over there and in the back. And then more spray, back and forth until we had an impermeable helmet that could withstand almost any activity. Even while playing sports, that perfect coif often remained intact.
If you were lucky enough to get your hair done at a salon for some important occasion those hairdressers could achieve miracles with curlers and sprays and pins, lovely upswept piles of curls and swirls, making even limp fine hair like mine look lush. You did not want to let go of that easily and there was a technique for wrapping your head in toilet paper to preserve that perfect coiffure for as many days as possible, trying not to actually sleep in any way that would crush the sculpture.
And then in my mid-teens, the fashion gods favoured me. Straight hair was all the rage! Suddenly my friends with those oft-coveted curls were fighting with their hair. They would use scotch tape to secure wayward bangs. And iron their hair on the ironing board trying to wrestle those natural waves into submission. Blow-dryers and curling irons and straightening irons and hair straightener were not available and in some cases hadn’t even been invented.
I grew my hair long. I tried it with bangs. Then hated that and grew them out. And then cut then again. My plain sandy brown hair, especially with all my freckles, didn’t measure up to the magazine ads so my best friend and I used lemon juice and then spray on streaking product – much of my allowance and babysitting money was spent on Sun In – to get that perfect California girl look. I see that Sun In is still available and I bet it sells like hot cakes even now!
Of course, the pendulum swung back and curls were in fashion before long. So we all gave each other dreadful home perms, fuzzy and uneven and smelly. And not just once but over and over! Even the salon perms were unreliable. Oh how I cringe when I look at those pictures of me with my ‘afro’ in 1970. Lord help us!
Always and forever, we were in pursuit of the perfect hair! Curlier or straighter! Bangs or no bangs! Blonder or darker! Longer or shorter! Just like in the ads. Never mind that we had no clue about the team of stylists and extensions and products that went into those perfect magazine looks. Oh to have Jean Shrimpton’s hair!
In the 1970s it was all about being more natural and so we grew our hair long again and wore it braided or in pigtails or in a casually loose chignon that took ages and ages to achieve just the right amount of offhand casual.
In the 1980 and 90s it was all about big hair again – spikey, gelled into fantastic and very rigid heights. At one time, I had a convertible sports car and could drive into work doing 80kms with the top down and my perfectly coifed French roll and spikey bangs would be perfect when I arrived. Now that was some gel!
Hair products got more and more complicated. Long gone were the days of a bit of shampoo and conditioner as the array of products grew in response to our rapacious demands. I have lost track of the various gels and thickeners and volumizers and lord knows what I have tried. Because just like those days in my childhood, when my mother tried to coax my straight, fine, thin hair into some kind of curly coif, my hair just never behaved like I wanted.
Hand in hand with the endless parade of products there was the colouring, the streaking, the tipping, the foiling…..! Oh yes, and the curling irons, flat irons, blow dryers, diffusers……
And then one day, albeit in advanced age, I cut my hair very short, embraced my grey locks and found freedom!. More economical and zero upkeep! A lifetime had shown me I was never going to have lush thick hair, that unattainable natural curl. Shorter was easier. I no longer have the inclination or patience to spend hours and hours on the elusive perfect hair!
Hmmm…well, okay, let’s be honest….maybe I still do spend a little bit of time….because after all even us old gals want to put our best foot forward!