In style: The return of the perm

We can all blame Kylie. Ever since she stepped out with a mane of curly hair, perms were instantly deemed back in fashion. Good news for us girls with naturally kinky hair then, says Maria Meltzer. Time to throw away the straighteners.

t has gotten a bad rap as a statement of quirky individuality — or a sign of laziness. But the look’s fresh appeal lies in its confidence.

There’s a scene in Girls in which Shoshanna, a recent college grad, is at a job interview, and the subject of Chelsea Clinton comes up.

“She’s always been one of my heroes,” Shoshanna says, “because she is such a strong woman struggling so nobly with her very curly hair.”

I was at a job interview myself the first time I realised that my own curls, most often described as pre-Raphaelite, could be a liability. 

“You’re so brave to wear your hair curly,” my would-be boss said, running a hand through her own lanky waterfall. 

“I have to straighten mine every morning.”

I didn’t get the job. It had never occurred to me that my hairstyle was a bold choice, but in that particular corporate setting, it seemed, it betrayed something unsavoury.

In style: The return of the perm

The problem with curly hair is one of the outside gaze. People with straight hair (either by birth or blow-dryer) mistake it as a kind of statement — a mark of blustery confidence and bold individuality — or, worse, as careless and sloppy, a sign that you’re lazy or stubborn.

Curly hair is messy; curly hair is chutzpah; curly hair is loud, and has a lot to say. In Hollywood, it’s often shorthand for quirk: Think of Natasha Lyonne on Orange Is the New Black.

Meanwhile, you have to go back to the Clinton administration to see when Sarah Jessica Parker or Julia Louis-Dreyfus regularly wore their hair curly.

Those women — like many with naturally curly hair — go the Chelsea route, taming it with blowouts, flat irons or keratin treatments. 

Curly hair made sense back when starlets wore little makeup and their own vintage slip dresses to the Oscars.

Now, in the era of the glam squad, it takes a village to primp and prep, and the results are smooth, sleek, polished and predictable.

But natural curls are slowly making their way back into fashion. 

The very things curly hair has been maligned for — effortlessness, devil-may-care irreverence — are right now the height of cool.

It’s a feminist statement, one that says ‘my hair, and by extension me, cannot be contained’. 

And the power of curly hair can be much more nuanced than it gets credit for: Its height can give the face a subtle halo effect, like diffracted light or a good Instagram filter.

Think of Bernadette Peters, whose ringlets grant her an air of eternal youth. If you have curly bangs, like Juno Temple in Vinyl, you are at once tough and tender.

Solange Knowles has proven that the bigger the hair, the better it looks, with culottes and chunky platforms. 

Natural curls bring up pleasant associations of being on vacation sans products or tools, at once unfussy and feminine.

Designers have embraced the carefree curl on the runway, too. 

I keep a screen shot on my phone of the photographer and actress Petra Collins walking in Gucci’s fall show, cherubic blond curls just shy of frizzy trailing behind her. 

For spring, Diane von Furstenberg, who has an enviable head of curls herself, put models in a bouncy, beachy version of the look. 

At Hood by Air, the defined spirals were a bit disheveled, adding a hint of romance to the edginess of the clothes.

To call these curls natural is not to say that they don’t require careful maintenance.

Put two curly-haired women together and within minutes they’ll be comparing tools of the trade: styling creams, deep conditioners, wide-tooth combs.

Some days one half of your head will look perfect, the other too wild. 

You’ll put it up for a cocktail party and realise that the undone look you were going for actually reads as Regency bride. But you’re only a deep breath and a shower away from a fresh start.

And when you get it right, you needn’t worry too much about your clothes or makeup. 

These aren’t mermaid waves. With curls, you’re a siren.


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