On the crest of a permanent wave

Something is afoot in the world of hairdressing and, for many of us, the reaction can only be one of abject horror. The permanent wave - not seen in fashionable circles since T'Pau's Carol Decker was warbling China in Your Hand - is experiencing a disturbing comeback.

The perming process has been creeping back into edgier New York salons. Meanwhile, sales of home perms here in Britain have been on the rise, apparently inspired by the do sported by Keeley Hawes in Eighties paean, Ashes to Ashes . Only a couple of weeks ago, I found myself at a dinner party where a fashionable twentysomething took me aside and asked in whispered tones whether I knew anything about the procedure.

Those readers spring-chickenish enough not to remember the perm's Eighties heyday will have no idea the knee-jerk terror that the very word can produce in those of us of a certain age. Allow me to pull curly rank here: I may never have had a perm, praise God, but as a state-educated Birmingham girl, I know what I'm talking about.

We were too late for Kevin Keegan mop-tops, happily. However, there were shaggy perms and wet-look ones, body perms and corkscrew curls, and curious, top-heavy, kinky strips atop a shaven back and sides. And it wasn't just the girls, oh no. The mutant back perm - a permed mullet, no less - was so ubiquitous on chaps that I didn't experience my first kiss until the age of 17, when the trend was on the decline. My own naturally wavy tresses were oft mistaken for a dropped-out perm, so unfeasible was the notion of locks left chemically untreated.

A history of hair in pictures

Dropping out was what perms did, many lasting for little more than a couple of weeks. These days, the treatment will apparently last up to five months. The process is not much changed. There will be rods, a great dousing of chemicals, dawdling in a not-so comely shower cap, followed by infinite rinses. However, these days, the rods may be larger for a looser curl, the chemical onslaught briefer.

Street-up demand may be on the increase, but hairdressers are still exhibiting reluctance. Andreas Wild, super-stylist at John Frieda, is unconvinced: "Eighties curls are definitely back, but the perm is such a huge step and goes downhill so quickly. I don't know why one wouldn't create that effect with styling - say, diffusing or pin curls. Still, Hoxtonites have rediscovered the moustache and the curly fringe, so maybe the perm is just the next hideous step."

Even the trendier salons are a tad wary. Stylists at Conduit Street's Hershesons and Dalston's modish Bleach are yet to get their hands dirty with perming solution. One's best bet may be a "backstreet" perm somewhere in the suburbs, where it's that, or a blue rinse.

For the first recipients of chemical curls, the bobbed trendsetters of the Thirties, the technique proved a liberation from time-consuming roller rituals, despite cases of burnings, electrocutions and explosions. For today's young women, brought up on obsessive hair straightening, the effect may be equally emancipating. Moreover, this season's bouncy, Seventies Charlie's Angels waves may tempt still more trendsetters to surf the permanent wave. Nevertheless, there will remain those of us for whom the procedure will forever prompt a desire to curl up and die.

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