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Curl power

After years of stick-straight styles, big hair makes a comeback

Dawn Curry gets some curls at Shag in South Boston. Dawn Curry gets some curls at Shag in South Boston. (Evan Richman/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kate M. Jackson
Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2008

For some of us, the mere mention of "big hair" can produce heart-racing '80s flashbacks: Perms with bangs teased skyward. The smell of Aqua Net. Banana clips. Memories of hair traumas past can make some women tremble with revulsion - and cradle their flat irons as talismans. "Never again," they whisper.

Well, never say never. Big curls, voluminous waves, and teased ringlets have been filling up the pages of Vogue, bouncing down Fashion Week runways, and boing-boinging down the red carpet. But it's not just fashionistas and celebrities who are heralding the return of big hair. Several top stylists report that many of their clients are forsaking super-straight styles of recent years in the name of wavy locks and volume.

But the new big hair is not about the stinky perms of yesteryear. Today's look is about looser, natural-looking curls. "Bring out those big barrel curling irons because big hair is a strong look for spring and it's happening in different ways," said Tim Rogers of Charles Worthington London in New York. "We're seeing the vampy big hair, like Barbarella in the 1960s, but we're also seeing the loose bouncy curls popularized by Gisele Bundchen and Kate Hudson."

Chalk it up to fashion's continuing obsession with the '80s, says Elle Werlin, a fashion and celebrity stylist in New York. "The '80s look has been showing up on the catwalks the past few seasons and the urban market has really run with it," she said. "I anticipate we'll see a lot more of these big hair looks, ones that involve a little more hairspray, and maybe even some variations on the Mohawk."

Sandy Poirier of Shag salon in South Boston said that while big hair is "definitely cool again," his clients tend to seek out the look for special occasions, not every day. "It's usually for one night. They come in wanting something different or funky," he said. "It's a lot of work to pull off this look every day unless your hair is naturally curly."

Dawn Curry, 32, of Waltham, frequents Shag on weekends to get her typically straight locks done up big and curly. "I had a perm and big hair when I was in high school. The pictures are ridiculous," said Curry, who's a lawyer at Nutter McClennen & Fish in Boston. "This time, it's not a rocker look, it's not frizzy. It's more glamorous and polished." Curry sports a more conservative look during the week. Having big hair every day would be too much work, she says. Which leads one to wonder: In pursuit of longer-lasting curls, will big-hair enthusiasts start resulting to - gulp - perms?

In fact, perms are already a growing trend in places like London and New York that tend to have more avant-garde approaches to fashion, according to Ouidad (first name only, please), founder of Ouidad Salon, which specializes in curly hair.

"I've been getting requests for the kind of perms I haven't done since the 1970s and '80s," she said. "Today's perms, though, are much less harsh on the hair and better for the environment and much less taboo." Ouidad said she believes the perm could become more widespread again if fashion dictates that big hair is here for the long haul, as it did in the 1980s. "People will want their curls to have more longevity," she said. "As long as you are deep conditioning on a regular basis, this is fine." So far, local stylists say perms aren't catching on here. At this point, perms just don't work with Boston's buttoned-down style.

"A lot of people here are more conservative," said Mario Russo, owner of Mario Russo salons. "They work in the Financial District and like the neater manageable styles. Also, perms are still a chemical process that I wouldn't recommend unless you had a very specific type of hair." Wildly popular in the '70s and '80s, the perm fell out of favor in the 1990s, and many salons stopped offering the service altogether. Now, in some salons, the perm has resurfaced as a "texturing treatment" which is really just an old-fashioned body wave, Russo said. For now, the perm is much too, well, permanent for most Bostonians, according to Maria Karalexis, a stylist at Stilisti on Newbury Street. "A few years ago Japanese straightening was all the rage, but now there are few requests for it. It was too much of a commitment."

Meanwhile, more people are used to getting double- or triple-process color now than in the '80s: think highlights, lowlights, and overall color. "Everyone has color-treated hair today," she says, "and you wouldn't want to have a chemical process on top of a chemical process," she said.

Karalexis, who is attending a class on "big hair" in New York this spring, said this trend really has less to do with perms and texturing treatments than it does with more temporary curling techniques.

"The only tool I use is my ghd iron," she said. "When I'm styling hair for a wedding, it's the only thing I bring with me. No hot rollers, no curling irons." Around since 2001, the ghd, which stands for "Good Hair Day," is a souped-up flat iron that uses infrared heat as opposed to dry heat, which stylists say helps protect hair from heat damage.

Traditionally used to straighten hair, the iron is becoming an important styling tool in the big-hair revolution. There are hundreds of YouTube videos out there titled "How to curl your hair with a ghd iron." Alas, the irons don't come cheap, retailing for anywhere between $150-$300. Still, Edie Nesson, 34, of Weymouth wants to get her hands on one, especially after she learned how to curl her straight, sleek bob into a curly mane using one of the irons.

"I've had the straight bob for a long time. It's a lot of fun to have something different," Nesson said. "After those high school perms, I never thought I'd want big hair again, but here I am."

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