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Thank you, John, for sharing your story with us!  This story gives great insight in what it is like to receive a perm machine perm.  

Story is posted with permission.

My First Perm

My name is John and at the age of 78 I still like to cross dress. I have been setting my hair on rollers for many years, not that there is much left to set now and most of my coif consists of a “piece”.

Even as a small boy I always wanted to have long hair, set in waves and curls, and to go to the hairdressers and have it shampooed and set; It was how ever not until 1948, when I left the army that I was able to gratify that wish, and also, in the privacy of my own home, to wear the clothes that went with a feminine hair style.

I have never wanted to go the whole way towards being a woman but cross dressing is an important part of my life. Visits to the hairdressers have always made me feel good and. for many years have been one of the highlights of my week.

My hair has always been fine and soft never holding a set for long unless supported by a perm. I tried wearing a wig, but in those days a good wig was very hard to come by and I never felt comfortable in anything that I bought.

In the fifties and sixties I used to have my hair permed about every six months and even when the then new cold perms became available I much preferred to have one of the old machine perms. Provided that the hairdresser was a good one the experience was not unpleasant -much nicer than a cold perm during which you are drowned by gallons of water with frequent rinses.

Of course all machine perms were not the same and there was quite a wide choice much as there is in cold perms today. Basically there were four types available.

The first and to my mind the best was the Eugene. In this system the hair was wound in a spiral from root to tip on a metal rod, surrounded by a sachet containing the perm agent and a heater was then put on the outside. I shall be describing this process more fully when I tell you about my first perm. This produced lovely spiral curls which could be set easily into the fairly firm wave that I liked to wear in those days. A firm called Kerka also used a system similar to the Eugene

In the second the hair was wound on a curler from tip to root with the perm solution in a sachet secured by a clamp which was then heated so that like the Eugene the curl was heated from the outside.

I’ve never had one of these perms but from observation they produced a lot of curl and were inclined to frizz

The third was the Wella in which the hair was wound tip to root on a curler, itself heated by electricity, being secured by a light clamp over a thin piece of rubber outside the sachet. This kept the steam in the curl. With two wires going to each curler this was quite a performance but it was perhaps the most comfortable of the four because much less weight was involved, there being no heavy clamps or heaters. I had it done twice but returned to the Eugene because that produced for me, the best curl.

Finally there were a number of “falling heat” systems. These were very like the second system in that the hair was wound tip to root on the curler and a heavy clamp put on top. The big difference was that the clamp was preheated so that the customer was not connected to the electricity supply. I had this done once but found it heavy and uncomfortable with a lot of weight since no support was given by the wires to the heaters as in the Eugene Perm. In any event I much preferred the root to tip wind that only the Eugene provided

In all four systems the customer’s scalp was protected by a thick rubber pad between the curler and root of the hair. In all the systems the curls were wound very tightly both to get in as much hair as possible and to put tension on the hair. This tightness was the least pleasant thing about having a perm but it was common to all four systems, no one being better than the others in that respect.

The main problem in all the machine systems was to get enough curlers in to the hair. The clamps and heaters were bulky so that there was not room for the close winding that we see in cold perms today, however a good hairdresser could get between 25 and 30 curlers into the average head when doing a Eugene perm. The best that my hairdresser ever achieved for me was 31! That is quite a lot of heaters curlers and clamps.

In the summer of 1950 I began to think about having my hair permed. I had grown it to a reasonable length and needed plenty of curl to disguise its length when I was dressed as a man during the day. At night I could comb it out and wear it long with a dress. However it was very fine and floppy. Although I put it up in curlers most nights, by the end of the day it had flopped and came down in my eyes loosing all its curl and body. Setting lotions helped but did not provide the answer. I soon came to realise that if I wanted to keep it at its then length, I would have to do something more about it. The problem was what.

In 1950 in England it was not all that easy for a man to have a perm or to get his hair set. What was worse I felt that I needed some friendly advice about what perm to have and as to how my hair should be styled to make the most of my perm if I did manage to get it done. To make matters worse I was terrified that I might meet a woman, who knew me as a man during the day, when I was in the hairdressers. Just making an enquiry was going to be difficult, getting up the courage to have the perm done was going to be worse.

I didn’t want to go to a cheap place and get a botched job but the more up market places terrified me. I spent a week walking round town looking into hairdressers and failing to summon up the courage to go and talk to the receptionist.

Perhaps the best hairdresser in town was Lynne’s Salon. It occupied the whole of the top floor above a tobacconist. To get to it one mounted a flight of stairs to the side of his shop. I thought that if I walked up these stairs I could get a look into the salon without having to commit myself and could beat a retreat if I didn’t like the look of what I saw. What I hadn’t counted on was being followed closely up the stairs by a young woman coming to have her hair done. The stair way was narrow, she was in a hurry and she swept me into the salon with her. “Good morning Mrs Toms” said the receptionist “Sue is waiting for you. How can I help you sir?”

“I was wondering if you could perm my hair” I stammered. “Well we don’t usually do men’s hair” she said “If you wait there I’ll get Lynne to come and speak to you”. As I waited I looked around the salon. Along one wall was a bank of dryers and on the opposite wall was a line of basins. The third available wall accommodated the styling positions and two permanent wave machines with their heaters hanging in bunches from the wires. There were trolleys loaded with rollers curlers and clips and just visible behind a curtain were shelves loaded with towels, pots and bottles. It was an open salon without the cubicles usual in most hairdressers at that time

“Hello, My names Lynne” she said. “I gather that you want us to perm your hair. Well I don’t see why not if that’s what you really want.” I stammered something in reply. “Why don’t you come and sit down at a styling station and let me have a look at the problem” she said.

She sat me down and combed out my hair. “It wants styling badly” and “yes it is very soft fine and floppy and could do with a perm. It’s a bit short but I think we can manage. You do understand that if we do this for you, you are stuck with it until it grows out? I’ll just get Anne, who will do your perm to come and talk to you and she can book your appointment”.

Anne when she came was a no nonsense matron of about forty. Her neatly waved hair was quite short, was arranged in deep waves round her head and came down over her ears in soft curls. “Lynne tells me that you want to have your hair permed” she said. “I was thinking about it” I replied.

“You could certainly do with something to tidy up that mop of yours so we had better get on and book your appointment, when can you come in and would you like morning or afternoon? I muttered that I thought that afternoon might be best. “I’ll just get the appointment book and we’ll see what we can fix up” said Anne. She came back with the book.

“What about next Thursday at two o’clock. That means that you will be finished by about five thirty “she said. “I suppose so” I replied.

“I think you are being very sensible I’ve been trying to convince my husband to have this done for years. I think we will give you a Eugene perm, that’s the one that I have. It will give you lots of nice deep waves like mine and if you come in for a set now and then it will last you for about six months. You will keep the appointment won’t you! There I’ve written it in to the book Mr Coles, two o’clock on Thursday for a perm we’ll see you then.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “I suppose that you are not having this done because you like to cross dress” she said “If that’s so then perhaps we can help you.” “Well “I said “I do cross dress at home and do sometimes come out dressed as a woman but usually only when it is dark.”

“I’ll speak to Lynne” she said “If you came in as a girl it might be easier for us and for you also, do you think you could do that?” “I think I might “I said.

I left Lynne’s in a daze.

Thursday came and I was filled with a curious mixture of dread and anticipation half of me was looking forward to the afternoon. The other half was telling me that I was about to do something very silly. By twelve o’clock, anticipation had won and I started to get dressed before setting off for Lynne’s salon.

I pulled on my corselet, did up the hooks, pulled up the zip and slipped the padding into the bra cups, enjoying as always the feeling of being held firmly. Then I pulled up my nylons and fastened them to the corselet. Pretty pale blue nylon panties and slip completed my underwear. I sat in front of the mirror to put on foundation, powder and lipstick

Now I was ready for my dress. I stepped into a royal blue mid length A line dress with long sleeves, zipped it up at the back and fastened the belt. There was no need to do my hair but I would need a matching scarf. Now I was ready to go but wasn’t at all sure that I really wanted to. I told myself that I had already made that decision and had better get on with it. I slipped on some comfortable shoes with two inch heels checked my hand bag for comb, handkerchief, keys, lipstick and money and got into my car to keep an appointment that I half regretted making..

I walked past the entrance to the stairway to Lynne’s three times before I could summon the courage to mount the stairs to the reception desk.

“Hello Miss Coles” said the receptionist “Anne isn’t quite ready for you. Please take a seat”. I sat down in the only chair available next to a blonde woman, whose roots were dark brown. I wondered whether to take my scarf off or leave it on. I felt that she was eying me. It was an uncomfortable feeling. I was saved further embarrassment by an assistant, who took her off to have her roots done.

“I’m ready for you now” said Anne “Has Mrs Clarke been giving you a hard time? You don’t want to take much notice of her she has a go at everyone. Come over here and I will style your hair before we shampoo you”.

She slipped a pale green gown over my shoulders and layered my hair keeping as much length as she could but giving it some shape. Then after a shampoo I was put under a dryer to get my hair dry for the perm.

She led me back to the styling station again and wheeled up a trolley laden with rods pads and clamps. She also wheeled over one of the permanent wave machines and plugged it in.

I looked at it with apprehension. Each heater hung on its own wire which could be adjusted for length. They had insulated tops so that the operator could handle them when they were hot and were tubular to slide downwards over the perm rods and to rest against the rubber pad which protected the scalp. Don’t worry she said I’ve had this done many times and it’s not as bad as it looks.

She picked up what looked like a button hook with a lot of black rubber pads on its shank, hooked small section of my hair and pulled it through a pad, which she slid down against my scalp. She repeated the process until all my hair stood out in tufts from the pads, which overlapped protecting the whole of my head.

She then took a thin metal rod with a slot in the end and fastened it to the base of one of the meshes of hair with a piece of twine. She then wound a spiral curl up the rod fastening it to the rod with the same piece of twine. The rod and its curl hung down over my forehead in front of my eyes. When all the curls were wound the rods hung down all round my head. I could feel them swinging as I moved.

“That’s twenty eight” she said.” Becky can you please bring me twenty eight sachets and the perm solution”.

The sachets were of oiled paper on the outside with an absorbent lining which Becky soaked in the solution, which smelled of ammonia. Each sachet was wrapped round its curler and tightly secured just above the pad with a flat ratchet clamp which pulled everything very tight indeed. By the time all twenty eight sachets were in place I began to feel that there wasn’t room on my head for anything else. The curlers and their sachets stuck out all round my head and began to feel quite heavy.

Becky moved the machine to just behind my chair so that the heaters hung over my head. I could feel the heat radiating from them. They both started to put them on to the curlers. Anne took hold of the lowest curler at the back of my head on the right hand side, lifted it up and slid a heater down over the sachet. She then adjusted the length of the wire connecting it to the machine so that most of its weight was supported and it was held at right angles to my head. Becky did the same on her side. They began at the back and worked forward towards the front. As they slid each heater over its sachet and curler it rested on its rubber pad and they adjusted the length of its wire before putting on the next one. As the heaters slid down over the sachets, I could hear the perm solution boiling inside them. The smell of ammonia was very strong. There was not very much sensation of weight but I could not turn my head so was kept looking straight into the mirror.

I did not recognise what I saw. The heaters with their wires stuck out all round my head in a halo and I was afraid to move. It was however really very exciting and I knew that I would be back in six months for another perm. I had found the whole process of having my hair done supplied something that I had missed without knowing it. It was something that I very much wanted to have done again..

“You will have to stay and cook for a few minutes more” said Anne. “I’ll stay with you to make sure that nothing gets too hot”

After what seemed to be a very long time she switched the machine off. When every thing had cooled, Anne and Becky took off the heaters, clamps and sachets and unrolled my new curls. They were tight and corkscrew. “Don’t worry” said Anne “that will give you a nice firm wave when we have set your hair. We’ll just give you a shampoo and set you on nice big rollers. We will comb your waves in when you are dry”.

After the shampoo she rolled up a trolley laden with rollers and, having combed some setting lotion through my hair, she set it on one and a half inch rollers and put on a big pink setting net.

“Your nails are a mess” she said “Becky could do them for you while you are under the dryer. Would you like that?”

As I sat under the dryer I enjoyed the luxury of a manicure and had my nails polished to match my lipstick. “I see that you aren’t wearing earrings “said Becky “We could pierce your ears for you, if that would help. With your nice new hair style you would look very good with some long danglers”

When my hair was dry Anne led me to a styling station where she took out the rollers and combed through my curls. “I’d like to comb in some waves like mine and give you some nice soft curls at the ends over your ears” she said.” I’ll just get some wave clips to hold the waves while I work”. Ten minutes later I had a head full of deep waves held by shiny aluminium “Lady Jayne” wave clips. “I’ll just use a little lacquer to hold your set and then we will get the clips out and you can see your new self”.

The new me that I saw in the mirror was exactly what I had wanted for so long. My hair, face and hands all looked so good. “I wish I had had this done years ago” I said. “You’ll have to look after your perm ” said Anne “We’ll sell you some wave clips and you must put them in your waves when you have a bath and you must use a slumber net at night, we’ll sell you one of these too. You’ll have to get used to coming in to us for a shampoo and set now and then to keep your new hair style nice. I’ll just get the book and we can fix your next appointment”.

The next time I went to Lynne’s I did have my ears pierced and continued to go there for the next twenty years always returning to the Eugene perm because I never found anything as good. I never liked being drowned with water in a cold perm and was sad when in 1975 the perm solution became unavailable. I and the few other diehards like me then had to put up with a cold perm. It’s not the same thing at all!



( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 16th, 2007 10:08 pm (UTC)
Machine perm
I loved this memory of your perm so long ago. Just two things I was quite surprised about.

You say the salon was open and had no cubicles. I think that was unheard of at the time (1950). All the women's salons I knew (not that many I concede) had cubicles. The idea of open plan came in much later. The high class Mayfair salons started doing it in the mid 1950s; but smaller and provincial salons took much longer and it was into the 60s before it became normal. Are you sure it wasn't opened up later.

Similarly, I was surprised to read in your story that the stylist set your hair on rollers. Again my memory is that rollers were introduced later in the 50s and had replaced curl pins and the Lady Jayne clips only by the early 60s. It was rollers that completely revolutionised hairdressing for women wasn't it. So if they were available in 1950, wouldn't they have caught on and become widespread in use? Again, are you sure? I'm not challenging you; but I wonder if your memories may have got mixed up!

Dec. 19th, 2007 04:37 am (UTC)
my first perm,
John, as a closet cd, and open rollermaniac who visits salons regularly for his weekly shampoo & set fix (like a drug addict) I must say what an awesome experience, i have been set once dressed femme in a salon and know what a great thrill that was . congrats on your experience and keep on rolling....
Dec. 26th, 2007 05:39 pm (UTC)
John's first machine perm
What a fantastic experience! I note that John remained a loyal client of the salon for twenty years, due to the kind way in which he was treated, and the good level of service he got. The nearest I came to a machine permanent was a Revlon Computer Wave in the 1980s, but it was nothing like as involved as this.
My first memory of 'open' salons in Britain is around the early 1960s. Rollers came in a bit earlier, along with bigger-domed hood dryers, with clear visors, to accommodate the larger sets. Hood dryers prior to that were visorless 'head huggers' and I can personally attest that they were a bit claustrophobic!
If you come across one of these earlier vintage dryers in working order, you'll may want to try it. In addition to checking the electrical safety, please check that there's no asbestos insulation cladding up in the works, which will have degraded over the decades. The perils of sitting under something puffing asbestos dust over you are obvious!
Dec. 29th, 2007 02:08 pm (UTC)
Re: John's first machine perm
Omg, I didn't know about asbestos. Thank you for letting me know. I'll get this checked out in the upcoming week.
Dec. 29th, 2007 04:49 am (UTC)
DAVID: I wont bring any challenges to the machine perm, all of my permanents were home until high school. As a boy,I'm 57, my mother curled my shortish blonde hair with pincurls, clips and later to rollers. I always speak that she took me to a 'beauty SHOP' as compared to the beauty 'SALON', as it was a neighborhood strip of buildings and the 'downtown' areas had the 'salons' where one might find "Mr Fred" and the women who catered to high fashion were serviced. In the 'shop', that we went to, it was an open space area where guests/kids waiting for their female relatives could easily see the styling areas. But the wash sink was off to one side. But there was a curtained area where women, usually for some special procedure were serviced.
Jan. 8th, 2008 11:05 am (UTC)
Post War hair salons
These memories are getting very interesting. I lived in south London in the 1950s. I can recall that many of our local hair shops/salons were called "Maison" plus the name of the owner - preferably something French-sounding like Charles or Jules. These salons were definitely not unisex and I think they were all divided into cubicles for the clients' privacy. Each cubicle had a curtain on the corridor side which would be pulled across when appropriate. Women, it seems, were still unwilling to reveal to neighbours that they had their hair permed or - perhaps more sensitively - dyed. The cubicle had a sink and a large chair. Hair dryers were wheeled around the salon by the stylists from one cubicle to another.

I recall my mother using curl clips and Lady Jayne clips on my hair as a boy. But the question of rollers was never there because we didn't own any. I've always believed that rollers came in later in the 50s or early 60s.

Can you remember the salons of the 60s after they removed the cubicles? There was a waiting area at the entrance to the salon and swing doors like in saloons of the old westerns. The customer sat in one of the chairs until her stylist or the shampoo girl came through the swing doors and called her in. The swing doors added a tantalising air of secrecy and a feeling that inside was all feminine and a boudoir not available to men.

I also remember a salon that was pure 1930s inside and which continued in use until the late 1990s. It was near the British Museum in London. I tried on more than one occasion to get my hair set there. But I was always told very firmly and politely (by a youngish French woman) that they did not do men's hair. Gone now of course: I hope the interior is preserved somewhere in a museum.

Keep this thread going.

Jan. 9th, 2008 07:20 am (UTC)
Re: Post War hair salons
DAVID: I was brought to the beauty shop, from ages 5-11, and in the States, it was a wide open area, no cubicles; however there was a curtained area, (like in a hospital), that was for women for salon waves, but not with the machines, color and other services that might have been more of a personal matter, including invalids and handicapped. The amount of hood dryers didnt make up for the styling chairs available and often there was a wait after being set. Some women seemed to dislike my presence because I took up a seat..as a child, even if they guessed my gender. As you noted, I believe that rollers were used with my hair at age 9, when my first home permanents were 'neutralized'. Before that age, it was required to wear the curler rods all day or night. THEN setting the hair, which brought the entire event as a very long day or two day ordeal.
Feb. 12th, 2008 06:30 pm (UTC)
Hair salons in Swinging Sixties London
The last time I had my hair done in a cubicle was just before Christmas 1964. The salon was somewhere in Mayfair, in the West End of London. The cubicles were curtained off from the corridor as described. They were dark green baize, I can remember perfectly. I had a trim, shampoo and set, and was talked into having a manicure while I was under the dryer. Yes, these were kept stationed out in the corridor, and were trundled in behind your chair, once you were netted and ready. Everyone was fawningly polite, and the bill at the end of it all was staggering!

The alternative, in the centre of London, was to go to one of what one can only describe as 'hair factories' - the frantically busy salons such as Robert Fielding of Regent Street. These had phalanxes of dryers, styling chairs, basins, and staff, of course, plus huge plate glass windows so the passing public could have a good look at the goings-on inside. The whole operation was geared for secretaries, etc., to whizz in and have a shampoo and set during a one hour break from work. Something to eat and drink, was taken while under the dryer, plus the obligatory cigarette to calm your nerves, as you glanced anxiously at your watch, hoping that you'd be all done and back at work in time!

Meanwhile, out in the suburbs such as Ealing, Monsieur Georges de Paris, held court in his salon. (Of course, the nearest he'd been to Paris was on a day trip to Brighton, probably.) Here the pace of things was much more leisurely, indeed 'Monsieur' never ran to time, as befitted a true hair artist who was always seeking perfection. He was a complete martinet of a little man, and he decided absolutely what 'creation' you were - eventually - going to emerge with! If Georges decided that your shoulder length hair was coming off, and that you were going to have a permed bubblecut, then that was it. Unless you did the unthinkable and ran screaming from the salon, throwing off the styling gown as you fled, you resigned yourself to the scissors and the perming rods. Strangely, everyone still just kept flocking to his salon.

Then along came Vidal Sassoon, the man who freed women from the 'tyranny of the perm!' Off went my chum Bev, and came back with a rather startling 'asymmetric cut' - the one that was in fashion that week. Next up for the chop was Becky, who came back with it lopped off around her ears. This annoyed her, because she had one that stuck out, only a little bit, but she had a thing about it. On balance, and no disrespect to the precision cutting of Mr Sassoon, I decided to stick with the tyranny of the perm and the roller set!

Feb. 12th, 2008 08:14 pm (UTC)
Re: Hair salons in Swinging Sixties London
Thank you so much for sharing your story. It's always wonderful to read how salons were run back then, and how women (and men) felt about the work done.
Feb. 16th, 2008 11:17 am (UTC)
Perm Machine
John's description of a 'falling heat' machine takes me back to the time in the late 1950s in Scotland when my little friend and I went to the hairdressers to sit with her mother - Mrs Noble - while she had a perm. We were both given a quick 'fringe trim' in a side room and then moved into the part of the salon where Mrs Noble was sitting having her perm. Our immediate attention was grabbed by the perm machine. In fact we both shrank from it as we walked past, due to the amount of heat it was radiating! On its roller-mounted stand, with all the wave clamps on the vertical heating elements around, it looked like a huge corn-cob. To add to the drama, there was the smell of hot metal, and that ticking noise that hot metal makes.

Having got Mrs Noble rollered up and suitably protected, the stylist started taking the clamps from the machine and quickly transferring them to Mrs Noble's head. Incredibly, the stylist didn't bother to wear gloves. I remember thinking that I'd be no use at this because I'm terribly 'hot fingered.' As each clamp went on, there was a hiss and a little puff of steam. The characteristic 'rotten egg' smell pervaded the whole salon - you could smell a ladies hairdressers as you walked past in the street in those days, of course. The stylist kept checking to make sure that Mrs Noble wasn't too uncomfortable, because as John has said, without wires to help support them, the weight of all that metal on her head must have been quite substantial. We were sitting watching with our eyes out on organ stops, and seeing that she had our undivided attention, Mrs Noble cheerfully informed us: "You've got all this to look forward to in a few years' time!"

In fact eight years or so later, having left school and prior to going to university, I underwent the 'right of passage' of having my teenage hair cut and my first perm. By then, machine perms were a thing of the past, and it was the 'cold perm' that we would know today. It was tight and short - why did they always insist on cutting it so damn short? - but not as tight and short as Mrs Noble's turned out!

Back in those days, while at school, it was expressly forbidden - on pain of being instantly sent home - to perm or dye your hair. The most you were allowed to have done, in the fifth and sixth forms, was a roller set for the 'Saturday Night Hop.'

How times have changed!

Jul. 8th, 2011 03:23 am (UTC)
i agree
Many thanks.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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