Ask Dita Von Teese: What Is The Best Method For Curling My Hair While Maintaining Healthy Locks?

Sometimes, my mistakes and failures in beauty have forced me to come up with new hairstyles that became standards for me, so go easy on yourself, and have fun with it.
Publish date:
April 19, 2013
hair, hairstyles, vintage hair, hot rollers

Dita Von Teese has agreed to be our newest xoJane advice columnist, answering your questions about how to incorporate glamour into your everyday life -- from styling tips, clothing, lingerie, body image, confidence and loving yourself.

Dear Dita,

I recently rediscovered my curling iron and have been trying to breathe new life into my hairstyle by attempting to style it a la Lauren Bacall in Dark Passage, but instead it ends up looking like a hot mess. I'd like to try to migrate away from the curling iron, to keep follicle damage down, but I haven't been able to find rollers that work for me or a curling pattern that is easy to master. What do you think is the best method to keep my locks healthy and retain a perfect curl? Any products (like setting lotions) that I should be using? You must get hair-related questions an awful lot, hope it isn't a bother. Thank you in advance!

Kate Archer

Dear Kate,

Lauren Bacall's 1940s era S-wave hairstyle has always been a big inspiration for me, too! I've been wearing a similar hairstyle in different lengths for the better part of the last 20 years, so I hope my advice in achieving this look will help you.

My hair is naturally extremely straight, and so when practicing and perfecting this kind of look, you need to take into account what your hair type is. I'm going to explain as best I can what my method is, with little side notes to consider according to your own hair type.

First let me start with the basics. I personally prefer a blunt, simple haircut with no layers, or perhaps a few layers just near the front/sides of my hair. It's also easier to perfect this kind of roller set hairstyle with shorter hair, like Lauren Bacall's. The longer the hair is, the harder it is to get those nice waves where you want them.

My hair is fairly fine and naturally very straight, so for me, having layers cut into my hair isn't necessary; plus with layers, I personally find it to be more difficult to roll the ends of the hair, and having layers also makes it more difficult to comb out a smooth wave without a bunch of wild layered ends popping out.

I have a large collection of vintage beauty books, which are full of various authentic vintage layered haircuts, and so I've tried many of them, but for me, having layers always complicated things, so I usually only get precise layers near the frame of my face, if any at all.

Over the years, I've come to the realization that there are easier, modern ways to achieve these kinds of looks, and my next book, "Your Beauty Mark," a step-by-step guide to my brand of glamour, will explain much more of my experiences and knowledge of neo-retro beauty in detail.

My hair reacts best to setting when it is freshly washed and dried, and even better just after I've done my color, but I'm not sure if this experience would be true for everyone. I'm diligent about conditioning my hair when I wash it, usually using a moisturizing mask. Afterwards, I use a small amount of a nice non-greasy leave-in conditioner and a bit of serum. Conditioning not only helps protect your hair, but also helps "bend" the hair into waves and curls.

I've used many methods to set my hair: complicated Dippity-Do wet set pincurls, various curling irons, and many kinds of hot rollers. I've found that for this hairstyle, which I wear nearly every single day, there's nothing that works better and keeps damage to a minimum than using hot rollers.

I like the "bounce" that rollers give my hair, and I feel it's the fastest method, too. Sometimes I set it with a 1" diameter barrel iron and use a duckbill clip to keep each curl in place as it cools. This is a great method, but more time-consuming and certainly with the high heat of a curling iron, there will be more damage over time -- so I stick to my trusty hot rollers about 90% of the time.

A lot of women ask me which brand of rollers is best. I don't actually have a preference; I've got velvet flocked ones and traditional ribbed plastic ones, and I like them to be very hot!

But here's my trick. I buy two sets of rollers, sometimes three (usually on eBay for the best prices) and I toss aside all the large barrel rollers and only use the small and medium sizes. Sometimes you can also buy a set and order extra medium and small rollers from the little instruction/warranty book enclosed.

I use a light setting spray, and unfortunately, I can't recommend a great one to you right now because I've been searching for a good one to replace a discontinued one I've been stockpiling for years now.

Part your hair on the side, quite far, because in the 40s the side parts were usually much more offset. I start at the back of my head and take a small section, brush it out to smooth it, lightly spray it and roll it under from the ends. The less hair you roll, the more heat that penetrates the hair, which means you'll get a better, tighter curl, which is what makes those great S-waves.

These small sections are the reason I usually need two or three sets of rollers to have enough. One set simply wouldn't be enough to set all of my hair.

Roll each section UNDER, taking care of the ends that they are smoothly tucked before you roll the length of the hair. I keep my rollers all in a horizontal pattern rolled under all around. You want the ends to curl under when you brush it out. I like to use butterfly-type roller clips.

I usually like to use smaller rollers and even smaller sections of hair around my face where I really want the curls to be tight so I can get good dramatic waves when I smooth the curls out. I also use smaller rollers on the very last curls near the nape of the neck, because I find that these sections sometimes lose their curl easily and I like the extra volume there underneath.

A few things to mention that work well for some girls: Using steam-set rollers work nicely for some people, and for those with curly hair, using bigger rollers might help to create smoother, retro styled curls. Naturally wavy hair is excellent for creating 40s style waves, but you still need that roller-set to form your natural curls into classic waves.

After my hair is fully set, I do my makeup and get dressed while they cool. The very last thing I do before leaving the house is brush out my hair. The longer the rollers stay in, the better!

My essential tools for styling are a boar-bristle brush, a fine-tooth comb, and several types of Marcel wave and duckbill clips. I take all the rollers out after they've cooled. I then dip my head upside down and brush through my curls with the bristle brush, and spray lightly with an aerosol hairspray before flipping my head back up.

OK, so, now my hair is pretty wild and voluminous, so then I go to work smoothing it out, brushing and forming the waves. (I forgot to mention that I always have a view of the back and sides of my hair because I've always managed to come up with some kind of mirror-situation that allows that. I used to duct tape mirrors onto over-the-door hangers -- whatever it takes, work it out!)

I sort of switch between the brush and my fine-tooth comb which really helps me smooth the waves out. I work my way around my head, noticing what I like and don't like, doing it in sections but blending each section with the others until I get a "curtain" effect and all the ends are rolled under.

I'm quite good at forming Marcel waves, which is something advanced that isn't easy to explain without photos/video, which I will be doing in my upcoming book. I use the duckbill clips to put the waves around my face in place, I use the comb to form smooth barrel-type rolls around my fingers. When I finally get a sculptural look I like, I smooth away the flyaway hairs as best I can and then I spray the bells out of it!!!

Now, I don't wash my hair every day, and I also get some nice sets from the second or third days after washing my hair. Sometimes I can do a quick set with a small number of rollers just to liven up my hair when it's been set already that same day or the day before.

Remember that nothing worth doing comes easy, and you have to keep practicing to see what works for you and your hair. Sometimes, my mistakes and failures in beauty have forced me to come up with new hairstyles that became standards for me, so go easy on yourself, and have fun with it.

Give yourself plenty of time to get ready, play music you love, and try setting your hair on days where you have nothing more important to do than go to the post office or grocery store. Why not have bouncy, pretty hair for no particular reason?

The more you practice, the more you'll learn, and the more prepared you'll be for an important event. I'm not a magician, nor is any great hairstylist! In fact, some of the best hair and makeup stylists in the world were self-taught, so keep at it and believe in yourself!

Look for even more details on this hairstyle and more in my book "Your Beauty Mark" out this fall with Harper Collins.

Happy Glamorizing!



Don't forget to ask Dita all your style-related questions either in the comments or at

Earlier: How Can I Take Care Of My Skin So It Looks Like Yours When I'm 40?