Marcel Waves Will Always Be Cool: Here's How To Get And Wear Them

The rad thing about this waving technique, is once you’ve gotten it down, it can take just a few minutes to add texture to a low, messy bun, or you can curl your whole head for a festival vibe.
Publish date:
April 1, 2014
How-To, wavy hair, curling irons, retro, marcel waves

You probably think of the 1920s when you hear about Marcel waves, and rightly so; they reached their height of popularity during the ‘20s, about 15 years after the first electric curling iron was invented. François Marcel introduced his spring-clamp electric model in 1918, making heat styling safer and easier than ever.

At the time, waving was the primary way that women grew out their bobs. Hair irons were sold touting that they "feminised" the short cuts that young girls would come to regret. Bobs were a lot more edgey 100 years ago.

Before that, women would either wet-set hair by holding it in place with fingers or clips, or used curling tongs that were heated by setting them on a hot stove. I thought about buying some because they are insanely affordable, until I remembered the key scene from Little Women when beauty-challenged Jo burns off a chunk of Meg’s hair right before a party. I’ve always been kind of a Jo, so--better not.

Like every tween hoping to channel just a little Jordan Baker, I crafted elaborate, un-drying wet-set styles, scraped into place using gel and my grandpa’s comb. As I graduated to listening to Led Zepplin and Pink Floyd, the Marcel revival of the ‘60s and ‘70s solidified the style’s place in my heart; softer and brushed out, these waves had big, fluffy, seductive texture.

I got good with a curling iron, flipping it and bending my hair to get an S-wave, then brushing it out for the big hair of my dreams.

I’ve used two-barrel irons, but it’s easier to control the wave and get less of a crimpy look just doing it with a regular clamp-having iron. It also seems to hold longer, probably because most wave irons don’t really hold the hair ON the iron, but just above it.

The rad thing about this waving technique, is once you’ve gotten it down, it can take just a few minutes to add texture to a low, messy bun, or you can curl your whole head for a festival vibe.

You’ll need a ½” or ¾” curling iron, preferably with a clip, a few clips or ties to separate your hair, a comb, and some hairspray.

I have painfully thin hair, so I like to spritz it with hairspray, brush it through, and then do a wee bit of teasing near my roots. It’s always appropriate to tease your roots, really. Aside from optional teasing, you can also either part your hair in the middle, for a more ‘70s look, or deeply parted to one side à la silent film star.

To get deep waves, you’ll need to use narrow sections. Depending on how thick your hair is, about a ½” to 1” section parallel to your part. You’ll position the iron with the handle down (clamp on the bottom), barrel parallel to your part, about 2-3 inches down. Bend your hair into an ‘S’ shape and position your iron.

Clamp the iron, and if you want to deepen the wave, you can hold or roll your hair around the barrel.

Once you have that first wave, you need to hold the curl up so it’s not tugged out while it cools. Doing so will push your hair into an ‘S’ shape, and that is exactly where you flip the iron over, clamp it, and exaggerate the crest of the wave.

Continue like this, supporting the curls while they cool, and giving them a mist of hairspray. After they are cooled completely, I carefully separate and brush through the waves. Depending on the look I’m going for, I might just finger comb them for maximum definition.

If you have somewhere to be in 20 minutes, you can wave just the top section on either side of your part, and pull it into a low, messy bun:

Or, if you’re feeling especially whimsical, wave your entire head, and top it off with a flower crown or headband. Big waves are the perfect summer hair, because they last for days, and can be resurrected with a bit of hairspray and scrunching.

I love to accessorize big hair with big sunglasses, always.

Have you ever tried getting a wave with a curling iron? How are your finger-waving skills these days? Have you ever used some wily old hair curling device? I had some hot rollers from the ‘60s when I was 16; they smelled like the interior of a hot car when they came on.