My Hair Inspiration is an 1880s Suffragette -- So I Got a Perm

I wanted a vintage, natural-looking short bob. It took me a little research to figure out how to translate those curls into a modern perm.
Publish date:
December 4, 2015
hair care, feminists, perms, suffragettes

The decision to get a perm was a looong time in the making. I definitely wanted one, but I barely knew how to go about getting one. The terms were totally out of my grasp. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be dealing with my straight-beyond-all-reason hair. A billion products to get it to do anything. You know the struggle.

The idea of getting a perm percolated in my head. I actually started a Perm Inspirations Pinterest board, which I highly recommend having. If you don’t know what kind of perm you want, it makes a world of difference to have pictures. Stylists don’t know what you mean. You’re better off pointing and grunting at something.

It wasn’t until attending a premiere of Suffragette that I realized exactly what I wanted: A vintage, natural-looking short bob. Like the ones that these women were rocking. Just like that.

It took me a little research to figure out how to translate those curls into a modern perm. In the 1900s, the decade of my random inspiration, the curls would have been totally natural. If you had straight hair back then, you just dealt with it. What a perm could give me was closer to Billie Dove, a 1930s silent film star. But even those curls were too tight and perfect-looking for what I wanted. I wanted rough, vote-seeking badass curls. Something that looked natural but achieved by styling products.

But the suffragettes (and my weird hair history obsession) pulled through! Turns out, Helena Bonham Carter’s character in Suffragette is based on a real suffragette with badass curls. Her name was Edith Garrud.

Google her. Right now. Seriously, you need to know about her right now. She taught jiu jitsu to suffragettes, and was one of the first people to introduce the idea of athletic women in England. She was the first ever martial arts teacher in the Western world. She assembled a freaking suffragette army, while maintaining her ridiculously fabulous curls. I mean, seriously.

I know I’m not the first person to want vintage-style curls. But I wasn’t copying a pin-up or even a movie star—I wanted to look like regular people from a certain era. It was really weird. But I loved the fact that these curls looked natural and weren’t perfectly symmetrical. I didn’t want a perm job that wouldn’t hold up to daily life. Plus, there were pictures of Edith Garrud rocking her curls in a hat. By the sheer fact that she was a historical figure, I had dozens of hair-modeling photos to show to my stylist. It wasn’t all posed pictures in perfect lighting.

Time for the nitty-gritty details: The perm ended up being mostly a body perm, with the aim of pumping up my super-straight hair enough to give it a naturally curly look. The perm rods ranged to small to medium, depending on the location on my head. This was tedious when I was in the chair, but that’s the best way to have natural-looking curls with a body perm. Otherwise you end up with a super symmetrical look that makes you end up looking like a doll. At least it does if you have a roundish face like I do.

A Portland beauty school offered the best price for a perm and haircut, so I opted for them. They were affiliated with Paul Mitchell, and I didn’t have a lot of fear about a bad cut. Plus, it’s Portland. If you can’t do hair well, you don’t survive very long in this city.

The entire process (start to finish) took about three and a half to four hours. I don’t have an exact time because my phone died halfway through the process while I was chatting with my girlfriends about perm stuff. You know, like with the real suffragettes did.

Here’s me immediately after the stylist finished, loving my brand-new curls:

Aaaaand here’s me three days later, when it’s all washed and styled and I look like a human:

Overall, I’m super happy with the perm. Next time I’ll probably opt for a loose spiral perm instead of a body/volumizing combo. But that’s mostly because of my hair’s stubborn insistence on being as straight as possible. I have to whip it into shape more than someone with more compliant hair would have to. So that may not work for everyone looking for a vintage look.

All in all, I’m super glad that I looked to people from history for hair inspiration. I know it’s unusual. I loooove looking at #hairgoals, but there’s something about those pics that make me feel like I can never achieve that. My hair has and will never approach that level of perfection.

I can’t pose like those people on #hairgoals, whipping it back and forth. I don’t have a billion hair products in my bathroom, nor will I ever. I probably won’t ever be that person. Ever.

I’m not saying I can be a legendary jiu jitsu trainer or a legendary feminist campaigner either. I’m more an occasionally-exercising movie fanatic. But hey, at least I’ve never seen these curls modeled in a pose I could never hope to duplicate. I’m more likely to have a candid shot of me running down the street in a flowy dress on my Instagram than a posed selfie with all my hair swag lined up behind me on the counter. That’s just who I am.

This style of curls survived jail time, withstood police truncheons and stood up to crazy oversize hats. Count me in. That’s the kind of style I want to duplicate. And I can now use the #throwbackthursday hashtag with a whole ‘nother meaning.