Jan 182009

Guest post by freelancewoman

“Go home, put your curlers in, and we’ll get a fresh start tomorrow.” — Don Draper to Peggy Olson, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”

Over two seasons of Mad Man, Peggy’s evolving sense of style has followed (or better, exemplified) her character arc, even when she backtracks. For instance, Peggy still clinging to her ponytail and Peter Pan collars well after having secretly given birth to a baby out of wedlock, is also Peggy hiding behind that “innocent” look.

And at least one commenter has noted that the Peggy at the end of season two with the more sophisticated “Flip” hairdo and Jackie Kennedy-Courreges style dress — in a color that matches her hair! — is an adult with the fortitude to respond to Pete‘s declaration of love with the unvarnished truth: that she no longer wants him, and confess that she gave away his child.

It’s no accident that Peggy’s two ’dos are emblematic of their decades. The ‘50s ponytail was an iconic badge of that post-WWII economic boom phenomena: teenagers, with their own spending money, a new group advertisers courted assiduously.

Which is why some prefer clip hair extensions. These statement hair clips are the first few they have made.

But enough about hair philosophy: I was there, and I’m now here to report on the mechanics, and special little hell of haircare maintenance for women in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

The 1940s’s pin curl (a tight little hair curl spiral anchored by two crossed bobby pins) evolved in the 1950s to a softer curl, created by — what else? — curlers, smallish hard plastic tubes (often pink.)

And I remember just how hard, because in the days before home hair dryers (1962), electric curlers (1968) — also with no blow dryers, electric curling or flat irons, yet — most women and girls rolled our wet hair up, and slept on a head full of curlers.
Hair in curlers
To add to the discomfort, bobby pins were needed to anchor the hair to some curlers, others sported bristles, clips, sharp knobs or plastic picks to hold the curler in place (and stick in your scalp.)

Women’s magazines published blueprints for curler placement as elaborate as plans for a Death Star.
Sandra Dee Pin Curls

“Universal-International Studios released the drawing at left so you could replicate Sandra Dee’s 1959 look, at right. All you need is several sizes of rollers, some pin curlers and the patience of Job.” Sandra Dee

I remember envying a similar style back in the day but throwing my hands up in despair at the overly-intricate battle plan.

But even Peggy’s simple, skimpy ponytail would have required curlers for the bangs, and for the proper curly bounce at the end.

(In my opinion Peggy’s divided bang is just barely period — only found it a couple times in an internet search of ‘50s-60s hairdos and twice in my yearbook, once on a friend who was obviously having a bad hair day. However, I think it’s the right decision for Elizabeth’s elfin face — in the few scenes with Peggy and a full bang make it seem a puffy, square face.)

Housewives had the option of curlers during the day before hubby came home, or they and working girls (on Saturday) could indulge in weekly style-and-set at the beauty parlor with an hour or so under the standup dryer.

Hairspray liberally applied might save a set for several days, or even a week (especially for an up-do or beehive — think Joan) if it were wrapped in toilet paper for sleep. Although I suspect Joan would employ the silky-feel mob caps or satiny pillow cases also marketed for holding a set.

Ugly rubber or plastic bathing caps for swimmers (some with large rubber flowers) were also used to preserve those curls.

And up through the early sixties at least, “perms” were commonly applied every couple months to hair rolled around a plastic rod, to reinforce the eventual set. My stick-straight, silky blond hair was subject to more than one sulfurous “Toni Home Permanent,” a stinky, scalp-burning experience not improved by my mother’s chant, “You have to suffer for beauty!”

But even with “perms,” curlers were still necessary for the proper look. The wet set took so long to dry on its own that curlers were routinely worn in public (covered by a scarf, usually), which roused the general ire (including the urban legend of a woman sporting curlers at the opera, “because she was going somewhere after.”)

Even women with naturally curly hair weren’t spared the drill because the unfettered natural curl was seen as messy (and no adult woman or teenager would be seen in public with lank, straight hair, either.)

Or for long, even in her own home. After Betty throws Don out of the house, we watch her hair deflate until it hangs limp, but to the friend borrowing a dress, Betty feels she has to the excuse that she isn’t feeling well.

In 1960 my cousin was given a Poor Pitiful Pearl doll, a before-and-after lesson for girls: Pearl in patched rags with straight hair, is pitiful no more once in pink party dress with curled hair.

At some point in the early sixties, curlers got wider to produce sleeker styles like the Flip and began being referred to as “rollers.” With backcombing (called “teasing” or “ratting”) pumping up the volume under the smooth top layer. http://www.fiftiesweb.com/fashion/hair-setting.htm

Again, hairstyles that demanded so much time to create, were often preserved for as long as possible, with hairspray as the lacquer. Prompting the dissemination of yet another urban myth: the woman whose unwashed beehive became the home of a black widow spider (for the sin of teased hair, she either died from the spider’s bite and/or the spider gave birth to multitudes in her ‘do.)

The first home hair dryers in 1962, puffing air through a tube connecting to a bonnet around the curlers, were weak sisters at 300-400 watts compared to our current high-powered 1200-1500 watt blow dryers. http://www.loti.com/fifties_history/Curlers_and_those_Bonnet_Style_Hair_Dryers.htm An hour, or two, before hair was dry enough to brush out, meant a Saturday afternoon blown for Saturday night date hair.

Which is why Kurt cutting Peggy’s hair, and presumably creating her flip, makes it unlikely that they got to the Dylan concert that night.

In high school I longed for a flip, but hated hairspray, refused to tangle up my hair with teasing (still reacting to the “ouch” combing of wet hair as a kid before conditioner came on the market), thought setting lotion produced sticky hair, and I didn’t believe the new “Sleek and Smooth Toni, the Uncurly Home Permanent” was any less likely to produce frizz than it’s predecessors. Besides, I was in the “college prep” crowd, where hairspray, teasing and up-dos were considered cheap, unless for the prom.

I’m a life-long insomniac, so it was especially frustrating that even after a night in rollers, I could manage a turned-under bob, but got a working flip going precisely once, for my high school senior photo, taken in the morning. By afternoon my flip had flopped.

However, that was 1968 and even in my suburban backwater still awash with flips and beehives, it was high time I ditched my curlers.

Which I did by that summer, reveling in my silky split ends for over a decade before blow-dryers, and then perms worn on their own became briefly fashionable twice again in my lifetime.

I’ve since used electric curlers in two widely separated decades, occasionally — teasing and beehive bumps may have returned, but I’m thrilled that my naturally straight hair is again fashionable.

And sleeping on curlers is damned to the past, where only Mad Men women are still tortured so.


  3 Responses to “PEGGY’S HAIR: ‘60s Hair How-To, But Why Would You Want To?”

  1. My mother tells a story of her wedding day, when she had her late 60’s blonde flip set on orange juice cans, and threw coffee grounds out the window, only to have them blow back in and land in her hair. They spent hours picking them out of her ‘do. She cut all her hair off on her honeymoon and never again wore it long (though she was a permanent queen her whole life and never went without a full head of curls or waves.) My grandmother (86) still sets her hair in the morning on rollers (black bristly ones) with a bandana over it and brushes it out. But being an old farm wife, she still wakes at the crack of dawn and it’s dry before anyone else ever gets up. 😉

    I embraced my pin-straight hair in the 90’s. So thankful things have changed! (Though I’m still envious of the natural-curl girls…)

  2. Ha! Thank you for sharing this. I am always fascinated by this and I think I may have mentioned here before watching an episode of Gidget last year (circa 1966) and seeing Gidg and LaRue doing a sleepover and having their hair rolled up, something you wouldn't see now on tv outside of Mad Men.

    A lot of black women still go through all of the things you describe. I know lots of women who put rollers in their hair nightly (to cut down on heat damage) and I have occasionally gotten a wet-set at the stylists or done one at home with lots of rollers under the hair dryer to keep a curly yet not my natural curly-frizzy-kink of my own hair. It was funny when I moved last year and one of my male friends was DUMB-FOUNDED when he picked up my hooded hair dryer; he had no clue about what it was and didn't realize such things exists. I do pin curls and warm rollers still most days, and just got more hair cut off for a trim than I liked as a result of using the warm curlers every week day for a month b/c I was too lazy to pin it up the night before, but it would have been worse with a curling iron. A lot (probably the majority) of black women also still get "permanents" but instead of perms to curl our hair we get perms or relaxers to straighten our hair, and then have to turn around and use the curlers, etc, to give body. Many also, wear nightcaps and special scarves to "wrap" our hair to make it straight, something I don't do well, so I usually skip it. Although it is changing and more black women are going back to wearing hairstyles that don't require chemicals, some with variations on an afro (bigger ones, medium ones, small ones called teeny weeny afro's), some women go with twists, braids or locs (often referred to as dreadlocs, which many find offensive now adays) but except for the afro, the other hairstyles require lots of time, maintenance and money at the hair dressers, and of course the afro requires some special care too.

    I know that for me growing up, even when my white female friends were getting curly perms and doing lots of teasing and back combing (Jersey in the 80's) I still envied them for not being subjected to the relaxers and rolling- hair up and all the other things we black women do b/c our stuff takes longer and plenty of them could still just wash and go or be at the pool and not get funny looks after their hair got wet, something I could never do (well not without many comments and questions). I remember being at a school band trip to an amusement park and getting on an amusement ride and getting my hair wet and having it curl up and frizz out and having a friend stare at me wide-eyed and say "dude, what happened to your hair?" THe things we women go through to fit in and for acceptance.

  3. Very true, Dark Peggy. I just did the "big chop" two weeks ago after growing out my relaxer for three months and am now enjoying a small afro. It's nice to be able to opt of the "relaxer-industrial complex". I've got two curling irons, a flat iron, sets of both velcro and sponge rollers, setting lotion, hair sprays, and $22 salon flat-ironing spray to take to Goodwill. My hair routine is down to shampoo, conditioner, and Carol's Daughter hair milk.

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