Over-Processed: Interview

by Central Saint Martins MA .

In 2011 the Daily Mail spotlighted nineteen cases of 'celebrities' stepping out in public with their hair rollers in.

Hair rollers traditionally act as a symbol of the private and female space. In 2011 the Daily Mail spotlighted nineteen cases of 'celebrities' stepping out in public with their hair rollers in. The repeat offenders? Katie Price racked up the most mentions, while Johanna Lumley invited references to Hilda Ogden, the Coronation Street veteran hardly seen without her floral cleaning tabard and a row of three curlers.

To investigate the history of hair-rollers, Eleanor Kirby and Elly Wood speak to Beatrice Behlen, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. The Museum is home to the Bassano collection, which contains 3,000 glass negative plates documenting clothing, fashion and accessories taken at the studios of Bassano Limited in London between c. 1912 and 1945.

EK: What do the images shown here tell us about processes of doing hair?

BB: I find hair really interesting because it’s such an extensive topic. We have a box, which has hairpieces in it, a few wigs, some theatrical, we also have a Vidal Sassoon wig in our collection. I find it really interesting that these are the only traces, in a way, of what people did to their hair. Outside of photographs everything else sort of disappears and I think they’re invaluable because hair is such an obvious part of your appearance. To have these is absolutely fantastic.

Throughout the past century, hair rollers have proved themselves invaluable. Starting with the beginning of the century, the idea of showing any process with your beauty regime was unheard of, and men were to have no idea what went on behind closed doors. Moving towards the twenties, and the advertisements in the Bassano collection, we see a shift in how women’s private routines are being shown. The promotional images for Eugene Ltd, are a rare look into the routine of doing ones hair. The sequence featuring the famed Eugene Waver takes the viewer through the journey of getting your hair permanent waved by this extraordinary machine. Although this practice was still private, these photographs show how trade magazines would have promoted this machine, and how they would have learned to copy Eugene’s techniques.

Move forward to the fifties and being the perfect housewife emerges. The use of curlers was seen everywhere - one of the perfect ways to spend your endless days indoors. There are numerous advertisements promoting various types of curlers, each claiming to be better than before. Roll around to the sixties and having big bouffant hair was the trend. You would use rollers to give your hair as much volume as possible then hair spray the rest. The seventies were a time for relaxed hair, with hippie culture taking over and people going back to their natural hairstyles.

Perms were bought back in the eighties, harking back to the curls of the twenties. With perming in salons taking up to 6 hours and another 28 hours to settle, this was another way to show how much leisure time you truly had. Skip forward to now and using rollers outdoors has somewhat become accepted as the norm, long gone are the times of hiding your beauty regime from everyone. Women are proudly displaying their rollers, maybe suggesting to everyone that they are going out tonight, and you most likely are not?

EW: What is the importance of allowing members of the public to see these images?

BB: I would quite happily spend the next three years researching them. What I like about them is they’re for retail purposes - it’s not for high-end fashion. The models are not the slim models you expect. The images are really a fantastic resource just to get more of an idea of the everyday person at that time and what was available to buy and how products were advertised to them. It’s funny because they were so conscious of how different everything was and how modern, in the twenties. So you see a lot of juxtaposition between old and new.

EK: Do you think the technology says something about the time that they were taken? The images seem so metallic and machine heavy.

BB: I think it springs off a belief in machinery. Some people say that after the First World War there was also a lot of disgust in machinery and what it could do. On the other hand, between the wars, you get people developing obsessions with racing cars and being fast. It’s quite a futuristic outlook; this idea that everything will be better in the future and you can solve everything with the right machine and the right equipment.

EK: Do you think Eugene Ltd capitalised on the process doing ones hair?

BB: There definitely is a shift from the ringlet curls you achieve from having your hair in rags, to the waves that almost clung to the head. There is a sense of making the style more permanent in terms of the shape and not having to redo it every night. It’s almost like modifying your body rather than trying to modify what you wear. You could say that after the first world war there were less servants so you had to find ways to do it yourself. Life changed, it was a bit faster, a different life, less time to do your hair every night. I suppose women just wanted to wake up and have wavy hair.

EK: Was there a meticulous sense of hair having to stay in place?

BB: I think it was part of being considered to be proper and well dressed.

EW: Would you say this process was only available to the very wealthy?

BB: I don’t think it was the very wealthy, I would think upper middle class. Those styles involve quite a lot of time investment. You have to consider how often it had to be done or how long they lasted.

EK: Do you think that it was risqué, at the time, to shed light on beauty regimes through advertising?

BB: I presume they were used in professional, specialist magazines for the trade. With corset advertising, you wouldn’t get an undressed female, it’s usually an illustration.

EK: Was there a specific catalyst that made beauty regimes go from being a private undertaking, to something very much brought to public spheres?

BB: There were some regimes that you didn’t have before, for example you just wouldn’t wear make up as a respectable person. I think what does change is mainly the cosmetics - that you can wear it and be proud put it on in public.

EK: It’s interesting that one image shows hair being really undone and wild whereas the more modern style is shown to be very refined.

BB: There’s always a reaction to whatever came before.