The following is a true story of my first salon perm, based mainly from memory but also from entries in a diary I kept. I wrote some nice facts and detail from that special day.
It was Wednesday 17th July 1974 and I was 11 and the day of my first perm at a hair salon.
School had broken up for the summer holidays the previous Friday with the customary display of school toilet rolls being thrown out of the bus window on the way home. For the last time, as it happens, because next term it was the big secondary school which was even further away from where we lived.
My home permed hair was looking a bit messy now, needing more and more attention at the bathroom mirror to make it presentable. I remember going on about it quite a lot.
It had been mentioned that there would be no more home perms, mainly because Mum could not really be bothered doing them any more. The Home perm novelty had worn off. She had long since stopped perming grans and the neighbours hair. I was her only remaining client...plus my hair grew quickly and I was only getting two trims at the very best out of my perm before it needed re doing. Which was about 10 to 12 weeks. Where as Mum would go up to 4 months between perms. Perming me was hard work for her I suppose.
The previous Saturday, I listened as she phoned her hairdressers to make an appointment for me. A place called Ian’s Hairdressing. The owner must have answered. I could tell by the way she spoke, because Ian does Mums perms and shampoo n sets, so they get on really well. Eventually she asked for a perm appointment..”for my son” as I wrote in my book. I actually wrote that twice. Ian used to give mum advice on doing my perm, so there was no explanation needed. She admitted she could not be bothered doing it any more etc. and was he still doing the perm offer. That got my attention, oil perms were on offer for £9.99. So, from the bits I picked up that’s what I was getting at 10.30am on Wednesday 17th. I went to my room and duly wrote it all down in my book.
Later the same day I went passed the salon, which was above the dry cleaning shop and there, in the bay window were 3 orange stars of paper saying “special” “Oil perm” and “£9.99”. On the way back I looked at the window again, just to check the offer was still on ! It was.
My Mum said she’d come along, but I said I wanted to go alone. Did not think there was any point as I used to get my home perm trimmed there, so I knew and loved my visits to that shop, with and without Mum.
The day of the appointment came and although I was really looking forward to it, I wrote.. “I got my days mixed up and can’t believe I am due at the hairdressers in just under two hours”
I got up, washed, even did my hair and walked down into the town. This is what I wrote in my diary...
“felt really odd walking down, bit like a space man walked quicker and then I ran. Got to top of the high street a walked down. came to dry cleaners looked at the door. it had stickers on it too like the window. perm offer £9.99. walked on. i did not go in. went down to the end on the road and sat on bench. church bells rang thought it was 10.30 ran back up to shop. stopped at the door and opened it slowly. The bell on the door rang”
The shop shared an entrance with the dry cleaners, to the left the dry cleaners door, straight on was the door to the salon. A glass door beyond which was the wood stair case leading up. I remember hearing customers coming up these steps on other visits, every one in the salon knew someone was about to walk through the salon door at the top.
At the top of the stairs was a frosted glass door, through which you could just see someone moving around.
I opened the door, to a noisy shop... the sound of a radio, hairdryers and people trying to talk over them. I thought, I am finally here, my legs were trembling, I felt as if i was burning up. My face felt hot, had no clear thoughts and was breathing very heavily. Ian said morning, just have a seat. You’re early.. it was only 10.20. The church bells rang every quarter hour so I was in fact early. I sat down next to the reception desk. I don’t think I will ever forget that shop. There were 4 white hood dryers with brown padded seats with arm rests, just to the left of the door as I came in, then moving clockwise from the dryers was the bay window with two seats there and a table in the middle with magazines. Then on the other wall was the 4 styling stations sharing one long mirror with a clock above in the middle, then apposite the door was the reception desk two waiting chairs and a coat/gown stand. Between the door and the coat stand was an open door way , inside which was one front wash basin and one back wash sink and three old pink chairs with padded armrests, one chair in front of each wash basin the other to the right hand side of the basins. Plus lots of shelves with towels on and bottles and stuff.
I looked around and apart from Ian and his wife Susan, I did not know anyone else I knew. I was worried about being seen by someone when I was having the perm. I had been curly for over 3 years and most people who made fun of men with perms did not consider me to have one. I was just a lad who always had very curly hair. Only Paul and Stephen, who were my best friends when I was growing up knew about my perms and could remember me with straight hair..Paul always notice when it had been permed and he could smell it too. I wrote “Paul said my hair smells really bad and to keep it away from him”. He always noticed my newly permed hair and said each time “you’ve had it done again” So my perm was known as having my hair done. Nice I thought. Stephen was more subtle after first seeing me he thought it odd but was not bothered.
There were two customers in.... one lady sitting under a dryer all trussed up in a blue and green flowered gown, towel draped over shoulders. Head full of largish rollers and tight dark hairnet with cream coloured flat sponges over her ears reading Cosmopolitan magazine. The other lady was being combed out...”high hair” I used to call it. My Mum, her friends and Aunt were all high hair people.
I am glad I kept a diary ..“my book” and is something I have read with great affection many times over the years. Without it the little details would have been long forgotten, which are sometimes the most treasured.
I sat there in just a white T shirt, jeans and training shoes, Ian came over and said come on lets get you started. He showed me into the small room and I sat in the chair facing the peach coloured washing basin. He followed me with a gown and asked me to stand while “I put this on you” I put my hands through this huge blue and green flowery gown and he tied it at the neck and waist. The gown was almost at my feet when I was standing up. I pulled up the sleeves of the gown like a shirt sleeve which had elastic cuffs. I sat down and he started running the water. He asked me to lean forward and he put a towel over my neck and asked me to keep tight hold of the edges. He drew my head really far over the basin and the hot water flowed down onto my head and over my face. He washed my hair a few times till he made it squeak....the water stopped and he put a towel over my face and held it there as he pulled me back into the chair. My head and face were covered with towels, his hand pressed on my face while he rubbed my head very hard. He stopped, took away the towels and asked me to come through into the shop.
It seemed like a very long walk to the far styling chair nearest to the bay window. Luckily I could not see below or anyone could see up, so I felt quite happy with that. I did not want to be seen having my hair done. He pulled a trolley of curlers from between two of the dryers and said so we are doing you a curly perm today, glancing up now and then and smiling while he sorted through the curlers he wanted to use. How curly do you want it. he asked...
I was not sure what to say, he used to cut my “home permed” hair, so I just thought he knew what I wanted. He said he can use different sized perm rods in my hair to give a different curl. He said I could have looser curls or something more firmer. I said I did not want looser. I wrote in my book that he said my hair would not be the same as the perms I had before, which I kind of knew, so I said it needed to last till half term, which was over 3 months away. Right, he said so it will be pretty firm then to give you a few cuts between now and a re-perm. Ok he said, I just nodded and he put two baskets of perm rods on the top of the trolley, one filled with brown rods, the other with smaller white ones. These were very different to the glossy plastic looking perming curlers I was used to. And I was relieved that they all were not pink !
He combed through all my hair in a few different directions before pulling up the first tress of hair, he combed it through wrapped an end paper round, pulled the paper up to the end of the hair, he put a brown rod behind the tress and wound to down onto my head pulling the rubber strap over to keep the rod in place. That was different, mums perm curlers had a plastic arm to hold the curler in place.
I had my first perm rod in my hair, a small brown one and I was very proud of it. I could not take my eyes off it. Then another went in and in a few minutes I had a row of rods from the crown of my head to my fringe. This looked great. I knew then I was going to like this very much. I relaxed a bit and we talked but I never wrote what about. The rods kept going in my hair, I could not see any hair not in a rod. He used mainly brown rods with only one white rod just above each of my ears. Then it was head right down while he started on the back of my head. I kept moving my head up slowly to try and see what he was doing. He was not happy about that. He kept putting his hand on the rods which felt really good and moving my head forwards. Just another 5 or may be 6 more he said then you are all in. I kept my head right down while he wound rods on the back of my neck, I could feel these pulling my hair more than the others. I heard him move the trolley and I lifted my head and turned my head from side to side.
Wow. I barely recognised myself..... very neat rows of brown rods with just a few white rods around the neck area and one above each ear. I looked like one of the ladies I remembered having their perms done. Hairdressers and newspaper articles talked about a mans perm, but I knew now this was exactly the same as having a woman’s perm. No difference at all. And in a way, I was glad about that.
Ian asked me to go with him back into the small room, I followed looking at myself in the long mirror. I saw my rodded hair from the side and I looked amazing. I never thought of how I would look in real perm rods. I was not disappointed. The wash room/staff area had no mirrors so I lost sight of my perm rod covered head. I sat in the chair and held onto the arm rests tightly. Ian arranged my gown a bit and put two towels around my neck, one over the front and the other over the back. He sprayed my head with cold water from a spray bottle. He took a small bottle that was next to the basin. He handed me a towel and said “lets go”. I was becoming more nervous now, but in a good way.
He asked me to move over the basin and press the towel over my face to catch any drips. He said don’t let any liquid go near your eyes. So I had my head over the basin with my hands clutching the face towel. I knew this would be messy but never had perm lotion put on this way before. I did not feel anything at first but I could smell the classic perm solution odour and I felt the nozzle from the bottle touching the curlers. Then I started to feel the cold liquid on my head. It was very cold and I shivered briefly. He said it will feel a bit cold at first and there may be a slight stinging sensation. He was right on both things but the sting was more of an itchy sensation. I wanted to scratch my head. All over my head was itchy. Now I realised I was having a perm done, the smell was very strong and I could feel the perm lotion touch my fingers. I rubber my fingers and the lotion felt very greasy. I felt it drip on my ears and run down my neck. I pressed the towel more against my face and as I did that, I felt his hands over mine and he pulled me back into the chair. I took the towel from my face. He used some tissue to remove perm liquid from my skin around the curlers. The he took a long piece of cotton wool and pushed it under the curlers and around my head. He left for a few seconds then put something over my curlers, I now know it was a plastic cap but at the time I was not sure what it was. I felt cold bits of metal going in around my head. Ok he said he knew that my mum used her bonnet dryer to process my perm and we will do basically the same thing. He came round looked at me and asked me to follow him back into the shop.
I held the gown up as I walked back in and briefly looked at myself in the mirror...
I stood near him and watched as he tried clumsily to adjust the height of one of the dryers. While he did this I looked round at myself in the mirror...I could see the dark perm rods through the plastic cap and the metal I felt were hair clips that he used to nip the plastic cap onto the cotton wool to hold in place. I could see 6 clips holding the cap on my head. I looked at the digital clock and it was 11.45. I had been in there for nearly an hour and a half already.
“Ok” he said and I turned around, “take a seat”...The front part of the dryer lifted up, I turned more and sat down, back and deep into the chair. He guided my head under the hood and moved the dryer around a bit. Have you even been under one of these before. I said no. He said I had to just sit nice and comfortable, and keep my head as still as possible, and I will check on you in a few minutes. He stood back and dropped the lid of the dryer. Nothing happened, he reached past me and I heard him flick a switch. The dryer fan started and was very noisy, the air was cold, like a strong wind, the plastic cap started making a flapping noise. Then the air gradually became warmer.
I had a great view of myself in the mirror opposite, I could see me having my perm done. The heat was very nice now, I wrote “this was great, love this lots and lots”.
I looked at the clock 11.52 and felt the now very warm air racing around my head. I closed and opened my eyes a few times. I did not want this to end, I was very comfortable under there ...and then the dryer stopped, I jumped and it was really quiet. Ian came over, he laughed and asked if I was ok. He lifted up the front of the dryer, were you asleep, I said no... I just need to check how you are doing, just sit forward for me. I saw him remove the hair clips and the cap, he started touching a few of the rods and took one out, put it back and said nothing, just put the cap back over and put the clips back in. I’ll give it another 5 mins he said. I was glad to sit back and see the front of the dryer come back over my eyes, the dryer started and the air was nice and warm again. I knew I liked the hairdryer. He left me there for another 6 minutes before coming back and checking my hair again, back under I went for the third time and he stood by me for a few minutes. After checking my hair he said that should do and asked me to go through to the wash basin. It was 12.09.
The dryer was over and I just wanted to see my new hair, I sat by the basin and moved forward, he started rinsing my hair for what seemed like ages, the water was hot and the water sodden cotton wool fell into the basin, the water kept flowing over my face and I had to breathe like I was swimming. Then the water stopped and nothing. I dripped for a while then I felt a towel flop over my head and he pulled me out of the basin and back into the chair. “Not long now” Ian said.
He pressed the towel against the perm rods, and my face. He removed the towel,
I could see..I was expecting to see my self in a mirror, but there was none. Ian used the towel from around my neck for more pressing against the rods. This felt really great. replacing the towel around my neck he put a collar on me. He said it would catch the drips. He started squirting another cold liquid on my head. He said this was the last part and would make the curls permanent. He put cotton wool around the front of my head before leaving. I sat there, the neutraliser just dripping from the rods. This was the worst part, nothing to see. Ian soon came back took the collar off me and asked me to move to the back wash chair. He ran the water as I sat back, removing the collar he said put your head as far back as you can and hold on to the neck towel. I did this and the water flowed over my head. He took away the cotton wool and rinsed my hair. The water stopped and I felt a tugging on my hair.... he was taking the rods out... I listened as the rods fell into the sink. He worked round my head removing the rods and said that I had a load of curls. I smiled and just wanted to see them. I sat there then I had a shampoo and some conditioner put on and rinsed off. I felt his fingers shake my hair all over. My head was wrapped in a towel and he asked me to come through into the shop
My legs were a bit shaky walking back into the shop, and saw a turban towel around my head. I sat down and the towel was removed. I saw curls, but I expected something bigger. More curls. He started to shake his fingers through my hair. It looked just as curly and my home perms, but he worked his magic and as it started to dry my hair took shape, he gave my curls a trim and using a afro comb (something I had not seen before.. I used a fork !!) I asked where I could get one of those, he said I could have the one he was using. I was expecting him to do more but he said I was done and did I like it. I said it looked good. I stood up and he removed the gown, I followed him to the desk where I paid and he gave me my first afro comb as a freeby. I put it proudly in my back pocket. He told me not to wash my hair for 2 days, which I knew and use conditioner after every wash. I left.
As I walked down the stairs I felt very light headed, My hair felt weightless as if I had none. I patted my new curls..it was still damp and I was getting faint smells of neutraliser and perm lotion. I smelt my fingers and they stunk of perm lotion, which was a nice reminder. I walked out onto the high street and crossed the road, I took the long way home. The church clock said ten minutes to one. It was a bit unreal, I had been permed in a shop. I looked in the windows of almost every shop, not at its contents but to see if I could see my reflection...and I could in most. It looked ok. A bit different but good.
When I got home there was no one in. I ran to the bathroom, my hair was drier, lighter in colour and a lot curlier. I started using the afro comb on my hair, pulling it through the curls in different ways. My hair got fuller and fuzzier, the curls were being replaced by frizz. My hair was a lot curlier than I first thought. I had an afro. I wet the my hair and it went back to little curls. This was always amazing. I styled it over and over again. “oil perms are great” I wrote in my book. No more Toni Home perms for me.
I took my T shirt off and the back smelt of perm lotion. I did not put it in the laundry but kept it for a few days, smelling it now and then.
This perm was the first of many At Ian's Hair Shop, I liked my visits more and more each time I went. I had about 4 perms a year using the school breaks as the chance to have my curls renewed. Each time following a similar routine with usually two hair cuts/trims in between.
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