There is probably still more setting done at home than in the salon. It was definitely true in the 1960s when every woman set her hair regularly. Stay-at-home women would often give reciprocal sets as an excuse to socialize. Today setting is less common but home setting still leads, what with all of the curling irons and hot curlers out there. Today most women make only occasional visits to the salon. It is just too time consuming and expensive to go as often as desired. Home setters have a number of other things to consider which we will discuss now.
If women could not afford the time or money to go to a salon or were bridging too-far-apart salon visits then she was obliged to set her own hair or have a friend or relative help her. Home setting, as it was called, was done by almost all women up to the early 1970s. Mother would set a girls hair up to about age 11 or so, after which it was a feminine imperative that she master the art herself. The early teen years would be a learning period for the girl as she exchanged her new knowledge with her friends. How often did women in this era set their hair? It seemed that there were three groups of setters. On the one extreme were the “weeklies”. These women were partial to heavily back-combed and lacquered styles that would resist a hurricane. These were usually done in the salon but some would try a “pick-up” set at home during the week in an attempt to revive a deteriorating ‘do. Magazines of the day would often feature such makeshift sets. At the other extreme were the daily or more precisely, the “nightly” setters. These women usually had fussy styles or finer hair or lived in more humid locales that necessitated frequent setting. Others were what the psychologists call “obsessive-compulsive”. This is just another name for “fussy” or “perfectionist”. They would no more think of starting their day without a fresh style every morning than they would without a daily bath. Because of their personalities and all the practice they got they were usually precision setters. Not a hair would be off kilter on their rollers. Among the middle of the road compromisers there were two types. One was the “every other day” crowd. These ladies would have one good hair day followed by one not quite so good day. Their styles were not that durable. The other in-betweener girls were the “bi-weeklies” who would favour more durable styles that could go on three day cycles. Day one was perfect, day two was still not too bad because of all the spraying while on day three things were getting ragged. That meant it was time for another set. A woman’s skin condition would also affect the setting cycle. Those with oily skin needed to set more often since the sebum and sweat would eventually cover the hair shaft and this destroy the set. Lastly, climate was a consideration. Dry atmospheres extended the life of sets while rainy or even humid ones made daily setting mandatory. So, as we can see home setting frequency varied according to personality, lifestyle, environmental and hairstyle requirements. Today we still have these divisions even though most women do not set their hair as often as in the 1950s and 1960s.
The first thing that these women must learn is how to set their own hair.This is done in a number of ways. Many girls in the setting heyday were introduced to the process at a fairly early age, as early as toddlerhood. Most mothers would do their hair regularly to ensure that the daughter always looked her best. Others might only set for special occasions but most girls regularly had their hair set. Once a girl was 11 or so she was then considered to have enough manually dexterity to do here own hair. Also by this time the girl was taking much greater interest in her appearance so she also was motivated to doher own hair. Learning the basics of setting was a requirement of any self respecting teenage girl in mid-20th century. They would learn the basics from their mothers but would also learn from sisters, cousins, friends, neighbours or their hairdresser when they did go saloning. They would soon be supplementing this with other ideas from their peersand the many fashion books and magazines that explained the process.Once into her teens regular setting was a part of the girl’s life.
Home setters usually had a narrower selection of implements to choose from so that would limit their style choices. It was not practical to have every type of implement possible. Even if it was some implements are beyond the skill level of many. Since they were not setting hair all day every day like a professional home setters take much longer to reach an acceptable skill level. This again means simpler styles. Fancier ones will have to be done in the salon.
Home setters had to consider their drying routine.In earlier decades dryers were not readily available so hair had to be air dried. This could be a long process if the hair was longer. Stay at homes would set their hair in the daytime so that it would dry before evening when hubby came home. Those who worked outside the home would have to set theirs at bedtime so that it would dry overnight. Either way, a woman spent a significant amount of her day in curlers.
If they stay at home during the day they may be able to leisurely air dry their hair. But if the hair is en pli all day the exposure question will arise.
To Hide Or Not To Hide?
Ever since women curled their hair with rags they have had a problem. They wanted to put their best foot forward and look presentable at all times. But in order to get to that point it took a fair amount of drying time, enough time that being seen in setting implements was unavoidable for most. But female pride did not want to be seen in that condition since it destroyed some of their mystique, among other reasons. When bobbed hair became the rage in the 1920s setting became much more important. You couldn’t hide bad hair with a tight updo anymore. The new shorter styles usually required some sort of setting. So the “exposure problem” and how it would have to be dealt with soon became institutionalized in women’s lives. It would rear its head every time a woman washed her hair. In fact the term “washing their hair” was usually meant by women to include its setting and drying. It was an ever ready excuse for avoiding a date with someone you would rather not go out with. It worked because that was considered such a grooming necessity that the frequent need for it could not even be debated by men. Women resigned themselves to washing their hair, setting it themselves and then letting it dry naturally. Home dryers had not been invented yet and would not be until wet setting was about to be replaced by other methods.
The well heeled, the 20 to 45 crowd, working women, and the middle classes in general tried to avoid being seen in curlers. These groups could either afford salon time or had more to lose by breaking the rules. The latter might do their hair privately at home where no one else need see them. To them it was considered very gauche to be seen in rollers outside the home or beauty salon, since there was no need for it. You never went out in the street or appeared in front of important or even unimportant people with your hair set. These women had to watch their public image so their settings were not seen in public.
The young, the old, the poorer and the hopelessly married however, were less squeamish about going “out” rolled up. They may have tried to emulate their better-off sisters but this was not always possible. Those women from more modest circumstances had many things to do during their days, even if they were “only” housewives. They had to do their hair themselves, at home, busy or not. Women were resigned to spending a certain amount “curler time” whenever they washed their hair. Some might set their hair at night but many did not like to sleep in curlers. If so they simply had to swallow hard and resign themselves to being periodically seen in public in curlers. This was not officially viewed as something that made a woman more attractive. But since all of her friends were in the same boat, no great stigma attached. So these women had to adopt a more pragmatic attitude to their being seen in their curlers. It became something that others were just going to have to put up with at regular intervals if she was to stay presentable. So others had better get used to it! To that end many used colourful kerchiefs to cover the offending curlers but everyone still knew from the bumps that their hair was rolled up. So curler adorned women in public places were a mark of the working classes to many people. In a strange twist of the decency rules some women from the working classes would also try to avoid being seen by others en pli, even strangers, but their husbands were never spared this supposedly awful sight. Compare the above photos to those on the next page. There we see an example of perfectly set vintage pin curls. This was taken about 1950 but it shows some of the attitudes in vogue at the time, ones that we still deal with today. Note the use of a scarf to hide non-essential parts of the set in each particular view. This is a good example of exposure and hiding used both at the same time to good effect.
The exposure problem was a special problem for teenage girls. These girls often would socialize with friends of either sex after their homework was done in the evening. The trouble was, that was when hair would often have to be set for the next day as well. But they felt that they just had to go out and see their friends no matter what. They also had to set their hair since no self-respecting girl of feminine bent would want to be seen in un-styled hair. So that forced public curler wearing. The etiquette books would all tell these girls that they should never appear that way in public but such advice often did not fit their situations all that well.
In about 1990 rollers came back into fashion again when the styles of the 1960s were given another look. After two decades of freedom from wet setting it might be difficult to get women back into the rollers needed for some of the retro styles. Well, at about this time someone hit upon the idea of dry setting with Velcro rollers and special lotions. This would set the hair very quickly without the need for spending long periods en pli. This worked out especially well since many such styles would only be styled for an evening. In the old days many wanted their style to last for several days. So if durability was not necessary then the road was cleared for a roller revival. Models were made to look purposely attractive in order to convince younger women that it was now OK to set their hair again.
This entire history lesson tells us that women have liked their curls but have not always felt comfortable in being seen as a curly work in process. This view was backed up by the general views of many people who were in positions to give them advice. The official word was that curling devices were a necessary evil that need not be seen in public. But we will soon find out that that view was not universal by any means.