‘No one wants to hide their curls anymore’: The return of the Kim Basinger-style perm

We asked a stylist specialized in curly hair for advice about the style that Julia Roberts, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Basinger popularized in the 90s

Celebrities with curly hair.
Celebrities with curly hair.

The Japanese hair-straightening technique. The boom of home straighteners, first made of porcelain, then with innovative wireless technologies and integrated in hairdryers. Anti-frizz products, from shampoos to lotions, oils, sprays and treatments. Keratin in the 2010s. Aside from a few exceptions—like the fever for Gisele Bündchen’s surfer waves—the last twenty years of hair trends have been all about straightening, stretching, polishing, ironing and eliminating unruly, wavy and rebellious hairs.

The war on curls was linked to the beauty ideal of a smooth, long mane. But the world has changed, and so have beauty standards. Diversity is taking over: if 40% of the European Caucasian population has wavy hair, and 15% curly, compared to almost 100% of the population of African descent, why do we try so hard to change our hair’s structure? For decades, no one has been comfortable with their natural hair. But something has changed: the trend of shaping baby hairs—the wisps that appear along the hairline, along the nape or around the face— paved the way for the curl’s return. Now, things have gone one step further. We are in a golden moment for natural curls, and in 2023, we are seeing the return of the permanent wave, a style that 30-somethings in the 90s wore to emulate Julia Roberts, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Basinger. For proof, look to the latest appearances of Katie Holmes and Emily Ratajkowski. We spoke with Elías Pedrosa, stylist, co-founder and creative director of Oculto Hair Club in Madrid, where he specializes in cutting and treating curly hair.

“More and more clients, both men and women, are interested in these treatments. But above all, I’ve noticed that no one wants to hide their curls anymore, and they ask me for haircuts to emphasize them and tips on caring for and styling them,” he said. The wave in style now is different, he noted. “It’s more open, less nineties. The technique has improved a lot to get more natural and sophisticated looks that fit today’s fashions. It’s important for the cut to complement it so that the look is fresh and current.” The technology behind the perm has changed, the stylist added “Just as the technique has improved, the products are now less aggressive and give better results in all kinds of hair.”

What is a perm and how does it work

“The permanent wave is a chemical process through which the desired form is fixed in the hair. In this case, we use special rollers or curlers. The duration is indefinite, as once we’ve done the treatment, we can only eliminate the curl by cutting the hair. I advise repeating the process every four to five months, as the hair’s root will continue growing, and that marks a difference between the growth and the treated hair,” the specialist explained.

“Its duration all depends on the type of curl we want to create and the hair’s natural state. The effect will last longer if all we want to do is define the existing wave, compared to, for example, creating an afro effect in straight hair. My advice is to avoid it in very straight hair, as when the root grows it will be more visible, but it can be done in all kinds of hair, including for hair in which the curl doesn’t fully take shape, and we need that extra help,” he added.

What to have in mind before a perm

“Remember that, as its name says, it is a permanent chemical process, and once done, you can’t go back. The only way to recover your hairstyle will be with patience and time, visiting the salon to cut it as it grows. This process breaks the follicle’s structure, so that if we try to revert it, the hair will break. It doesn’t matter whether the hair is natural or colored, but it should not have highlights or permanent straightening treatments,” Elías Pedroza explained. The length of the hair “will depend on the effect we want to get. We have to take into account that the curly hair after the perm will look significantly shorter. The ideal before any type of treatment like this is to do a professional Olaplex-type treatment to reinforce the internal follicle structure,” he recommended.

How to care for your perm

“We advise using products that hydrate and add protein to the hair, shampoo and conditioner whenever you wash it, and a mask once a week. Even though you have a perm, your hair won’t style itself. You’ll have to use a styling cream and diffuser if you want to see it in all its splendor,” the stylist said.

What to have in mind for a perm on dyed hair

A recurring question about perms is how coloring affects the process: if my hair is dyed, can I get a perm? “Yes, as long as you don’t have bleached highlights or an overall bleach. There is a perm specifically for dyed hair. The stylist should evaluate your hair and decide whether or not the treatment will work,” Elías Pedrosa explained. And once the perm is done, do I have to wait to color my hair? “The best thing for chemical processes is to wait one to two weeks to confirm the treatment’s success and to make sure that no oxidative compounds from the dye will interfere.”

What about my haircut? Should we forget layers?

The haircut is one of the keys for a curly mane to shine. In the expert’s opinion, “it’s absolutely essential. You can have a gorgeous curl, but if the cut isn’t well executed…an absolute disaster. Many people don’t discover that they love their curl until it’s cut correctly,” he said.

The technique depends on the desired effect. “Having layers or having all the hair at one length will have different effects on the hair, the volume and the curl definitions,” explained Elías Pedrosa, who assesses each client in order to reach the ideal style. “I specialized in curly hair because I saw a high demand of people with curls looking for good cuts, but few professionals capable of doing them. Today I can say that a large part of my clientele has curly hair, and through word-of-mouth, I get more and more. Culturally, it used to be that having curly hair meant having messy hair. No one taught us how to take care of curly hair, and most people that I know have had little traumas because of the lack of hairstyling tips. It’s as simple as hydrating the hair well, using a definition product that hydrates and removes frizz and letting it dry naturally. With those steps, it will change and look better.”

Although it was trendy in the nineties, the perm isn’t a modern invention. On October 8, 1906, the German hairstylist Karl Ludwig Nessler was the first to do a perm demonstration in his London hair salon. Nessler combined the method of Marcel Grateau, who in 1872 had developed a curling iron, with other chemical techniques. The process consisted of soaking the hair in an alkaline solution—at first a mix of cow urine and water—and winding the strands around heavy metal curlers that were heated with an electrical machine. The problem was that the process took six hours, and the temperatures reached were too high. Even so, Nessler perfected his technique, and in 1909 he received a patent for the first electric permanent wave machine.

Another solution arrived in the thirties. The American chemists Ralph L. Evans and Everett G. McDonough came up with a revolutionary method to achieve curls without applying any heat, just a chemical substance that curled hair within a day. The ointment was too aggressive on the scalp and hair, but it set the basis for the modern perm. Shortly thereafter, in 1938, another American, Arnold Willatt, invented the cold perm, which consisted of winding the hair on small curlers and applying a lotion—ammonia thioglycolate—that attacked the hair’s cellular structure. The substance destroyed keratin, the protein that gives hair shape and elasticity, and made the hair manageable. Willatt then added an oxidation lotion to give the hair a curly shape.

In recent times, technology has evolved to less-aggressive techniques that are kinder to the scalp. A new method of curly hair care has spread through social media and hair salons. As EL PAÍS described the “curly girl method” in a recent article, “The origin of this trend goes back to the early 2000s, when the American stylist Lorraine Massey wanted to create a guide to getting well-defined curls, without frizz and without chemical products. Massey’s experience became a book, Curly Girl: The Handbook, which led to a community that, today, includes millions of people all over the world. Her system, known as the #curlygirlmethod, is more alive than ever on social media, where her followers share advice and experiences so that anyone can put the method into practice.” The method is based on hydration and the respect for natural hair in order to get beautiful, voluminous curls. “In the weekly care and washing routine, she proposes spacing out washes and nourishing hair using products without sulfates, silicone, mineral oil and waxes. In the case of curly hair, she advises not brushing it dry and styling it while wet. It can be untangled and molded with the hands or with a wide-tooth comb,” the article continued. This method heralds the end of straightening irons: “It is not recommended to use any heat source on the hair, so dryers or curlers are discouraged.”

The change from the cult of straight hair to devotion to the curl could be trivial if it weren’t part of a celebration of more inclusive, realistic beauty. After the sizing revolution—which fashion’s 2000s revival has called into question with the return of the stick-thin model—and the celebration of gray hair, the return of the curl perfectly fits in with the nostalgia of the Y2K aesthetic now popularized by Gen Z.

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