- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

BERLIN

A century has passed since a German hairdresser invented the perm, but the technique that for years put an extra bit of bounce in tresses finally has gone out of style.

“I will not even allow that word to be mentioned in my salon,” Berlin’s foremost society hairdresser, Udo Walz, recently told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily, one of Germany’s largest newspapers.

The problem with the perm 100 years later is the same as the day it was born in a salon on London’s Oxford Street in late 1906: It makes curls but at considerable cost to the health of the hair.

Nobody paid more dearly than the wife of Karl Nessler.

The immigrant hairdresser from the town of Todtnau in the Black Forest twice scorched off his spouse’s hair and burned her scalp in a torturous process of trial and error.

Once Nessler had perfected and patented the perm, it still involved vast amounts of sodium hydroxide and metal rods heated to 100 degrees Centigrade (232 degrees Fahrenheit) and hooked up to a chandelier to supply an electric charge.

Nevertheless, it meant an end to going to bed in uncomfortable curlers and took the world by storm.

Nessler emigrated from London to the United States in 1915. He died in relative poverty in 1951, never having recovered from the stock-market crash of 1929, which swallowed the fortune he had made from his invention.

The perm, however, went from strength to strength, providing hope and relief for the straight-haired throughout the decades.

When women cut off their hair in droves in the 1920s, it was adopted by flappers who did not care to copy American actress Louise Brooks’ sleek “bob” and later by 1950s housewives who would not have a hair out of place.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the perm was bigger than ever.

“Hair,” the emblematic musical of the hippie generation, was a hit on Broadway and beyond, and soulful pop singers such as Leo Sayer and Art Garfunkel helped introduce the tight, frizzy-curled “Afro” look for men.

Hairdressers look back in horror at the 1980s, when the volume was still turned up a notch.

“It was awful … curls, curls everywhere,” says Josef Kueveler, artistic director of the federation of German hairdressers.

Women may argue that at the time they needed big hair to match their shoulder pads, but, says German star hairdresser Martina Acht, “More often than not it made you look as though your hair dryer had exploded in your hands.”

The perm cut through social barriers and was sported by the stars of hit nighttime soaps such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” heavy-metal head-bangers and European footballers alike.

Years before former England captain David Beckham brought his capillary cool to play, legendary West German striker Rudi Voeller, who helped his country win the World Cup in 1990, sported a mop of gray-blond curls that earned him the affectionate nickname “Auntie Kaethe.”

Those heady days came to an end in the mid-1990s, when the grunge movement made natural the new look and long, limp locks the norm.

Since then, the quest for shiny, healthy hair has only grown. Women are reaching for organic shampoos and shunning the perm, which still can leave hair brittle and dry despite refinements in the procedure.

A poll conducted by the German research institute GfK showed that just 3 percent of German women still have their hair permed.

Nevertheless, the father of the perm will not be forgotten. There are plans for a museum in Todtnau to celebrate Nessler’s achievement.

“He started a worldwide revolution, and we are proud of him,” says the town’s mayor, Andreas Wiessner.

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