A Generational Shift: From Bouffant to Hot Comb

As a teenager growing up in London in the 2010s, it was a rite of passage to ask for hair straighteners for Christmas – at least it was for my group of friends from our Catholic all-girls school. I remember when I got my first pair of straighteners at about 14. I was overjoyed. I could get rid of the kinks in my hair, and there was no need to go around to my mate’s house to get her to straighten my hair. I could frazzle my hair away on my own terms.

Everyone had to have straight hair: no matter who you were, no matter what texture your hair was, even if it was straight already, you’d straighten it. Dead straight. No-room-for-movement straight. Not only were we at ease because we were fitting in, we’d also have hours of fun sat, splitting our split ends.

I’d look at photographs of my grandma and her friends with their bouffant hairstyles. I used to call the style ‘pie heads’ because it seemed as though they had just set something on top of their heads, covered it with hair, and put it in the oven to bake. (I wasn’t far off, to be fair.)

But I was confused. What was under there? How did it stay in place? And why on earth would they put themselves through the arduous task of defying gravity for a hairstyle that wasn’t even cool?

Grandparents and friends, Hyde Park Hotel, 1972.

Recently, my grandma and I were looking through old photographs, as we often do, and I came across this image of my grandparents with their group of Welsh friends who all moved to the South East London/Kent area in the mid-fifties. You can see each of the women’s hair is immaculate; their curls look as though they would stay completely still even through ferocious head-shaking. My grandma told me this was possible because of hair pieces and expert hairdressers, stating:

“I wore a hair piece. Everywhere you went people back combed and permed their hair. Generally, if you didn’t have natural curly hair you would have it permed to give it body and curls. I used to have a demi-perm which would last about 6-8 weeks. (My hair, if I had a full perm, would frizz so I had a weaker solution).”

Her hairdresser, friend and neighbor, Judith, would do my grandma’s hair for these special occasions (she was a lecturer at Bromley college for hairdressing, my grandma hastened to add): “Judith would buy the dark chestnut hairpiece and give my hair a rinse [with dye] – which would last about 4-6 weeks – so that it would match the piece exactly. She would wash my hair, put rollers in and put me under the dryer. At the same time, she would wash the hair piece and put it under the dryer next to me.” The idea was to give more height and volume to the style.

Grandparents, Hyde Park Hotel, 1971.

I asked my grandma the question that had been burning inside me since my teen hair days. But why? Why would you go through such a laborious process for one night?

Magazines were full of photographs of these hairstyles and suggestions on how to wear your hair: “I used to read Vanity Fair in the hairdressers to look at new styles.” Some hairdressers were major celebrities at the time and mixed with high society and theatre stars.” She urged me to look up ‘Monsieur Raymond’ AKA Mr Teasy-Weasy AKA Raymond Bessone.

Raymond Bessone was Brixton-born but adopted a faux-French accent. He was affectionately called Mr Teasy-Weasy after his trademark of ‘teasy-weasy’ curls. He opened his Mayfair salon in the 1950s and became a critically acclaimed celebrity hairstylist in Britain and the U.S. His own presentation, as seen on TV, was immaculately flamboyant. His suits were consistently decorated with dyed carnations, and his dogs had their hair dyed to match whatever Bessone dictated to be the colour of the season.

Bessone saw women’s hair as a work of art. “It must have balance and composition. Lines must mean something, with every curl adding to the whole effect.” He was concerned with creating a complete look that crowned the woman’s face. In his 1957 style called the Shangri-La, he pronounced the four main principles of hairstyling: “colour, line, youth and softness.”

His voluminous, precise styles transformed women even in the depths of South Wales, where, in the early 50s, my grandma would be sat home perming her and her sister’s hair to get the perfect bouffant.

However, my grandma noticed a shift happening around her at the end of this decade: “Mary Quant had her hair cut in a straight simple style and the times changed drastically.”

Clothes designer Mary Quant, one of the leading lights of the British fashion scene in the 1960’s, having her hair cut by another fashion icon, hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, 10th November 1964. (Photo by Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ironically, Mary Quant’s famous hairstylist who gave her the geometric ‘wash-and-wear’ cut in 1964, Vidal Sassoon, began his training under our very own Mr Teasy-Weasy in his Mayfair salon. Sassoon revolutionised not only the look of femininity, harking back to the ‘gamine look’ found in the first part of the century, but also the process of looking after your hair. Much like Quant’s designs, Sassoon’s cut was ready-to-wear. This revolutionised hairdressing from the technique of the hairdresser, working with lines and geometric shapes to match the face and the personality of the sitter, to the routine of the customer, as it released women from the chore of getting their hair in the salon every time there was an event. They only needed to go every six weeks for a trim to upkeep their natural style.

Why has the novelty of hairstyling been lost on me? Did Sassoon’s easy-to-wear style push many of us towards easy followable trends and subsequently the standardisation of cuts? Without Sassoon, would I have been asking for a hairpiece to create the ‘teasy-weasy’ bouffant just like grandma’s rather than a pair of straighteners?

By Bethan Eleri Carrick

Christopher Reed, ‘Vidal Sassoon Obituary’, Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2012/may/09/vidal-sassoon 
Jon Henly, ‘A Cut Above’, Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/jan/09/fashion.shopping
Mary Quant, Vidal Sassoon remembered by Mary Quant https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2012/dec/22/vidal-sassoon-obituary-mary-quant
Susan J Vincent, Hair: An Illustrated History. (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018)
‘Teasy Weasy’, Timeshift, BBC, 2013
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01kgq18