I’m ashamed to admit that hair spray is about as important to me as oxygen. I can barely remember the days before hair spray became a part of my daily routine.
Aerosol sprays, substances dispensed from a pressurized can, had been developed for use with insecticides for soldiers during World War II, and they were quickly adopted by the hair-care industry. Helene Curtis and others didn’t become widely used until the 1950s.
There was a little trick we used before hairspray came along. I think it’s when we all wore pony tails or duck tails in the 50s. You could mix up some sugar water, wet your fingers and upsweep your hair. It would stick up for days.
Many people considered the 1950s to be the beginning of a modern world, full of new products that would make their lives easier. The bright, the shiny, and the new were valued above all, and fashions reflected this. Hair spray, made of liquid plastics and vinyl that harden when they are sprayed on the hair to form a kind of shell that keeps the hair from falling out of its style, became very popular during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Styles were crisp and clean, and hairstyles were held in place with aerosol hair spray. Women of the 1950s used products such as Helene Curtis Spray Net to hold their hair neatly in place. Oh and Breck – I wanted to be the Breck Girl in the worst way.
By the end of the decade, hair sprays had inspired the creation of hairstyles that would have been impossible without them. The beehive, popular in the early 1960s, involved teasing the hair into a tall pile on top of the head and holding it in place with hair spray.
Beehives were so difficult to style that most women just left them up overnight and reapplied hair spray the next day. The bouffant hairstyle, popularized during the 1960s by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy (1929–1994), wife of U.S. president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), also required lots of hair spray to keep its full, puffy look.
The late 1960s and the 1970s saw the arrival of a much more natural style, with hair left long and loose. Hair spray sales dropped as stiffly styled hair became an object of ridicule. Yet, I wore my “helmet” proudly throughout those years.
At the same time, environmentalists began to discover that the chemicals in aerosol hair sprays were damaging both the environment and the health of the women who used them. Some of these chemicals were outlawed.
My mother died of lung cancer in 1977, and Daddy is convinced she contracted the disease for overuse of hair spray. She would spray and spray in her small bathroom. When she opened the door, the cloud of hair spray particles followed behind. To this day I hold my breath for a full 15 seconds while spraying.
The popularity of hair spray revived again in the 1980s, when punks, young fans of punk rock music, used it to lacquer their spikes and mohawks in place, and it has remained a part of many women’s hair styling routine through the twenty-first century. Since the 1980s many men have begun to use hair spray products as well. However, it is the late 1950s and early 1960s that will always be identified with hair spray. A lighthearted 1988 John Waters film, made into a Broadway musical in 2002, captures the atmosphere of the early 1960s in its title, Hairspray.