by Newt Harlan
Do you remember “big hair” hairdos for women and girls? They became popular when I was a teenager during the late 50’s and early 60’s, popularized in part by Jackie Kennedy. I think these are properly called “bouffant” hairdos; the fad lasted for about ten years, although you still see this style worn by some women, including Marge Simpson and especially some women in the South and others who are members of certain religious groups. But my intent here is not to survey the history of feminine hairstyles, but rather to tell you some things I remember about this one in particular.
My sisters, many of their friends and several of my girlfriends all sported “big hair” during this period, so I became somewhat of an authority on the care and feeding of “big hair.”
First off, big hair was a fairly difficult look to accomplish. First the girls washed their hair, then toweled it until it was almost dry, then added a mousse product to make it thicker, then teased it and dried it with a blow dryer, then sprayed it with hairspray, then more blow-drying and teasing, then more teasing, until finally the desired effect was accomplished or the hairspray ran out, whichever came first, and then a final coat of hairspray was applied (usually after 2 or 3 trips to the drugstore for more hairspray by brother or boyfriend). This entire sequence took about 2 hours in a beauty shop or a half-day at home with the help of 2 or 3 friends.
The end result was a coiffure that resembled a beehive or a bird nest made from something akin to hair colored steel wool, sitting upside down on top of the girl’s head with bangs sticking down in front and a little hair in back.
Obviously, hair hygiene took a backseat to fashion for those who chose the big hair look, since daily or even weekly shampooing was not an option, considering the necessary work to accomplish the “look,” but this was a cheap price to pay to be in style. Besides, if a girl used scented hairspray, her hair really didn’t start smelling real bad for about 10 days, and whatever boy might’ve gotten close enough to notice, damn sure wasn’t worried about how her hair smelled.
Now shampooing or lack thereof wasn’t the only thing to consider with the maintenance of these somewhat elaborate dos; in fact shampooing was a small problem compared to some others.
First there was the little matter of school activities like PE and other active periods during which the hairdo was likely to suffer, especially if these activities involved sweating very much, since just a little moisture meant at least a half hour and ¾ can of hairspray for repair, and if the activity was extreme it would necessitate an entire do-over. I knew of some girls who had to be excused from PE for almost six weeks straight due to menstrual cramps during the banquet and prom season.
Next, the girls had to consider what to do when sleeping. I seem to recall that someone invented some kind of a bonnet arrangement to protect the hair while sleeping. A few girls used them, but they were fairly expensive so most girls I knew opted to sleep with their head in a cardboard box, thus preventing ruining their hairdo in their sleep. This box arrangement wasn’t too elaborate, consisting of a box slightly larger than the girl's head and hairdo, with notches cut so it fit down over the shoulders and a hole cut out in the area in front of the face. This worked fine as long as the girl slept perfectly still, flat on her back. Result: lots of nights with little sleep for most.
“We’ve got to stop.”
“Whaddaya mean we’ve got to stop? I’m not even doing anything but kissing you.”
“Yeah, I know, but we’ve still got to stop. I’m starting to perspire a little bit and my hair is getting all smushed against the seat.”
“Honneey, just a little while?”
“No, really, we’ve got to stop. Don’t you want my hair to look good at the dance tomorrow night? Besides, if I go in with my hair all smushed up, my parents will notice.”
“Well, okay, but can we tomorrow night?”
I don’t know if the incidence of teen romances ending during this period increased or not, but I’m betting that if anyone kept a record on these things, we’d find they did. I do know that, personally, I hated those damned hairdos. Between the hairdos and the panty girdles that were popular back then, the girls that I went out with in the 50’s didn’t need to worry about birth control pills not being invented or anything else like that. They were as well protected as they would’ve been wearing a chastity belt with Jesus himself holding the key.
As uncomfortable, inconvenient and down right annoying as the foregoing were about the bouffant hairdo, none of these were the cause for their demise. It wasn’t even a change in fashion that caused it. The bouffant lost popularity because, according to the wisdom of the day, it was downright dangerous.
Remember the sleeping with the head in a box and the long periods without washing that we discussed earlier? Well, according to stories which circulated faster than a rumor at a church picnic, these two factors combined to make “big hair” a very dangerous fashion.
After all the hysteria settled down, they took the woman over to the doctor who suggested that her head be shaved to make sure all the roaches were removed; he also gave Mildred some dust to use for three days to make sure no roaches remained. Also, the exterminator had to make four trips out to the beauty shop before he got all the roaches. The woman had to wear a wig for 6 months until her hair grew out and, of course, she changed hairstyles, and sure as hell didn’t sleep with her head in a box anymore (where they figured she likely picked up the roaches).
As if that story wasn’t bad enough, soon we heard about a woman over in Marksville, Louisiana, who had a similar thing happen to her, only in her case it wasn’t cockroaches but spiders that set up housekeeping in her hair. Luckily, the spiders weren’t poisonous, but they say that the woman had to spend several months in the insane asylum because of her fright.
But the one that put an end to bouffant hairdos once and for all, at least around Humble, was what happened to a lady in San Antonio. Coach Tommy Thomas’s wife, Maria was from San Antonio. Her mama called her long distance to tell her what happened to the across-the-street neighbor of a girl she had attended school with. The woman didn’t have a lot of money to have her hair done professionally very often, so she tried to make it last as long as possible, usually from 6 weeks to 2 months.
Needless to say, it didn’t take long for this tale to make the rounds and the few girls still sporting bouffants ditched them in favor of ponytails and the other popular teen hairdos.
I, for one, was glad.
Newt tells us about himself:
I was born, raised and educated in Texas. With the exception of a few brief sojourns and the 4 years during the Vietnam Era that I spent riding around on airplanes courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, I've spent the more than 65 years of my life within spittin’ distance of the place where I grew up. I managed to cram a four-year college degree into nine years and by virtue of that remarkable feat, I am a former student of six different schools, which sure helps the odds of rooting for a winner in sporting events. The academic standards committee had a moment of weakness and I was the fortunate recipient of a degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
I'm Southern to the bone. The sound of “Dixie” being played gives me goose bumps and I stand and remove my hat. My yard dog, B.J., controls the squirrels, cats, meter readers and peddlers around my place. I’ve picked cotton by hand, plowed behind a mule, churned butter, shelled back-eyed peas, and for the first 12 years of my life, went without shoes from April until October. Several of my friends regularly hold conversations with mules, but as of yet I can’t get the danged mules to answer me. I think grits are as much a part of breakfast as bacon, eggs and cathead biscuits. I think ain’t is a perfectly good word and don’t plan to quit using it just because some damnyankee dictionary writer arbitrarily thinks it ain’t.
I've been married for 30-some odd years and have beaucoup kids and grandkids. I'm now retired after having spent the better part of the past 37 years traveling around Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Alabama, trying to sell steel products. My hobbies, in no particular order, include writing, grandkids, hunting, fishing and visiting the local watering hole to swap honest lies and research material for stories.
Want to read more of Newt’s stories at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
Ol’ Red and the Armadillo
Telephones and memories
Tastes like chicken
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