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“Yeah, I should’ve been born in the early ‘80s … you know, when bigger was better.” That was my back-pocket response whenever anyone commented on my curls during my adolescent years. Which is why it’s such sweet revenge now to see curls are officially on trend — and not just in the dusty back corners of the deep internet, but on the most mainstream stage of them all: the red carpet. It’s like the ‘80s all over again — but this time I’m alive!
Curls — not just loose barrel waves, but big, full and, dare I say, “frizzy” curls — have made a comeback on both Hollywood A-listers and fashion runways, with new product lines launching to tend to them. But the resurgence begs the question: Will big curls be a just another passing beauty fad like contouring and lip kits, or are curls here to stay once and for all, evidence of a deeper move toward self-acceptance and self-celebration that parallels the rise of social media and individual beauty?
The resurgence of the curl first came to my attention way back in September of 2016, when Mandy Moore — whose flippy, perfectly highlighted locks had been the object of my envy when she played the vanilla villain in The Princess Diaries — stepped out in New York City sporting a shaggy tumble of curls, which I realized, thanks to my extensive knowledge of the one and only Mandy Moore, was not her natural texture.
To reiterate: She willingly traded in her naturally straight hair for a look that was not just a beach wave, a la Blake Lively, but one that was completely and utterly curly.
Ted Gibson, who created the look for Moore, said he was inspired by the teased look of “the disco era and Jennifer Grey from Dirty Dancing and Jennifer Beals from Flashdance.” In a sea of red-carpet beachy waves — those perfectly cascading, boob-grazing barrel curls (“I always say if I have to do another beach wave, I’m going to scratch my eyes out,” added Gibson) — Moore’s bouncy do, with its natural hint of frizz, was a breath of fresh air.
Since that fateful September evening, curls have very slowly been cropping up on the carpet. Just last month, Halle Berry created a commotion simply by choosing to wear her natural texture to the Oscars. “Halle definitely wanted something people aren’t used to, that wasn’t so perfect and a bit disheveled,” her hairstylist, Castillo, told THR, “but still something that is powerful and beautiful.”
The look reverberated on the Twittersphere — to the point where the Oscar winner actually felt the need to defend her natural look — though the reaction of the curly community was something more along the lines of, “thank you.”
Kiernan Shipka, another straight-hair defector, wore brushed-out full waves while making a press appearance in New York for The Blackcoat’s Daughter last March. Her hairstylist, Ashley Streicher, has been championing the perm (yes, really) on social media.
On the runways, the past few seasons have seen designers embracing models’ natural texture, with such in-demand ladies as Alanna Arrington, Dilone, Frederikke Sofie, Mica Arganaraz and Yasmin Wijnaldum hitting the runway with bouncy curls.
“I think that fashion and hair kind of dictate each other and what’s happening in fashion, the whole idea of this romance with fashion,” said Gibson of the return of the curl. “I think that when the hairdressers look at the clothes — like when I, myself, look at clothes and come up with an idea of what that girl is going to look like, it really translates to this romance. It’s not strong shoulders or tapered, tapered waists. It’s plunging necklines and softness.”
As someone who has been actively searching for curly-haired style idols since the 2013 demise of Taylor Swift’s luscious curls (cause of death unknown, may they rest in peace), this onslaught of naturally curly girls has been almost too much for my poor heart to handle. At the same time, I cringe at the thought that, like the Age of the Perm (aka the ‘80s ), the new curly-hair club could be fleeting.
While hairstyles come and go (long live “The Rachel”), curls have a particularly contentious history.
Idiosyncratic hairstyles and colors have been encouraged over the last few decades, but looking “put-together” or polished has often been synonymous with straightening curls. As recent as five years ago, friends who interned at women’s magazines — which, these days, pride themselves on being champions of female diversity — reported being told to “do” their hair (code for what Drybar calls the “The Straight Up”) before interviews, in order to communicate a more professional appearance. In other words, to look like you tried.
Of course, no one has been more greatly impacted by this de facto “straighter is better” creed than African-American women, who are subjected to a subconscious bias in the professional sphere to a degree that is more severe than for their white counterparts.
In a study conducted by the Perception Institute (and another one in The Social Science Journal and another one in the International Journal of Education and Social Science), researchers found that women who wear their natural texture, or who style their hair in a traditional African-American style like dreads, braids or cornrows, are seen as less competent than their peers who chemically straighten their hair or opt for weaves (no cheap style). Worse, their self-esteem is often tied to their hair and their understanding of their hair’s acceptance.
Bottom line: Curly hair isn’t just a trend, like Birkin bangs or the lob that comes and goes in waves. Traditionally, it has been perceived as both less professional and less put-together, especially when the wearer already has factors of “otherness” (ahem, race) being factored into the equation.
As with everything else, we can blame the media (well, kind of) for portraying curly hair as the enemy. In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s — the heyday of the romantic comedy — makeover montages almost always began with unruly waves and ended with a straight locks. In The Princess Diaries, Mia Thermopolis’ infamous curls were eliminated at the hands of the most evil of fictitious Disney villains — the pseudo-Italian hairstylist by name of Paolo — in favor of a movie-star-worthy blowout. In Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts’ natural kink, while not tamed to a pin-straight look, was tamed nonetheless. The makeover process is always the same: 1) Buy new clothes 2) Ditch the glasses 3) Iron out every last trace of a curl.
Those characters that did have curls, on the other hand, were often portrayed as trashy groupies (Kate Hudson in Almost Famous), the awkward teen (Alia Shawkat in Arrested Development) or the quirky best friend who was definitely not worthy of the leading man’s advances (Brittany Murphy in Clueless). There were a handful of exceptions, of course. Perhaps most notable was Carrie Bradshaw, who is still an icon for curly girls everywhere.
But speaking of Ms. Bradshaw, or rather Sarah Jessica Parker, whatever happened to her voluminous tawny waves? Or those of Keri Russell? Kate Hudson? Drew Barrymore? Lorde? Mariah Carey? Vanessa Hudgens? Nicole Kidman? And of course, of Ms. Swift?
The disappearance of natural curls from the heads of our most cherished public figures has become such a predictable pattern that I have self-indulgently named it The Swift Effect: Once a pop star reaches a certain level of fame, her curls — no matter how beloved by her fans — vanish without a trace. Lorde, SJP and even trusty curly girl Shakira all succumb to the allure of shiny, straightened mermaid waves.
Industry professionals, though acknowledging the effect, were unable to come up with a definitive answer as to why it takes place. Gibson postulated that access may play a role in the ubiquity of the phenomenon. Along with a certain level of fame, he argues, comes its share of perks, and among those are weekly blowouts, which, admittedly, are easier to maintain than curly manes, which are known to go from zero to nest-fit-for-small-rodents after one night’s worth of tossing and turning or a car ride with the windows down.
But this time around, Michelle Breyer, founder of TextureMedia’s NaturallyCurly.com, which has reached millions of curly-haired women since its inception, thinks that the movement is here to stay. The curly vet attributes the rise in popularity to the democratization of imagery and peer-to-peer influencers. (These same communities have not only created increased acceptance for hair, but also body-positivity movements and the ever-expanding definitions of gender identity.)
“Unlike other times throughout Naturally Curly’s history — we’ve been around 19 years — just based on the market and the number of social media influencers and products available now, I just think this is not going to go out of style,” said Breyer. “I think so many of the women who have gone natural just love the options they have with their hair, they love the health of their hair, and they don’t necessarily want to go back.”
Since the ‘90s, when the site was founded by three frizzy-haired Texas transplants, the market for curly-hair products has exploded. “It’s now not OK to not have products for curly hair,” said Breyer. “It was really unusual [for companies to have curly-hair products in the ‘90s]. What you see with this whole natural-hair movement is that it’s been very grassroots,” she added. “A lot of the products have been created by curly girls and curly stylists and people who were frustrated because there weren’t products. So a lot of the top brands now are really these homegrown brands.”
In the past few years alone, brands such as Mixed Chicks, Ouidad and DevaCurl have taken off. One of the biggest success stories, according to Breyer, is Shea Moisture, which recently made headlines for its viral ad campaign questioning the segregation of hair products into “beauty” and “ethnic” aisles.
But even on said “ethnic” aisles, products for enhancing natural African-American texture are on the rise, while sales of relaxers have declined 26 percent since 2008, according to a Mintel Group study. In a landmark move, Procter & Gamble-owned Pantene launched the Gold Series, which is a line specifically for African-American hair.
“Women are being empowered to wear their natural texture, and you see that across, from TV and film and magazines — it’s across the board,” said Megan Streeter, chief marketing officer of DevaCurl, a 20-year-old curly-hair-care line responsible for the sulfate-free “No-Poo” shampoo phenomenon. “But [the rise of curls] is also related to the fact that, overall, the population is becoming more curly,” she added. “It’s not really niche anymore; it’s what we consider meganiche.”
Streeter estimates that 65 percent of the population has curly hair, a number of that will only continue to grow as the country becomes more diverse and multiracial. The spike in curly girls has led the brand to expand its product offerings to cater to not only super-curly hair, but also to women with that in-between wave.
Increased demand has not only opened up a market for “curly entrepreneurs,” as Breyer calls them, but also for young female curly-haired influencers. A search for curly-hair tutorials on YouTube yields more than half a million results created by amateur vloggers, and the Twitter handle @CurlyProbs, which creates humorous content related to the struggle of the curly mane, has 90,000 followers.
From the Hollywood camp, Disney darling turned style icon Zendaya is one force leading the charge. “I’m so glad to see this movement happening because in the course of history, especially for women of color, our hair is not as accepted,” the actress told THR during a recent event for CHI hair products, which she serves as an ambassador for.
So now that unruly waves have both personalities and products to support them, I, unlike Swift, no longer want to rescind my membership from the curly community. Who’s with me?
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