The Genteel
February 25, 2021


The Marcel Wave (Source: brutapesquisa).

Fashions, by their very nature, are transient. Twice a year hemlines, shapes and palettes shift and the momentum creates a ripple effect onto hair and makeup styles. Fast paced fashion isn't a new phenomenon (Marie Antoinette was notorious for the frequency with which she imposed new trends upon her Versailles court), which renders even more extraordinary the longevity of one hairstyle - the Marcel Wave that remained on trend for over sixty years.

In 1872, when Francois Marcel invented the heated curling tong, women couldn't vote; but by the end of the 1940s, women had played a prominent position - 
And not just any sixty years - it was a period of the most turbulent change for the world's women. In 1872, when Francois Marcel invented the heated curling tong, women couldn't vote; but by the end of the 1940s, women had played a prominent position - building fighter jets, carrying out front line medical duties and keeping the wheels of agriculture turning - in two World Wars. The phonograph and moving picture had both been invented during the time that the Marcel Wave was in ascendance, providing new idols for jazz age flappers or war time factory girls. The style, which featured S shaped waves set close to the head, was immortalized by screen goddesses such as Bette Davis, Veronica Lake and Marlene Dietrich.
To find out about the enduring appeal of the Marcel Wave, I spoke to vintage hairdresser Flamingo Amy. Amy is based in Norwich - a small market city, on the edge of the wetlands that form the Norfolk broads, which has a flourishing vintage scene including club nights, film festivals and a cluster of shops - and creates retro hairstyles for weddings, fashion shows and special occasions. Says Amy, "I'm really, really inspired by hairdressers from the 1930's through to the 60's but I particularly love the 40's and 50's". She explained that although the Marcel Wave started with the invention of the heated curling tong, "it took off in the 1900's - any hairdresser that could create it was sought after with one being paid 2000 French francs".
Amy described the process of creating a Marcel Wave in 2011: "I would set the hair in rows of curls close to the head and manipulate using Marcel clips". This is a lot kinder than the 19th century process which involved soaring heat that could frazzle the hair particularly when twinned with other hair trends. "It looked beautiful on blonde hair and was popular with bleach". But why the success amongst ordinary women? Was it just about emulating Hollywood glamour? Amy thinks that the maintenance itself had much to do with the appeal: "People viewed it as wholesome and good...being well-kept showed a good person of morality".
By the time that the 1960's swung in, hairstyles became long and loose (reflecting an ethical shift) and the story of the Marcel Wave might have ended there but Amy tells of a "real vintage resurgence in the last one or two years". This renaissance has been echoed on the Spring/Summer 2012 catwalks with buns (low and messy at Zac Posen and slicked back to the side at Prada) being set off by a Marcel at the front. On the red carpet, Carey Mulligan paired the wave with a crop. The culture surrounding the Marcel is also very much of the moment with silent movie The Artist winning plaudits at the Cannes Film Festival and London's National Portrait Gallery focusing on the look of the Hollywood Golden Age in Glamour of the Gods.


Marlene Dietrich
(Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Just like last century, the distinctly un-goddesslike civilians amongst us are wanting in on the action. I sported a Marcel for my birthday, which instantly gave me the courage to wear a lipstick two shades redder than usual. Amy agrees that we are looking up to our modern idols: "Gwen Stefani has a classic Hollywood look that people want to imitate". Perhaps as times have turned tempestuous again with statistics showing that the storms of financial turmoil, global insecurity and climate change are having a greater impact on the health and welfare of women - it's simply time for escapism again. Amy has found herself creating styles that people don't have time to create themselves; "it's a luxury that makes people feel done up and special".

This is encapsulated in the decision by another vintage expert - Rosie Watson (co-founder of vintage china and prop hire company Roses all Over) - to select the Marcel Wave for her wedding day. "For me the Marcel Wave epitomizes vintage chic.  Oozing glamour...(it) is the style I have chosen for my own wedding day  to complement my original 1930s vintage wedding gown. It is the ideal wearable hairstyle for those with shorter hair or a bob and it is an interesting  alternative from the usual up do. Like many brides-to-be, I am looking to  the past for inspiration to  make my wedding day unique..."



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