After the end of World War II (1939–45), 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. Aerosol sprays, substances dispensed from a pressurized can, had been developed for use with insecticides during World War II, and they were quickly adopted by the hair-care industry. Women of the 1950s used products such as Helene Curtis Spray Net to hold their hair neatly in place.
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. 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.
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 (a ridge of hair sticking straight up, running down the center of the head from the forehead to the nape of the neck) 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.
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. Vanity Rules: A History of American Fashion and Beauty. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2000.
Turudich, Daniela. 1950s Hair: Hairstyles from the Atomic Age of Cool. Long Beach, CA: Streamline Press, 2003.