My Quest for Big Southern Hair

Fighting the straight life in the land of colossal coifs.

Valerie Fraser Luesse
1961 Dolly Parton
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Back in 1968, there was a girl in my first-grade class whose mother let her tease her hair into a bouffant and wear her fingernails long. I thought she looked magnificent. I wasn’t allowed anywhere near a teasing comb. (When I was about six or seven, my older cousin teased my hair into a beehive and sprayed it till it looked like I had a concrete cone on my head. Daddy spotted me with that hairdo and almost had to be resuscitated.)

The only time my baby-fine, poker-straight hair really worked was in the early seventies. Thanks to Marcia Brady and Laurey Partridge, even Southern girls were sporting long, straight coifs (sometimes called “hippie hair”). Easter 1972 sparked one of the biggest hairdo battles my mother and I ever fought. I was wearing a yellow, sleeveless shift with a big bow down the back—stylish enough for Marcia—and I wanted the straight hair to match. Mama had visions of curls and bows. I can’t remember who won—just that neither one of us was in a Christian frame of mind when we arrived for Sunday services.

Little did I know back then, but my journey through Southern hair had just begun . . .

Phase 1: The Dippity Do Years
I wonder if they still make Dippity Do—a styling gel that came in translucent green or pink and was sold by the jar. It could hold a bridge together. My mother and her sisters used it back in the day, along with those flat silver clips to fashion side curls against their cheeks. I tried rolling my Dippity Do’d hair onto plastic rollers and leaving it ALL day long, in hopes of achieving abundant curls. Mostly I just got sticky because I hadn’t mastered the gel-to-hair ratio that is ever so critical when using pastel adhesives.

Phase 2: Channeling Farrah
By the mid-seventies,  “the gypsy” hairdo had found its way into my Alabama high school, and it was followed by “the Farrah,” that seventies phenom sported by Texas-born beauty Farrah Fawcett on Charlie’s Angels. Even those of us who lacked the locks to pull off a Farrah could at least achieve “wings”—hair parted down the middle with bangs feathered back on both sides and everything else as straight as a No. 2 pencil.

Phase 3: Perms I Have Known
The eighties ushered in big hair in big way, especially down South, where “pageant hair” never completely lost its footing. Right before I started college I discovered the wonder of perms. And I discovered (the frizzy way) that my wouldn’t-dream-of-curling hair would take a perm in a heartbeat. Several stylists fried me because they just couldn’t believe hair that straight would perm that big. And really big hair only works if it’s artfully shaped—you know, like Dolly Parton’s. My hair didn’t look like Dolly’s. It looked like Rosanne Rosanna-Danna’s—at least, until I took control of my own destiny and insisted on dictating the size of those perm rods (huge).

Phase 4: Trading Curls for Color
Now, here we are in the 21st century. I’ve had long hair, short hair, layers, and bobs. But I haven’t had a perm in years. I can only afford one form of routine chemical enhancement, and I’d rather cover the gray than ramp up the volume. Still, every now and then, I’m tempted to break out my hot rollers, teasing comb, and Aqua Net—and just go for it. Then again . . . I’d probably hurt myself.