The Jheri Curl Turns 40: A Look at the Most Iconic, Insulted and Revered Hair Craze Ever
The last time I saw someone wear a Jheri curl with a straight face was in the summer of 2015. In June of that year, retired NBA point guard Baron Davis appeared on ESPN’s First Take sporting a high-and-tight take on the activator swirl.
His was in the big-Luther tradition of being “not quite right”; yet he wore it with authority even while drawing the ire of many on social media.Then, in August of that year, Straight Outta Compton featured Jason Mitchell and O’Shea Jackson Jr. portraying Eazy-E and Ice Cube, respectively. It would have been unthinkable for them to play the roles without the drip-drop tresses, and that hair on the silver screen was a sight to behold.
It’s been 40 years since Irish-American hair entrepreneur Jheri Redding published Anatomy of a Permanent Wave, the definitive text on the chemistry and cosmetology of what we now call the Jheri curl, and I’m still at a loss for words to explain how that hairstyle became simultaneously ubiquitous and reviled. At the height of its popularity in the black community, there were cultural products pointing out the sheer absurdity of what black folks were doing with their hair.
These scenes clearly lay bare the preposterousness of the curl; yet, truth be told, only men wearing do-rags and tank tops while smoking Black & Milds were more pervasive than the Jheri-curl wearer, once entrepreneur Comer Cottrell found an affordable way to bring this style into black homes with his Pro-Line’s Curly Kit. (I would argue that we should call it the “Comer curl” instead of the “Jheri curl,” since it was Comer who brought it into the black community.)
A significant part of what intrigues me about the Jheri curl is the variety. Black folks are an aesthetically creative people; although two people may have used the same kit, rarely did two people have the same kind of curl. So to mark the 40th anniversary of Redding’s Anatomy, let us pause and appreciate the best kinds of Jheri-curl styles.