The Chosunilbo today has an article on the centenary of the perm, an event with powerful cultural resonance in Korea.
Among older Korean women, plenty of younger ones, and sometimes even men, a perm is a necessary beauty treatment. And cutting your hair short and turning it into an afro seems to be a rite of passage for a woman who has ceased to be an agasshi (아가씨), or young woman, and become an ajumma (아줌마), which literally means “auntie.” And chances are she’ll tell you she did it to look younger.
The popularity of perms and dye jobs in Korea — even terrible ones — can be explained by two factors. First, nearly everyone in Korea has the same hair: black, straight and limp. A few folks have a bit of a wave, and some people’s hair grows thicker than others, but there’s nothing like the natural variety you find in most European countries or even China.
Second, most Koreans are today enjoying their first taste of wealth and freedom in modern history. (Korea was moderately well off during the Shilla dynasty, which ended in 935 CE, but that’s about it.) The twentieth century was a long stretch of political collapse, Japanese occupation, civil war, the desperate poverty of the reconstruction period, and then artificially repressed wages under military dictatorship.
According the the Chosunilbo article:
It was not until 1937 that the perm came to Korea, and it immediately became all the rage. The “early adopters” here had one thing in common: they were so-called new women – actresses, novelists and academics. Their perm cost them W5-6, which was enough to buy two 72kg bags of rice. In the early 1940s, the perm was banned under a prohibition order for all luxury goods on the grounds that the new hairstyle was a decadent trend imported from the West. But among women from wealthy families it remained in vogue….
But it was the 80s when the perm really came into its own in Korea. Women wanted waves, no matter if their hair was long or short. Hairstyling products such as mousse, gel and spray proliferated, and more and more women also started to dye their hair any color other than black.
Today, South Korea is both a poor country posing as a rich one, with shiny baubles everywhere to mask the shoddiness of the world they’ve built, and a rich country posing as a poor one, clinging to its developing status to maintain influence in the Third World even as it touts itself for being “the hub of Asia” and brags about its world-class Internet infrastructure. The bad ajumma perm — a symbol of luxury and defiance, an ugly stab at beautification, an attempt to look young that’s a mark of age — seems the perfect symbol of South Korea’s ambiguous transition.