These days I sport curly hair a lot.

But I was once the owner of the worlds most resolutely straight hair.

I would spend hours curling hair with tongs, mousse, heated rollers and any number of other promised miracle products, and always within 2 hours I had straight hair again. There’s nothing wrong with straight hair of course, but curls are undeniably glamorous. They feel nice for a special occasion and they make creating up dos far easier, and I wanted curls, dammit.

In this post you will find all the tips and tricks I acquired over the years for curling hair and creating long lasting styles that don’t drop. As well as some quick fixes for any disasters!


My very first experiments with curling hair with an old fashioned wet set were back in 2010. Since then I’ve almost perfected the art, though there’s still days where they drop quicker than I’d like. So this is my attempt to create the complete guide to curling hair vintage style.

These are some things that might help if you have hair like mine and are struggling to get your hair to hold a curl. For some more tips you can take a look at my Week in the Life of Hair post, which includes photos of how I arrange my curlers!

Some helpful products to start with. More on these throughout the post.

Healthy (straight) Hair Often Doesn’t Curl Easily

If your hair is resolutely straight, smooth, healthy and shiny then you’re probably going to have to do it a bit of damage to get it to stay curled. I’ve successfully beaten mine into submission with years of setting lotion and now bleach. If I let it get too long and curl it a lot then the ends can be terribly dry and frizzy as setting lotion is alcohol based and dries out the hair. You’ll see lots of places with products promising to hold without damage, I’ve yet to find one that works, if you haven’t either I suggest you save your money from now on.

The good news is that if you only want curls occasionally the damage from setting lotion isn’t too bad and regular deep conditioning helps. If you do want to set it more regularly then you’re going to have to be aware that you might get frizzy ends and have to get a trim.

How to get Vintage Curls by wet setting your hair

Which Setting Lotion Should You Use?

I used to use Amami till they discontinued it, I now swear by Stay Set, which is normally with the perming lotions in large Chemists and costs about £2. Superdrug also have an own brand. Some people dilute it with water, I use the strong hold version neat, decant it into a small spray bottle and spritz each strand before rolling. When you unroll your hair will be crispy, but brushing soon fixes the crispiness I find, and maybe a touch of curl creme on the ends.

Suggested Products:

Stay Set Setting Lotion, Extra Firm £2.19

Superdrug Extra Firm Setting Lotion £1.49

Boots Essentials Curl Creme £1.99


What Curlers Should You Use?

Well, that depends on how tight you want your curls, whether you’re sleeping in them, and how tolerant you are of sleeping in them! I find I get a tighter curl using sponge rollers at the front, and large and medium perm rods at the back where my hair is shorter. I need about 10 rollers and 10 perm rods to do all my hair. Some people find these insanely uncomfortable to sleep in, I don’t find it a problem.

If you want a looser curl then I find that pin curls give a slightly looser finish and less frizz. You can pin them flat to the head or standing up for more volume. Take small strands of hair, about an inch square, and fold the end in then roll towards the head. Either pin the curl flat to the head with crossed pins, or make a stand up barrel curl and slide a grip across the bottom of the curl. If you’re sleeping in them I recommend kirby grips for comfort, if not then the double pronged grips are good

I will use rollers if I’m curling my hair regularly as I find they last longer, and look at their best by day 2 or 3, if I want my hair to look good for an event tomorrow morning, or even this evening, then I will use pin curls.

Velcro Rollers-mn

Velcro rollers I find give a looser curl again, and are entirely impossible to sleep in (I’ve not tried the sponge ones though) I would recommend velcro rollers for giving a smoother bounce and volume to hair rather than a tight curl as you don’t get a lot of tension on the hair with them.  Maybe for a more 60s inspired look.

You can also buy sleep rollers, which are velcro rollers with a sponge middle, though I haven’t tried them myself!

A tail comb is useful for sectioning and combing through, but I have managed with a normal comb, or even a brush in a pinch.

Suggested products:

Sponge Rollers £1.79

Sleep Rollers £5.19

Perm Rods £2.39

Kirby Grips £1.49

Curl Clips £4.99

Tail Comb £1.19

Which Way Should I Roll?

This seems to be the thing that causes most confusion. The simple answer is – “Whatever way you want your curls to fall”

Roll UNDER at the back of your head and the curls will naturally curl under, rather than flicking out. For those Dita style barrel curls at the front you will want to roll the hair forward, if you roll it backward, away from your face, you will have Farrah flicks.

How Should I Brush it Out?

Once you take curlers out you will look like little orphan Annie. If you want beautiful smooth 1940s waves, or even frizzy 1920s curls you’re going to have to brush it till it looks how you want. A natural bristle brush with some synthetic bristles to dig into the hair is ideal. The larger bristles detangle and the natural bristles smooth. Use your hands to position the hair where you want it and make sure it bends the right way and doesn’t flick out.

I use a small brush from Kent, as I find it easier to manage.

If you need a little help calming frizz at the ends then hair oil, curl creme or serum are all handy depending on the weight of your hair.

Suggested products:

Kent small natural bristle and nylon paddle brush £6.99

Hair Oil £6.99

Curl Creme £1.99

Hair Serum £4.99

How Do I Make it Last?

How long a set will last will depend on your hair type and how much damage you’ve already done it, but there are a few things that will make it last longer, and even look better after a few days.

Rule 1 is don’t get it wet. Don’t go anywhere humid, stay out of the rain, wear a hat if it’s so much as drizzly and make sure you wear a shower cap in the shower.

Overnight, Re-rolling dry hair into pin curls before bed using a touch of Boots Curl Creme gives me smooth bouncy, springy curls the next day. It also works if I’ve got caught in the rain briefly and want to revitalise the curls. I don’t smear it on my hair, literally I touch my fingers to the creme, rub them together and then just curl.

Failing that, and extreme laziness is a disease I suffer from, then wearing a slumber net or head scarf to bed will help the curls last a little longer. They’ll be slightly looser next day than if you re-roll them, but will last longer than if you did nothing.

Lastly, just setting lotion is unlikely to get your hair through a day in the British weather. I absolutely swear by Tresemme Freeze Hold hair spray, even you’re wearing your hair down. A quick spritz will give your hair a little more help to get through the day, and then just give it a brush before bed to smooth it out again.

Suggested products:

Boots Curl Creme £1.49

Slumber net £1.09

Freeze Hold Hair Spray £4.69

What If It Doesn’t Work?

If you get caught in the rain, your hair falls flat in the middle of the afternoon or your pin curls just entirely fail to curl then cheat.

A handbag stuffed with kirby grips and elastic bands means you can create an emergency up do, even it’s just a bun and a fringe roll. In colder weather a beret is your hair emergency hiding friend.

Do you have any tips for un-curlable hair?