Things to Think About When Creating Period Hair and Makeup

When creating an authentic period hairstyle or makeup for film or television, there are several things to consider to ensure that you get the designs right. These things will also help you when doing dailies or a last-minute job. If creating a period-inspired look for a fashion shoot or for a bit of vintage fun, then you have much more flexibility and can add modern twists to any retro style as you like!


  • Research the period thoroughly. And don’t just look at stuff on the internet – information on the web can be really misleading or incorrect. Use various sources to get a more rounded and accurate view. Some ideas for research include books, art galleries and museums (sculptures, paintings), original film footage and photographs, talking to people who lived during that era (limited to recent times of course, as we do believe the elixir of immortality has yet to be discovered), and so on.
  • Understand the era you are working on. Look at life as it was and understand things like where people worked, social structures, family life, who and what influenced trends and so on. Knowing what life was like during the period and what was available gives you a greater understanding of why people looked the way they did. This, in turn, will help you create period hair and makeup that is more realistic.
Creating period hair and makeup

Researching for period work involves seeking out all sources, including art galleries and museums

Use Reference Pictures

  • Makeup and hair is a visual art, and using pictures is vital to keep you on the right track. It also prevents you from getting carried away and adding embellishments that are not authentic.
  • Build up a reference library for each different period and for people from different backgrounds and classes. An upper-class Edwardian lady with her lady’s maid on hand will look very different to a working-class woman who sells flowers or makes matches. There are always variations in a period, and not everyone adhered to what was fashionable either e.g. older people may keep the styles known to them in their younger years. Also, high fashion was not necessarily worn by the masses, so look at ordinary people for everyday styles.

Get the Basics Right

Period Hairstyling

  • It starts with having the right hair for the period – consider the cut, the length and the colour of the artist’s hair. Modern cuts can be dressed into a period style, but may need a bit of help (e.g. hair pieces) to look more authentic or to be workable for the style required.
  • Length and bulk, if needed, can be added to someone’s hair with hair pieces (backfalls, switches, wefts or clusters) or hair extensions. You can’t get an Edwardian do out of a bob! Really handy to know how to work with, especially in the era of high definition. If someone has completely the wrong hair for the period, then a wig may be the way to go.
  • Be careful with obviously dyed hair and highlights, especially when working in a period when hair colours were limited or not noticeably used – they may need to be covered over (e.g. with a hat or scarf) or disguised (e.g. using coloured mousse or an SFX palette to neutralise to a natural hair colour).

Period Makeup

  • There are a few things to look at when working on a period production. Consider the basic elements on someone’s face and body. Did people shave? Did people pluck? Think about eyebrows for example – some periods had skinny brows (e.g. 1920s and 1970s), others were big and bushy (1980s) and others had no visible plucking going on (lots!). Did people have common illnesses and diseases during that era that were visible on faces and skin? What about teeth and nails? This all comes back to knowing the era and how different people lived, as well as knowing what was in fashion.
1940s looks

1940s style from high glamour to everyday (L to R):  The groomed glamour of film star Rita Hayworth; Dorothy Lamour picture perfect on the cover of a magazine; An everyday ’40s gal

Use the Right Tools and Products

  • To create authentic period hairstyles, you need to use the right equipment and techniques to create the right set, which can then be dressed out to create the style. You can use both traditional methods (e.g. pin curls, barrel rolls, Marcel irons), as well as modern techniques and heated tools to create period styles. It is all about understanding the finished style and knowing how this can be achieved with the right setting methods and tools.
  • To create an authentic period makeup, use the right colours, finish and textures. For example, don’t use makeup with a sheen to create a makeup look from a period when the products used were matte, or use thick black mascara for a period when mascara was not invented yet! Also, create the right shapes and heaviness of application that are appropriate to the period e.g. blusher in some periods was applied quite heartily to the apples to create a flushed look.

Read the Script

  • Understand each character: their job, position in society or class, what they are doing (are they at home, working, or an event) – all these things dictate what someone would have looked like, and helps when creating period hair and makeup looks for each character. Of course, there can be artistic interpretations for any periods and this can depend on how authentic the director wishes the film to look.

Liaise with Other Departments

  • Check with costume if the character is wearing a hat, and what clothing they are wearing. No point coming up with a cracking hairstyle if it is then squashed flat or hidden under a hat, or has to be redressed to accommodate head wear or costume.

And finally, remember that a character is potentially filmed and, therefore, seen from all sides. Check the hairstyle and makeup from all angles, not just the front.

Find Out More:

  • We have written overviews of different periods, just to give you a general flavour of the era and as a starting point for more in-depth research. Look in the menu bar near the top of the page for different periods.
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2 thoughts on “Things to Think About When Creating Period Hair and Makeup

  1. Is there often an unwillingness of actresses of the 21st century to cut their long hair short just for one film? In the the movie An American Crime, which took place in 1965 and was filmed in 2007, many of the actresses had hair that was much too long for the film to really give the semblance of 1965. Most girls didn’t have their hair as long as I saw many of the actresses wearing it. The movie could have used a few more teased dos, but I suppose the 21st woman would be reluctant.

    1. Hi Aiden – that is a really good question! Hairstyles in a period film can depend on many factors like budget, schedule, the hair designer’s ability to create authentic styles, and the director’s vision of the film’s feel/look. It may not simply be an unwillingness to cut hair! To create an authentic period look, today’s haircuts/lengths/colours always need a helping hand (e.g. wigs, hair pieces, clever hairdressing) – and a knowledgeable, talented and experienced hair designer will find ways to make it work, whatever they are faced with.

      An actress’s unwillingness to cut their long hair to short is reasonable, especially if their next project requires them to have natural long hair, or they are already filming something where their hair is long. And, as mentioned, a good designer will find a way. Many actresses we’ve worked with are happy to have changes to their natural hair if it helps their portrayal of the character, though none have been drastic changes. Of course, there are those who will go way out for a character, like Anne Hathaway’s brutal cut in Les Mis and Natalie Portman’s shaved head for V for Vendetta. But they are A-listers who can afford to do this!

      So, in a nut shell, the way a period piece ends up looking is down to many factors and people! 🙂

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