In this post, we look at the general shapes and essential elements of 1940s hairstyles for women, plus a look at the common hair accessories.
For media makeup artists and hairdressers, the overall look of a period is handy to know, especially for film and TV crowd calls, where quickly getting a convincing silhouette is essential in creating the decade’s look and feel.
The Role of British Women during the War
Since the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, women had worked for the war effort, both on home soil and overseas.
They joined the armed forces, built bridges, worked in the factories, made tanks, and worked in fields (“land girls”), taking over jobs traditionally done by men. There were also voluntary groups who supported the work of civilian and military organisations.
Voluntary at first, the British Government introduced conscription in December 1941 with the National Service Act, making the enlisting of women for work duty legal.
Initially, only single women aged 20-30 were called up, but by mid-1943, almost 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were employed in essential work for the war effort, leaving men free to serve in the armed forces.
As well as dealing with work, women had to deal with rationing. Queueing for hours to get a bit of butter or meat, and constantly balancing the menu and reinventing recipes depending on what was available, or not, that week.
At the end of the war in 1945, many women were dismissed from their work as it was generally viewed that they were doing “men’s work” and just keeping the jobs ticking over until the men returned, though in industries that were not heavily unionised women were allowed to stay on as they were cheaper than men to employ. However, there were lasting effects of the wartime workers as women had shown that they could do the job and within a few decades, women in the workforce became a common sight.
Influences on Hair and Fashion
Film stars influenced the hairstyles of the 1940s.
Actresses such as Betty Grable, Veronica Lake, Dorothy Lamour, Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner epitomised the glamour of the era, and provided escapism from the everyday dreariness of war.
Television was a rarity in the home, so going to the cinema was incredibly popular – just part of life for everyone.
The bill included the news, cartoons, a B-feature and finally the A-feature – it was a full evening’s entertainment.
The influence movie stars had on the public didn’t escape the notice of officials in the United States of America. Long hair was hazardous where machinery was operated, like in factories and on farms, and too many accidents were happening. In the hope of encouraging women to cut their hair short, thus reducing the risk of being injured or worse at work, they asked Veronica Lake to cut her trademark “peekaboo” long locks. Ms Lake obliged.
The later forties saw a shift away from utility clothing and the sometimes practical hairstyling of the war as new, more luxurious fabrics, hair products and makeup slowly became available, though rationing was still firmly in place. People wanted to leave the drabness of war behind them, and new products and fashions were heartily taken up.
Christian Dior‘s revolutionary “New Look” in 1947 embraced the new fabrics and ignored rationing in favour of a desire to move away from wartime skimping. His fabric-hungry designs influenced fashion and designers for years to come.
Hairstyles in General
Throughout the decade, hair was generally between just below shoulder length or shorter.
Hair was cut with a rounded U-shape at the back, curving up towards the ears, and most haircuts had lots of layers – these were needed to create the styles.
If there was a parting, hair was generally parted to one side. Whatever the hairstyle a woman chose to wear, they were soft and feminine, and the hair was always dressed off the face.
For factory and farm work, longer hair would often be set and left in pin curls under a headscarf/turban or, for less dangerous work, the back could be secured in a snood with the front waved or pinned off the face. This kept the hair protected and away from machinery. It was then easily let down, spruced up and dressed for a night out.
Women in the armed services had to keep their hair above their collar while on duty.
Pictures in magazines showed very groomed and sleek film stars.
Everyday working-class women would not have the time, money or personal hairstylist to spend on looking immaculate, but their hair still followed the overall look and fashion of the decade.
Older woman could still be seen wearing the short waved styles of the ’30s, especially in the early ’40s.
1940s Hairstyle Elements
Waves and Curls
Waves were deep, soft and sloping, like ripples of sand on a beach.
Curls were used to dress an area of the hair, like the opposite side to a roll, or on the crown area. The back or sides of the hair could also be simply left down in curls (or put in a snood), while the front was dressed off the face.
For those with straighter hair (and spare cash), waves and curls were permed or set into the hair at the hairdressers, but many women set their hair at home.
Once curled, the hair could easily be styled into rolls and waves, as well as brushed smooth.
Rolls are quintessential 1940s and an essential part of defining the decade’s look. Rolls were a flexible element of a hairstyle – women could shape and position rolls as they wanted – and the hair could be brushed smooth or it could have waves.
Rolls could be situated on the top of the head, at the sides or the back of the hair. Side rolls could be positioned wherever – symmetrical on each side of the face, or not symmetrical at all, or there could be just one roll!
If needed, the shape and stability of a roll could be helped with backcombing and by using rats.
A smooth roll going all round the back of the hair and curled under was pageboy (Veronica Lake had a long pageboy).
The victory roll had the roll turned upwards the other way, but more on them below.
The Victory Roll
While rolls had been part of 1940s hairstyling since the turn of the decade, a victory roll was a tightish sausage at the back of the hair that is rolled upwards (rather than turned under like the pageboy).
“Our hair had to be kept above our collars on duty. We used to make a head band out of the top of an old stocking and roll our hair round the band. This style was known as the ‘Victory Roll’. Afterwards, when brushed out, our hair turned under into a pageboy style quite easily.” 
Women also used to tie the top of an old stocking around their heads like a headband and roll the hair over it, creating the victory roll.
“Another style I adopted was a style called the ‘victory roll’ that the A.T.S. and W.A.A.F. wore coiled round a stocking.” 
The name most likely came from pilots who, on returning from battle and having successfully shot down an enemy plane, did a “victory roll” in their plane, corkscrewing through the air before landing.
Bangs and Fringes
1940s hair was kept off the face, so if a woman had a fringe (bangs), it was dressed into the hairstyle or pinned to one side. Hair was never just flopped onto the face – it had shape and purpose!
Fringes could be shaped into a roll, or used to create a wave which was then dressed to one side, or it could be part of a mass of curls that sat high and slightly forward onto the face (just like Betty Grable).
Pompadours stand high up from the forehead, the hair going back off the face, and could be either smooth or waved.
Black Women’s Hair
The vast majority of black women in the 1940s straightened their hair. It was part of being “accepted by society” and was simply the done thing. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s before this really started to change and natural hair was more accepted.
Straightening was done with a protective pomade or oils and a heated metal comb, transforming tight curls into glossy straight hair, and it stayed this way until it got wet or was washed. The straightened hair could be dressed into waves, rolls and pinned in typical 1940s hairstyles.
Women with straightened hair would avoid water e.g. swimming, washing their hair or the rain. A scarf could always be worn to cover hair until it could be straightened again.
Grips, Combs and Slides
Hair grips, or bobby pins, were quite rare during the war, so women looked after them. They were shiny and could be worn visibly. For extra decoration, a bow made from ribbon could be added.
Combs and slides were made from Bakelite to look like tortoiseshell or, if granny had some old ones knocking about, they may have been real tortoiseshell.
Combs were used to keep rolls in place. Slides were used to keep the side hair pinned out of the way or to hold a wave in place.
Braids were popular throughout the decade and could be either someone’s own long hair or added hair pieces.
Pieces in contrasting colours were sometimes used. Also, material or a scarf was plaited with the hair to create a colourful alternative.
The plaited hair was dressed in and used in various ways including round the crown or round the back of the head.
Ribbons were tied around the head and finished with a bow on the top of the head or to the side.
Or a piece of ribbon could be tied in a bow and attached via a grip to decorate the hair.
Mothers would often tie a ribbon bow to a simple hairgrip to add a bit of colour when pinning their daughter’s hair back.
Rats were used to bulk out rolls. Not made from the furry little critters, these rats were made of old stockings stuffed with either more old stockings or hair taken from the woman’s hairbrush. Modern rats are the squishy foam doughnuts and sausages found in hair suppliers/accessory shops.
Snoods were a crocheted bag, often homemade, used to keep the back of the hair neat (especially for longer hair). Hair could be styled in a roll, left in soft curls or pin curled.
The snood was secured between the crown and the top of the head, with the front of the hair either swept under or it was left out and rolled or waved – it all depended on where the snood was being worn (e.g. at home or work).
Sometimes snoods were made from the same material as a dress to create a matching item.
Hairnets were also used like a snood to keep the back of the hair neat and, because they were less visible than a snood, they were considered more sophisticated.
Scarves could be used as decorative pieces or to keep the hair out of the face and came in a variety of materials, sizes and patterns.
Scarves were worn in a variety of ways. They could be plaited into the hair and tied up. They could be folded into a triangle and tied on top of the head, like a turban, or simply worn around the head and knotted under the chin.
Often women fashioned the scarf into something more than just a practical head covering, influenced by stars like Carmen Miranda who made wearing a turban chic.
A turban was a length of material made from things like soft wool or rayon crepe. It was tied on top of the head and the long ends were then either simply tucked under, or rolled up first then tucked under to create a more defined U-shape. The turban could be left as it was or decorated with things like pompoms or flowers.
During the war, many products were hard to come by and women made do with whatever they could get. For example, beer or sugar water was used as setting lotion, with pipe cleaners, rags or pin curls used to create the waves.
Wealthy women could afford to visit the hairdresser and have their hair set; else it was a DIY at home job.
Some older women still used the old hot irons to put waves into their hair, heating the irons in the fire (there were electric ones too!). People recall the smell of their mother’s singed hair filling the kitchen and house!
After the war, many products became more available and so perms rose in popularity, allowing for tighter and smaller curls to be set.
Home perms were available. It was easier to get a permed set and simply be able to snap it into shape, plus they lasted a long time – much easier than setting with rollers or rags.
Find Out More:
 © Rhoda Woodward  © Joyce Hilton. WW2 People’s War – an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar
Corson, R. 2000. Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. Peter Owen. 720pp.
Peiss, K. 2011. Hope In A Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. First University of Pennsylvania. 352pp.
Sherrow V. 2001. For Appearances’ Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Beauty and Grooming. Greenwood. 288pp.