Women’s 1940s Hairstyles: An Overview

1940s-Hair-TNIn this post, we look at the general shapes of a 1940s hairstyle for women and the essential elements that make a 1940s hairstyle, like rolls and waves.

We also take a look at what influenced how women dressed their hair and the common hair accessories of the era.

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

Working women's headware during the war

The working woman’s headware 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.

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. This left the men free to serve in the armed forces.

As well as dealing with work, women had to deal with rationing. Queuing up just to get a bit of butter or meat, and constantly having to balancing the menu was all part of rationing. Reinventing recipes and using substitutes as things became scare or unavailable, became a way of life.

At the end of the war in 1945, many women were dismissed from their work – it was generally viewed that they were doing “men’s work” and just keeping the jobs ticking over until the men returned. Women were kept on in industries that were not heavily unionised, as they were cheaper to employ than men. However, there were lasting effects of the wartime workers – 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

Glamour girls of the movies

Some classic ’40s styles: Lana Turner (main); curled bangs of Betty Grable (bottom centre); Rita Hayworth’s waves (bottom left)

Movie Stars

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.

War

War influenced how working women wore their hair. Being in fields, factories and the armed services, women needed styles that would not get caught in machinery and get in the way in general. Those in the armed services had rules to follow (hair had to be off the collar while on duty) and a hat was part of the uniform, so hair was dressed accordingly.

In the UK, everyday hair products like shampoo were difficult to obtain and water was rationed, so washing hair was a luxury. Scarves were used to help keep hair protected from dirt and to hide a “bad hair day”.

Various occupations where hair was required to be up and out of the way. L to R: British Red Cross nurse; WAAF radar operator (indicated by the "fist and sparks" badge); and ATF girl (photos c. 1940-1945)

Various occupations where hair was required to be up and out of the way. L to R: Wren in the British Royal Navy; British Red Cross nurse; WAAF radar operator (indicated by the “fist and sparks” badge), part of the Royal Air Force; and ATS army girl (photos c. 1940-1945)

After the War

From a hair tint advert (Vogue, 1947)

From a hair tint advert (Vogue, 1947)

After the war ended, there was a shift away from utility clothing and the sometimes practical hairstyling of the war.

New, more luxurious fabrics, hair products and makeup slowly became available, though rationing was still firmly in place in the UK.

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

Elephant and Castle, London (1949)

Everyday girls at Elephant and Castle, London, enjoying a magazine about sport – and sportsmen! (1949)

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, hair was worn feminine and soft, and 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, especially during the war years, 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

1940s Rita Hayworth updo

Rita Hayworth with classic updo – straight up with curls on top and a soft waved fringe

Waves were soft, not like the crested waves of the 1920s/30s, and hair was always set with a wave – bone straight hair was simply not fashionable.

Curls were used to dress an area of the hair, like the opposite side to a roll, or piled up on the crown area for an updo.

For those with straighter hair (and spare cash), waves and curls were permed or pin curl set into the hair at the hairdressers, but many women simply set their hair at home using pin curls or twisted up in rags.

Women could leave their hair in pin curls overnight or under a scarf or snood while at work.

Once curled, the hair could easily be styled into rolls and waves, as well as brushed smoother to give soft movement.

Rolls

Rolls in hair (early 1940s)

Everyday rolls (early 1940s)

Rolls are quintessential 1940s and an essential part of defining the decade’s look.

Rolls were a totally flexible element of a hairstyle – women could shape and position rolls as they wanted. The hair could be brushed smooth or it could have waves.

Rolls could be situated on the top of the head, at the sides, coming back from the forehead or along the back.

Side rolls could be positioned wherever. They could be 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 – and everything would be held in places with hair pins.

A smooth roll going all round the sides and back of the hair that was curled under was a pageboy. This style suited medium or longer hair to be able to achieve the roll.  Veronica Lake had a long pageboy.

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.” [1]

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.” [2]

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.

Nowadays it seems all rolls inspired by the 1940s are referred to as victory rolls, but in the 1940s a victory roll was a specific shape, as described above.

Bangs / 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

Pompadours stand high up from the forehead, the hair going back off the face, and could be either smooth or waved.

1940s everyday styles

Everyday 1940s styles including: 1) Drew Barrymore lookalike; 2) Smooth swept-back rolls c.1944; 3) Waved pompadour straight off the face; 4) Short page boy style with a bow, 1945; 5) a classic 1940s look. Source (Click picture to go large)

Black Women’s Hair

The vast majority of black women in the 1940s straightened their hair. It was simply the done thing in order to attain employment and to be accepted as part of society. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s before this really started to change and natural hair was more accepted and embraced.

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.

Processes to straightening afro hair from adding oils, sectioning, the heated combs being run through the hair to the finished classical 1940s style (1948) (Source: British Pathe)

Hair Accessories

Braids

Hair dressed with a braided switch (late 1940s)

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.

Grips, Combs and Slides

Pins and slides (1940s)

Hair grips and slides used to keep waves shaped and off the face

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. If granny had some old ones knocking about, they may have been real tortoiseshell.

Grips and 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, while adding a bit of decoration.

Hairnets

Like a snood, hairnets were also used to keep the back of the hair neat. Because they were less visible than a snood, they were considered more sophisticated.

Hats

Hats were a fun part of a woman’s attire, dressing up their otherwise plain clothes. There was no single style or shape – everything was worn, from the smaller pillboxes and berets to the wide-brimmed. Hairstyles could be easily adopted to fit the hat, or the hat to fit the hairstyle!

Popular hats include:

  • Beret – made from wool or rayon felt and came in a variety of plain colours Worn either to one side or pushed straight back off the face.
  • Pillbox – stiff and round, held onto the head with a hatpin. Worn on top of the head or at an angle.
  • Miniature – felt or straw often with a brim, pinned on with a hatpin and worn at a fun angle.
  • Fedora-style – wide-brimmed, felt hats with an indent in the top.

A hat could be easily changed by the addition of adornments like feathers, a veil, bows, beads, flowers or ribbons.

Headscarves

Two ways to wear a headscarf (1949)

Two ways to wear a headscarf: wrapped up like a turban, or simply tied round one’s head (1949)

Scarves could be used as decorative pieces, to keep the hair out of the face or help keep hair protected from dirt. Scarves came in a variety of materials, sizes and patterns.

Scarves could be worn in a variety of ways:

  • Plaited into the hair and tied up.
  • Folded into a triangle and tied on top of the head, like a turban.
  • 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.

Ribbons

Ribbons in hair (early 1940s)

Ribbons tied around the head

Ribbons were a bright and cheerful way to dress up hair and they were used in several ways:

  • Tied around the head and finished with a bow on the top of the head or to the side.
  • A bow made of ribbon could be pinned into the hair.
  • Mothers would often tie a little ribbon bow to a simple hair grip to add a bit of colour when pinning their daughter’s hair back.

Ribbons could be made from purpose-made ribbon or strips of fabric.

Rats

1940s-Hair-TN

A large roll that may have been helped with a bit of stuffing

Rats were used to bulk out rolls, keeping the structure more solid and stable.

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 and accessory shops. A 1940s woman would roll her hair around the rat in the same way we use modern rats today, and use hair pins to secure.

Snoods

A knitted snood and ribbons (1943)

A knitted snood decorated with ribbons  (1943)

Snoods were a crocheted bag, often homemade, used to keep the back of the hair neat (especially for longer hair).

The hair in the snood could be styled in a roll, left in soft curls or even pin curled, ready to be dressed out later.

A snood was generally positioned between the crown and the top of the head. The front of the hair was then either swept under the snood, or it was left out and styled, rolled or waved – it all depended on where the snood was being worn (e.g. at home or for manual work where long hair was best kept out of the way of machinery).

Sometimes snoods were made from the same material as a dress to create a matching item.

Turbans

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.

How to tie a turban

Fashion expert from Woman Magazine, Anne Edwards, shows how to tie a turban

Setting Hair

Pin-Up Perms Advert

Pin-Up Perms were established in 1945 for home use. Advert c.1950 shows the shorter more compact styles of this time.

During the war, many products were hard to come by and women made do with whatever they could get.

Setting lotion was created from items found in the home – like beer or sugar water – 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. For those who couldn’t afford this, it was a DIY at home job.

Electric curling irons were now available, but some older women may still have used the old hot irons to create waves, heating the irons in the fire. People recall the smell of their mother’s singed hair filling the house!

After the war, many products became more available and so perms and home perms rose in popularity, allowing for tighter and smaller curls to be set. 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.

1947 advert in Vogue

From a perm advert in a 1947 Vogue showing styles for different age groups

Find Out More:

Sources:
[1] © Rhoda Woodward [2] © 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.

The latest fashions as shown in Vogue August 1947

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35 thoughts on “Women’s 1940s Hairstyles: An Overview

  1. Just found your site whilst looking for inspiration for a vintage tea dance, going to tomorrow. Its given me lots of hair tips….especially as mine is short. Thank you

  2. The information and images have been invaluable, thanks so much.
    We are off to Bletchley Park next week for my daughter’s 15th birthday, she loves history and fascinated with the Enigma decoding machine after a visit to her school with it. Coincidentally they are having an outdoors screening of “The Imitation Game” and we are invited to dress up for it 1940’s style. Had great fun making the ‘rats’ and practising the hair-do after reading your web-site, just hope I can recreate it again next week!
    Thanks again.

    1. Hi Caz, 1940s hairstyles are great to do – and so much less fussy than some eras! Something to suit everyone. Thanks for your comment and have a fab time at Bletchley 🙂

  3. Thank you this helped me yesterday to dress authentically for a Forties evening at the Black Country museum …great tips on make up hair ect

  4. Thank you so much for the article! It’s really helpful. The whole site is helpful indeed.
    I’ve been in love with 1940s and 1960s hair styles for a long time and I’m glad I found your site.
    I think I’ve read some articles about 60s makeup in here a couple months ago… and they were amazing!
    I have a question, maybe you can help me… which hair rollers should I use to achieve these 40s hair styles? Maybe the velcro ones? I don’t want to use something with heat cause it’s expensive or will damage my hair.
    Would you please help me?
    Thanks in advance, this site is a gem.

  5. Doing some history research for my hairdressing course and my makeup course. This website and this article is absolutely amazing! Just what I needed! Thank you 🙂

  6. Hi, I really liked this article. I’m doing a paper on women’s fashions for a history class, and I am required to use MLA format for my sources. I can format it myself, but I was wondering if you might already have it?

    Also, I myself wear a lot of forties style clothes, but my hair is too short for most of these styles. Do you have any alternatives, specifically for hair just below the chin?

    1. Hi Lena – we don’t have any other format, just the website. Please help yourself to whatever you need.

      Short 1940s hairstyles: 1) Softly waved hair with a side part – use a grip if needed to hold the hair back off your face. 2) Or, if you have enough length on top, you could create the classic S-shaped fringe. 3) If your hair is long enough to curl under, you could have a sleek pageboy, where the curl under goes all along the ends of the hair and is U-shaped. Use a side parting.

      Here are some short late-40s styles. If it’s possible to swoop your hair straight up, you could use fake pieces to create something like “K” too:
      Shorter 1940s hairstyles

  7. Oh my I love this site. As a director/actor in our local drama group, this site is a godsend. Glad I accidentally discovered it. thanks so much

    1. Hi Leni, Thank you for your kind words – and so glad that our site is useful to you. Happy directing and acting! 🙂

  8. Thanks for post this website.. It is really amazing. Great article. Great pictures and little how to do snapshots. This and the make-up post have helped me do a bit more with my vintage look experimenting! Thanks again..

  9. Thanks for the enlightening article. I am writing a book set during WWII that mentions women’s hair styles. Your article explains in more detail than I’m able, how these hair styles were created. I’m going to refer my friends and reader to your article to help answer their questions about Victory rolls and the use of ‘rats.’
    Elaine Faber

  10. I really enjoyed seeing this post! Love the styles and they so remind me of my mother and grandmother. I still have a pair of hair combs and a couple of hairpins that my mom used in the 40s…as a child it was fun to peek inside a container on her dresser and see the interesting items. Thank you for these memories!

    1. Hi Ann, Many thanks for commenting and we’re glad you enjoyed our post! How lovely that you have original family items. Enjoy those treasured memories 🙂

  11. What elegance; how lovely ladies looked way back then. Strange isn’t it how times have changed; these days, a lot of women seem to live in jeans. Hairstyles though, are more varied now; some very nice indeed, especially the mid-length ones. This seems to be a style that suits most women and face shapes.

    1. Hi Northernlass, Thanks for your comment and totally agree – such an elegant period and no matter how little money, resources or time, women always looked groomed. Even the land girls and factory lasses looked lovely! The joy of forties hairstyles is as you said – there’s a way to dress hair to suit pretty much everyone. Glorious!

  12. Stumbled across your site by chance and have enjoyed reading several of your articles, even though I have nothing to do with beauty! Articulate and interesting posts deserve a nod, esp. in a world of so many badly written websites.

  13. Great overview! I’m in a play set during this era, and in all my research on hairstyles, this is the FIRST posting I’ve seen that included the particulars of haircare and styling for Black women. A wonderfully thorough piece of work. Bravo!

    1. Thank you Heartlover for your comment. So glad our post has been of use! Hope the play goes well and break a leg! 🙂

  14. Great article. Great pictures and little how to do snapshots. This and the make-up post have helped me do a bit more with my vintage look experimenting!

    1. Hi Saka, Thanks for your comment – and we’re glad our info has helped. Check out British Pathe’s website for videos from many decades showing all sorts of authentic makeup/hair looks from each era.

    1. Hi Adaeze, Many thanks for your comment. Agreed. Thankfully there have been those who have stood up, stood fast and “broken the mold”, often in the face of personal ridicule or rejection, eventually changing attitudes as well as (often indirectly) fashion.

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