Women’s 1940s Hairstyles: An Overview

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1940s-Hair-TNHere we look at the essential elements that make classic 1940s hairstyles, like rolls, pomps, curls and waves. There were many ways to use these elements. In other words, they were combined and dressed however the wearer wanted. We also take a look at what influenced the hairstyles of the 1940s and some of the common hair accessories seen during this era.

Influences on Hairstyles

Movie Stars

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.

Women's 1940s hairstyles
Some classic 1940s hairstyles: Lana Turner (main); curled bangs of Betty Grable (bottom centre); Rita Hayworth’s waves (bottom left).

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 kindly obliged.

World War II

Wartime 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 or 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, therefore hair was dressed accordingly.

Working women's headware during the war
Working woman’s headware during the war.

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”.

Women's 1940s hairstyles
(L to R): Royal Navy Wren; British Red Cross nurse; WAAF wireless operator; and ATS army girl.

After the War

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. These new products and fashions were heartily taken up because people wanted to leave the drabness of war behind them.

From a hair tint advert (Vogue, 1947)
From a hair tint advert (Vogue, 1947).

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 grown no longer than just below shoulder length.

Hair was cut with a rounded U-shape at the back, curving up towards the ears. If there was a parting, hair was generally parted to one side, though the odd centre part can be seen in old photographs.

Whatever the hairstyle a woman chose, hair was worn feminine and soft, and always dressed off and away from 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) or they would adopt one of the shorter everyday styles of the era.

1940s everyday styles
1940s hairstyles including: 1) Everyday hairstyle; 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 classy look. Source

1940s Hairstyle Elements

Waves and Curls

Waves were soft, not like the crisp crested waves of the 1920s/30s. Hair was always set with a wave, as bone straight hair was simply not fashionable during the 40s.

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 created with a perm or pin curl set into the hair at the hairdressers. However, 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.

1940s women's hairstyles
(Lto R): A softly curled, simple hairstyle; Hair set in curls under a scarf; and Rita Hayworth with classic updo.

Rolls

Rolls are quintessential 1940s and an essential part of defining the decade’s look. A totally flexible element of a hairstyle, women could shape and position rolls as they wanted. The hair in a roll could be brushed smooth or it could have a slight wave in it.

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.

1940s women's hairstyles
(L to R): Two large rolls; A roll going over the front and one at each side; A Royal Navy Wren dressing the roll to suit her cap.

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.

Fringes

1940s hair was dressed off the face, so if a woman had a fringe (bangs), it was either dressed into the hairstyle or pinned to one side. Hair was never just left flopped onto the face – it had shape and purpose!

Fringes could be shaped into a smooth roll going forward, just over the hairline. Or it could be 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 (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.

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 oil and a heated metal comb, transforming tight curls into glossy straight hair. 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 because the hair would go curly again. 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

Hair grips, or bobby pins, were quite rare during the war, so women looked after them. They were shiny and were worn visibly. For extra decoration, a little 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.

Grips and slides.

Hairnets

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

Hats

Hats were a fun part of a woman’s attire, dressing up their otherwise plain clothes. There was no single style or shape that was stand out. Everything was worn, from the smaller pillboxes and berets to the wider-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.
  • Turban – came in various materials and colours.

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

1940s hairstyles hats
Hats brightened up dreary wartime: A fur-trimmed hat; Pancake-style Tam beret; And a doll’s hat (c. 1943).

Headscarves

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 and were worn in a variety of ways, including:

  • 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.

1940s hairstyles
(L to R): Snood and ribbon (1943); Two ways to wear a headscarf – wrapped up like a turban, or simply tied round one’s head (1949); and a turban.

Ribbons

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 ribbon bow to a 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.

1940s ribbons
Women with ribbon headband. Girls would often have a simple bob hairstyle, easy to dress up with a large ribbon bow.

Rats

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

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

Snoods were a crocheted bag, often homemade, used to keep the back of the hair neat (especially useful 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 somewhere between the crown and the back of the head. The front of the hair was then either swept into 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

Setting lotion was created from items found in the home, like beer or sugar water. Pipe cleaners, rags or pin curls secured with grips would be used to twist and curls the hair. This would create the curls and waves once dressed out.

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!

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.

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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