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Home » Creating Period Hair & Makeup – What To Think About

Creating Period Hair & Makeup – What To Think About

Creating period hair and makeup for film or television is a skill. There are many things to consider to ensure the design and application are right. These same things will also help when doing dailies or a last-minute job. A vintage-inspired look for a fashion shoot or fun has more flexibility – as modern twists can be added to any vintage style as wanted.

  • Research the period thoroughly. And don’t just look at stuff on the internet – information on the web can be really misleading or incorrect. In other words, use various sources to get a more rounded and accurate view.
  • Some ideas for research include art galleries and museums – look at the sculptures, photos and paintings. There is also original film footage, books, photographs, talking to people who lived during that era – and so on.
  • Understand the era. Look at life as it was and understand things like where people worked, social structures, family life, who and what influenced trends, etc.
  • 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. It, 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 visual art – and pictures are vital to keeping you on the right track when creating period hair and makeup. 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 people from different backgrounds and classes. For example, an upper-class Edwardian lady with her lady’s maid to hand will look very different from a working-class woman who sells flowers or makes matches. 
  • There are always variations – and not everyone adhered to what was fashionable either. For example, older people may keep the styles known to them in their younger years. Also, the masses did not necessarily wear high fashion, so look at a selection of ordinary people for more everyday styles.

Get the Basics Right

Period Makeup

  • Consider the elements of the face and body. For example, did people shave or pluck hair during that era? Take eyebrows, for instance. Some periods had skinny brows (like the 1920s and 1970s); others had big and bushy brows (1980s). Some even had no visible plucking going on at all.
  • Look at the common illnesses and diseases found during that era.
  • What about teeth and nails? It all comes back to knowing the era and how different people lived.
  • Look at the makeup trends of the era, as well as what products and colours were available. Also, understand the application methods – some periods slapped it on, and others were far more discreet.

Period Hairstyling

  • Does the artist have 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 vintage hairstyle but may need a bit of help. For example, hairpieces can help create the vintage style required.
  • Length and bulk can be added to someone’s hair with hairpieces (like backfalls, switches, wefts, or clusters) or by adding hair extensions. For instance, you can’t get a big Edwardian hairstyle out of a bob! If someone has the wrong hair for the period, then a wig may be the most sensible way to go.
  • Obviously dyed hair and highlights can be a problem, especially when working in a period when hair colours were limited or not noticeably used. The hair may need to be covered over, for example, by using a hat or scarf. Or disguise it by using things like a coloured mousse or an SFX palette to neutralise to more natural hair colour.
  • Check with the costume department if the character is wearing a hat and what clothing they are wearing. No point coming up with a cracking hairstyle if it’s then flattened or hidden under a hat. Or, likewise, your hair creation has to be redressed to accommodate headwear or costume.
creating period hair and makeup
1940s style from high glamour to the everyday woman. (L to R): The groomed glamour of film star Rita Hayworth; Dorothy Lamour looks picture perfect on the cover of a magazine; An everyday 1940s gal.

Use the Right Tools

Period Makeup

  • Use the right colours, finish and textures. For example, don’t use makeup with a sheen to create a makeup look when the products available were matte. Likewise, don’t use thick black mascara for an era when mascara was not available.
  • Create the right shape and application appropriate for the period. For instance, rouge used in some eras was applied quite heartily to the cheeks, creating a flushed look that we may find over the top today.

Period Hairstyling

  • To create authentic period hairstyles, use suitable equipment and techniques to set and dress the hair.
  • Use traditional methods as well as modern techniques to create vintage hairstyles. Tradition methods include pin curls, barrel rolls, and Marcel irons. Ultimately, understanding the finished style and how various setting methods and tools can achieve it.
  • Look at the hairstyle from all angles. Remember – a character is filmed and, therefore, seen from all sides. Check the hairstyle (and makeup) from all angles, not just the front.

Read the Script

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

Find Out More

  • We have written overviews of different periods as a starting point for more in-depth research. The menu bar at the top of the page has VINTAGE categories.
  • 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s |

2 thoughts on “Creating Period Hair & Makeup – What To Think About”

  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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