Here’s our guide to women’s 1920s hairstyles. The Roaring Twenties were book-ended between two cataclysmic events – namely, the aftermath of World War I and the financial crash that led to the Great Depression. The Great War had taken many lives, and this shadow cast a desire to live embrace life. It was off with the old – literally in the case of hemlines and hair – and on with the new. The bob was the hairstyle of the decade – symbolic of women’s newfound freedom, rights, and opportunities.
Influences on Women's 1920s Hairstyles
Change in Attitude
The carefree attitude of the young generation was, in part, a reaction to World War I. Losing so many young men to war gave people live-for-now energy.
Women were also getting more opportunities in life because of the war. Having taken the place of men in factories and fields gave women a taste for jobs outside of domestic service.
Working with machinery meant hair was an inconvenience, time-consuming, and got in the way. Therefore, getting it cut short was one way to solve the problem. One significant change was getting their long hair cut short, discarding the Victorian belief that hair was a girl’s crowning glory.
The time for the young, free and independent woman was now. Women started to rebel against moral restrictions and how society saw them.
During Victorian and Edwardian times, it was OK for little girls to have a bob. Women would only have their hair cut short for things like illness, lice, or as punishment.
Overall, short haircuts on women were not the done thing. It was not seen as respectable or feminine. However, there were trailblazers and arty types who liked attention. They cut their hair short long before it was considered acceptable.
One such showoff was French singer-actress Polaire (Émilie Marie Bouchaud, 1874-1939), who wore short skirts and cropped hair in the 1890s.
Stars of Stage & Screen
In the United States, influential dancer and trendsetter Irene Castle cut her hair short c. 1913-4. Subsequently, American women wanted to get a “Castle Bob”.
Another dance star was Josephine Baker (1906-1975) – a highly successful entertainer and the first African-American to star in a major motion picture. She sported an Eton crop, slick and shining with hair pomade, often finished with a few kiss curls.
In the 1920s, cinema was the medium for entertainment and news, and the public loved it. Going to the cinema was part of life, and the dawn of the film star had begun.
Right from the start, the film industry was influential on trends and fashion. Audiences went to see stars such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Lillian Gish as much for their wardrobe and hairstyles as for the film.
Actress Louise Brooks (1906-1985) wore her dark hair in a sleek and straight Buster Brown, known as her black helmet. The film stars made short hair look fashionable and something the modern 1920s woman should have.
One of the lucky few who transitioned from silent film into talkies was It Girl Clara Bow (1905-1965). She had a mass of red hair and when fans discovered she used henna (commonly used to colour hair), apparently sales tripled.
Sport & the Bandeau
The first female star of tennis was French player Suzanne Lenglen (1899-1938). Her tennis matches drew huge crowds, and she was also a celebrity outside of her sport.
She wore her short hair with a brightly coloured bandeau with “outrageous” short dresses with bare arms to Wimbledon.
Newsreels, newspapers and magazines projected her image all over the world. As a result, her influence on fashion was so strong that wearing a bandeau was copied by women across Europe.
Egypt & the Exotic
Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. It had a massive influence on art, architecture, fashion, films, and jewellery. For example, Art Deco owes a nod to his discovery.
The love for all things exotic can be seen throughout the decade. For example, jewelled headbands could have an ancient Egyptian look to them. Additionally, one style of blunt-cut bob with a fringe was called the Egyptian Bob, inspired by the hairstyles seen in Egyptian art.
Popular publications include Vogue, The Queen, Ladies’ Home Journal, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, and the Gazette du Bon Ton. All noted the new fashions in hair and advised readers of the latest trends from Paris, London and New York.
Film fan magazines were also popular, showing the latest film star fashions and a wealth of hair and beauty adverts. A film star’s “selling power” was recognised by advertisers – subsequently, famous faces often endorsed products.
The post-war saw a dramatic increase in publications and advertisements, which contributed to the increased pace of ever-changing fashion.
How the 1920s Bob was Viewed
During World War I (1914-18), women took the place of men in many workplaces, including factories and fields. Safety concerns made it acceptable for women working in these environments to cut their hair.
Generally though, a woman’s long hair was thought of as her crowning glory – and it was quite a jolt to cut their hair so short for fashion. Bobbed styles were, initially, met with shock and resistance. For example, in some western countries, women who worked with the public (such as teachers, department store workers, and office girls) were fired for coming to work with bobbed hair. Similarly, some schools banned bobs.
Preachers sermonised against the bob. Similarly, various conservative types made claims that cutting hair short could lead to all sorts of nasty side effects, like a moustache, baldness or life eternal as a spinster. Heavens!
As with all trends that create shock waves, things gradually calmed. By the mid-1920s, much of society was becoming more accepting of short hair. Some older women were also going for the chop, preferring the convenience of shorter hair with no more frizzing, backcombing, stuffing, and pinning.
By the 1930s, hair was getting slightly longer and softer in style, and the sharp lines and shortness of the bob were no longer as fashionable. The youthquake had quietened. It would be a few decades more before the young caused such outrage and shock again.
Video showing a woman’s long locks being shingled (British Pathé, 1924).
A bob cut being finished and the wearing of wigs (British Pathé, 1926).
Variations of the 1920s Bob
The bob is the defining and dominant women’s 1920s hairstyle. It came in various lengths, shapes and styles.
The exact boundary between some bobs was blurred, as many looked quite similar. Others had a more distinctive and individual look.
In the end, women could either adopt one of the main styles or use elements from their favourite bobs to suit their requirements. In a word, bobs were reasonably versatile and adaptable.
Plain Bob - the Buster Brown
This classic women’s 1920s hairstyle had a blunt-cut fringe and hair ending just below the ears. It was also known as a Dutchboy, Dutch Cut, or Buster Brown (after the cartoon character’s bobbed hairstyle).
For those without a fringe, a side parting was the thing. A bobby pin could hold back the hair if needed.
It was a softer-looking bob named after the Charleston dance – the dance of the decade. The hair came to just below the ear lobes and had large, soft waves in it. It was very fashionable in 1925.
Eton Crop - the Boyish Bob
The Eton crop was also known as the boyish bob or the Garçon. It was a very short bob, shaved at the nape and cut above the ears.
It appeared in the mid-1920s and was named for the hairstyle favoured by schoolboys in Britain who went to Eton.
The masculine style attracted much comment and was often the target of satire, cartoons and the press.
The Moana bob had a distinctive parting that ran parallel to the forehead, with the fringe swept forward. The rest of the hair was combed back over the crown, creating a little rounded lift.
This women’s 1920s hairstyle featured smooth hair, which was side-parted and swept across the forehead.
The length sat around the bottom of the ears and was finished with two curls flicked forward onto the cheeks. Subsequently, when worn under a cloche hat, the two curls would peek out. It was a sleek bob that could be smoothed even more with Brilliantine.
The shingle has a well-defined neckline, where the hair is thinned at the nape with a razor, exposing the hairline. It was cut to a tapered or curved shape rather than cut straight. The front of the hair was longer and kept in place with grips or slides.
Not everybody had hair that suited the sleek and smooth bobs, so styles that worked better for curly or thicker hair were adopted. Of course, chemicals or heat could tame thicker hair, but not everyone wanted to go down this route.
There was also a really wild and messy version called the extreme windblown.
Water Waves & Marcel Waves
Water waves – also known as finger waves – started to be seen more during the second half of the 1920s.
The waves were created by pushing a comb through wet hair in alternating directions to create S-shaped crests and troughs in the hair.
Butterfly clips, hairnets or similar items were used to hold the waves in place as the hair dried. Alternatively, material strips could be wrapped around the head, covering the length of each wave.
There were also “wavers” or “curlers” on the market – quite simply, a metal roller used to wind an individual strand of wet hair around. The roller had a slide or clip on it that snapped shut to hold the hair in place as it dried.
While water waves used water, Marcel waves were created by using heated tongs in dry hair. These waves looked more defined than the softer water waves, creating crisper-looking crests. They also lasted longer due to the heat used.
A kiss curl (or spit curl) was a strategically placed curl (or collection of curls) laying on the forehead or cheek. Kiss curls softened a hard bobbed look or added a touch of feminism.
Curls were set with soap, homemade gels or a shop-bought product.
Rumour suggested that the number of kiss curls a girl wore equated to the number of times she had been kissed by different boys.
But I Don't Want Short Hair!
Women’s 1920s hairstyles didn’t just include bobs. For some women, cutting their long hair to a short style was too much of a transformation. Bobs may have been all the rage, but like any fashion, it didn’t mean everyone wanted to have one.
There were several options for women who didn’t want to cut their hair or needed a temporary solution before making that big decision.
One method was for women to embrace the look of short hair by simply dressing their long hair up. For example, one popular style involved winding plaits up by the ears. This style was nicknamed “earphones” after the headphones people listened to broadcasts on crystal radio sets.
Alternatively, hair was dressed into a bun or chignon at the nape. Women could also continue to dress their long hair up in the popular hairstyles of the 1910s.
Another way to create the illusion of short hair was by wearing a transformation (or wig, as we call them nowadays). Fake hair was a great way to create the look of a bob – all while keeping their long hair safely tucked underneath.
One actress who kept her locks long was the 1920s box-office phenomenon, Mary Pickford. She wore her golden hair in curls and ringlets before finally succumbing to a bob at the end of the 1920s. Good girl.
Bobby Pins & Kirbigrips
The metal hairpin was designed to keep the short bobbed hairstyles of the 1920s in place. It appeared in about 1922, just as bobs were increasing in popularity, so it’s easy to see why they were known as bobby pins.
In Britain, the hairpin was called the Kirbigrip, made by Kirby Beard & Co.
This shiny and slick hair product featured a lot in the 1920s. Brilliantine was a product designed to add sheen and control to hair. Different manufacturers made it, including Colgate. Josephine Baker also had her version, called Baker Fix.
The thin headband was worn around the forehead, earning itself the nickname of “headache band”.
Browbands were made from various materials, including ribbon, cotton, knitted wool or even a string of pearls. They could be plain and simple or more elaborate with decoration or embroidery.
The bandeau was another item worn around the forehead. It was made from a much wider strip of fabric than the browband and worn across the forehead. However, the bandeau didn’t cover the whole head and, therefore, the crown area would be showing.
Slides & Combs
Slides were worn to keep the hair in place or to provide decoration. In waved hair, it would also keep the crest of a wave from moving.
Spanish mantilla combs were a fashion accessory in the 1920s – inspired by the Parisian trend for the combs. Ladies with long, dressed-up hair would use a mantilla comb to hold the hair in place.
Mantillas were made from various materials, such as Bakelite (an early plastic), tortoiseshell, ivory, or silver. They came in a variety of designs, styles and decorations.
Transformations (or wigs as we call them today) were popular and heartily advertised in magazines like The Queen.
Wigs allowed women to change their hair colour or hairstyle with ease. Waved styles weren’t always an easy look to achieve and maintain. They also created a bobbed look while keeping their long hair pinned underneath.
Wigs were mainly simple pull-on wigs that were adjustable. Real hair wigs were made to look natural and worn as if so – 1920s women didn’t want their false hair to show or for people to know it was a wig. Discretion was the word. However, silk wigs were very shiny. There were also false pieces available, used to create a variety of effects.
Wearing a hat was still the done thing for social engagements. A bobbed hairstyle could cope with being squished under a snug-fitting item like the cloche hat.
The bell-shaped hat (cloche is French for bell) is pulled down low over the ears and brow. Hats could be plain, embroidered, or decorated with flowers, ribbons, jewels, or beads. They were made from any soft material like rayon, straw, wool, cotton, and felt.
Parisian milliner Caroline Reboux invented it in 1908, and the cloche became the defining hat of the 1920s. By the 1930s, the cloche had evolved into the coal scuttle hat, which had a much wider scooped brim.
The Tam O’Shanter is a traditional Scottish knitted hat (or bonnet) with a pompom on top worn by both men and women for centuries.
They started to be seen during WWI when the women who worked in the munitions factories formed football teams. The Tam O’Shanter (or a similar-looking knitted hat) was simply part of the kit.
Women’s football in Britain was hugely successful, often more so than men’s. Ironically, the popularity of women’s footy became its downfall. The Football Association got their jealous Y-fronts in a twist and, in 1921, banned women’s teams from playing at their pitches.
It would be five decades before the women’s game was recognised by the FA.
Other Popular Hats
- Other soft headwear worn included turbans and berets, worn low over the head like a cloche hat, as opposed to being worn on one side (which is more 1930s).
- Long scarves were wrapped around the head and tied at the nape.
- A leather aviator helmet could be worn when out in a car to protect hair from dust and wind.
- When Greta Garbo wore a brimmed felt hat in A Woman of Affairs (1928), she sparked a trend for American women to wear this type of soft hat.