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Here’s our guide to women’s 1920s hairstyles. The Roaring Twenties were book-ended between two global 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 for today and 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 and was symbolic of women’s new-found freedom, rights, opportunities and options.
Influences on Women’s 1920s Hairstyles
Change in Attitudes
The carefree attitude of the young generation was a reaction to World War I. Losing so many young men to war gave people a “live for now” energy.
Women were also seeing more opportunity in life. Having taken the place of men in factories and fields gave them a taste for jobs outside domestic service. This also meant hair was an inconvenience, time consuming and got in the way. Therefore, getting it cut short was one way to solve the problem.
The time for the young, free and independent woman was now. Women started to rebel against the moral restrictions on society. Certainly one of the biggest moves of all was getting their hair cut short, discarding the Victorian belief that hair was a girl’s “crowning glory”.
Stars of Stage and Screen
In the United States, influential dancer and trendsetter Irene Castle started to make the bob popular when she cut her hair short (c. 1913-4). American women flocked to get a “Castle Bob”.
Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was also a highly-successful dancer and the first African-American to star in a major motion picture. She sported an “Eton crop”, slick and shining with hair pomade and often finished with a few kiss curls.
Cinema was the medium for entertainment and news, and the public loved it. 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. Above all, they made short hair look fashionable and modern.
Actress Louise Brooks (1906-1985) wore her dark hair in a sleek and straight “Buster Brown” or “Dutchboy” bob, known as her “black helmet”.
One of the few actresses who made the transition into “talkies” was “It Girl” Clara Bow (1905-1965), who had a mass of red hair. Subsequently, when fans discovered she used henna (commonly used to colour hair), sales apparently tripled.
Sport and the Bandeau
The first female star of tennis was French player Suzanne Lenglen (1899-1938). She had bobbed hair, worn with a brightly-coloured bandeau, and wore “outrageous” short dresses with bare arms to Wimbledon. Newsreels and magazines projected her image all over the world and, as a result, her influence on fashion was so strong that the of wearing of a bandeau was copied by women across Europe.
Egypt and the Exotic
The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922 was a huge influence on art, architecture, fashion, films and jewellery. Art Deco owes a nod to Carter’s discovery.
The love for all things exotic can be seen throughout the decade. For example, jewelled headbands were designed with an ancient Egyptian look to them. Likewise, one style of blunt-cut bob with a wispy fringe was called the Egyptian Bob, inspired by the hairstyles seen in Egyptian art.
Magazines were full of adverts, selling everything from cosmetics to cars, plus fashion advice and lives of the famous.
Popular publications include Vogue, The Queen, Ladies’ Home Journal, Harper’s Bazaar, Life and the Gazette du Bon Ton. Film fan magazines were also popular and showed the looks worn by the film stars, as well as having a wealth of cosmetic adverts.
During Victorian and Edwardian times, it was OK for little girls to have a bob. On the other hand, short haircuts on women was not the done thing because it was not seen as respectable or feminine. Hair would only have been cut short for things like illness, lice or as punishment. However, there were the trail blazers and arty types who liked attention who would cut their hair short.
One such showoff was French singer-actress Polaire (Émilie Marie Bouchaud, 1874-1939) who wore short skirts and cropped hair in the 1890s. Good grief, what a hussy!
How The 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 in factories to cut their hair.
Generally though, a woman’s long hair was considered to be her “crowning glory” and it was quite a jolt for women to cut their long hair so short. Bobbed styles as a fashion statement were initially met with shock and resistance. In some western countries, for example, women who worked with the public (such as teachers, department store workers and office girls) were fired for coming to work with bobbed hair, and some schools banned bobs.
Preachers sermonised against the bob. Similarly, various conservative types made claims that cutting one’s 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-’20s, 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 youth quake had quietened. It would be a few decades more before the young caused such outrage and shock again.
Variations of the 1920s Bob
The bob is the defining and dominant women’s hairstyle of the 1920s, with all its various lengths, textures and shapes. Most variations had a name and distinctive look of its own. Women would have adopted one of the styles, or used elements from their favourite bobbed look to suit their requirements. In other words, bobs were reasonably versatile and adaptable. Here are some of the more popular styles:
The classic bob with a straight fringe and hair ending just below the ears. Also called a “Buster Brown”, after the cartoon character’s bobbed hair. For those without a fringe, a side parting was the thing and the hair was held back with a bobby pin or slide.
A softer-looking bob named after the popular 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.
Also known as the “boyish bob“, it was a very short bob, shaved at the back and cut above the ears. Appearing in the mid-1920s, it was named in Britain after the hairstyle favoured by the Eton schoolboys. The masculine style attracted much comment and was often the target of 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.
The smooth hair was side parted and swept across the forehead. The hair 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, the two curls would peek out. It was a sleek bob and could be smoothed further 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 often left in a tapered shape. The front of the hair was longer and kept in place with grips or slides.
Water Waves and 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 defined crests and troughs in the hair. Things could be used to keep the waves in place as the hair dried, such as butterfly clips, hairnets and even material strips wrapped around around the head covering the length of each wave.
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 crisp-looking crests. Also, they lasted longer due to the heat used.
Not everybody had hair that suited the sleek and smooth bobs, so styles that suited curly or thicker hair were adopted. Hair could be tamed with chemicals or heat, but not everyone wanted to go down this route. There was also a really wild and messy version called the extreme windblown.
Black women would straighten their hair using pomades and a hot iron, before styling it into a typical 1920s hairstyle. Alternatively, wigs could have been worn, thereby saving the hassle of straightening.
Bobby Pin or Kirbigrip
The metal hair pin was designed to keep the short bobbed hairstyles in place. It appeared in about 1922, just as bobs were increasing in popularity. In Britain, the hair pin was called the Kirbigrip, made by Kirby Beard & Co.
Not so much an accessory but a hair product, included here as it featured a lot in the ’20s. Brilliantine was a product designed to add sheen and control to hair. It was made by several manufacturers, including Colgate.
The browband emerged at the end of World War I. The thin band was worn around the forehead, thereby earning the nickname of “headache band”.
Browbands were made from a variety of 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.
A bandeau was also worn around the forehead, but it was made from a much wider strip of fabric than the headband. It was worn so most of the forehead was covered, but the top of the hair was showing.
Wearing a hat was still the done thing for social engagements and a bobbed hairstyle could cope with being squished under a snug-fitting hat like the cloche.
Made from any soft material like rayon, straw, wool, cotton and felt, 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 things like flowers, ribbons, jewels or beads.
It was invented by Parisian milliner Caroline Reboux in 1908 and became the defining hat of the ’20s. By the 1930s, the cloche had evolved into the coal scuttle hat with a deep and wide scooped brim.
A kiss curl (or spit curl) was a strategically placed curl (or collection of curls) laying on the forehead or cheek. Curls softened a hard cut or added a touch of feminism, and could be seen below the brim of a cloche hat. Rumour suggested that the number of kiss curls equated to the number of times a girl had been kissed by different boys. Curls were set with soap, homemade gels or a shop-bought product.
Slides and Combs
Slides were also worn to keep hair in place and for decoration. On waved hair, a slide would be used to keep the S-shape of a wave and to hold the hair off the face.
Spanish mantilla combs were a fashion accessory in the 1920s – inspired by the Parisian trend for the combs. Ladies with long hair would use a mantilla comb to hold the hair in place (hair was worn up in a bun or chignon), as well as provide decoration. Mantillas could be made from materials such as Bakelite (an early plastic), tortoiseshell, ivory or silver, and came in a variety of designs, decorations and styles.
The Tam O’Shanter is a traditional Scottish knitted hat (or bonnet) with a pompom on top. It has been 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, and 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 women’s football was recognised by the FA.
Other Popular Headwear
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.
Wigs (or transformations as they were known) were very popular and allowed women to easily have a change of style. Likewise, wigs were good for creating waved hair, as it wasn’t always a look that was easy to achieve and maintain for some.
Short wigs were also good for women who didn’t want to cut their hair, but still wanted to have a bobbed look. Backfalls were used to add length to a short cut when required.
Wigs were made to look natural, because women didn’t want their postiche to show. Discretion was the word.
But I Don’t Want Short Hair!
Cutting long hair to a short style was quite a transformation. Bobs may have been the fashion, but like any fashion, it doesn’t mean everyone whole-heartedly wants to adopt it.
For women who didn’t want to cut their hair short, or needed a temporary solution before making that major decision, there were several options.
Firstly, women could embrace the look of short hair by dressing their long hair up. For instance, one style involved winding plaits up by the ears. This was nicknamed “earphones” after the style of headphone that people used to listen to broadcasts on crystal radio sets. Alternatively, hair was fashioned into a bun or chignon at the nape.
Secondly, women could simply continue to dress their long hair up in the popular hairstyles of the 1910s.
Another way was to wear a wig. Fake hair was a good way to create the look of a bob, while keeping their long hair safely tucked underneath.
One actress who kept her locks long was 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.