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Women’s 1920s Hairstyles: An Overview

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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.

Change in Attitude

Young flappers in Harlem, New York in the 1920s.

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 a “live for now” energy.

Women were also seeing more opportunity in life because of the war. Having taken the place of men in factories and fields gave them a taste for jobs outside of domestic service. 

Working with machinery 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 them and how they were seen in everyday society. 

Certainly one of the biggest moves of all was getting their long hair cut short, discarding the Victorian belief that hair was a girl’s “crowning glory”.

Trailblazers

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, 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. (Good grief, what a hussy!)

Stars of Stage & 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). 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 and 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 SwansonGreta 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” or “Dutchboy” bob, known as her “black helmet”. The film stars made short hair look fashionable and something the modern woman should have.

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.

women's 1920s hairstyles
(L to R): Irene Castle, Josephine Baker and Suzanne Lenglen.

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 a celebrity outside of her sport. She wore her short hair with a brightly-coloured bandeau, along with “outrageous” short dresses with bare arms to Wimbledon. Newsreels, newspapers 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 & 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

Magazines were full of adverts, selling everything from cosmetics to cars, plus fashion advice and lives of the famous. The post war saw a dramatic increase in publications and advertisements, which contributed to the increased pace of ever-changing fashion.

Popular publications include VogueThe QueenLadies’ Home JournalHarper’s Bazaar, Life and the Gazette du Bon Ton. All noted the ever-changing fashions in hair and advised readers of the latest trends from Paris, London and New York. 

Film fan magazines were also popular and showed the looks worn by the film stars, as well as having a wealth of hair and beauty adverts. The film stars selling power was recognised by advertisers, and many a famous face endorsed a wealth of products.

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-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 youth quake 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 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 is a look at some of the more popular styles.

Plain Bob

The classic bob with a straight-cut 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.

Charleston Bob

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.

women's 1920s hairstyles
The soft Charleston bob.

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. 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.

1920s Eton crop
The short, boyish Eton crop.

Moana Bob

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.

Moana bob
The distinctive parting on the moana bob.

Orchid Bob

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 sleek orchid bob with its flicks.

The Shingle

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.

Windswept Bob

Not everybody had hair that suited the sleek and smooth bobs, so styles that suited curly or thicker hair were adopted. Of course, thicker 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.

women's 1920s hairstyles
The windswept bob was more suited to those with thick hair.

Water Waves & Marcel Waves

Katherine Dunham (c.1926) with classic waves.

Water waves (also known as finger waves) started to be seen more during the second half of the 1920s. They could be used on any bob shape, so long as there was enough hair to push into a wave.

The waves were created by pushing a comb through wet hair in alternating directions to create S-shaped 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.

There were also “wavers” or “curlers” on the market – basically, 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.

Taken from an advert for Nell Brinkley hair wavers (1923).

Kiss Curls

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!

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.

women's 1920s hairstyles
Earphone hairstyle, worn by those who didn't want to cut their long hair off, but still create a bobbed look.

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 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, or women could simply continue to dress their long hair up in the popular hairstyles of the 1910s.

Another way to create the look of short hair was to wear a transformation (or wig as we call them nowadays). 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.

Hair Accessories

Bobby Pins & Kirbigrips

The Kirbigrip for bobbed and shingled hair.

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, and its easy to see why they were called “bobby pins”.

In Britain, the hair pin was called the Kirbigrip, as made by Kirby Beard & Co.

Brilliantine

Not so much an accessory but a hair product, included here as it featured a lot in the 1920s. Brilliantine was a product designed to add sheen and control to hair. It was made by several manufacturers, including Colgate.

Browband

The thin headband was worn around the forehead, earning itself 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 selection of browbands in different colours and materials.

Bandeau

Like the browband, the bandeau was also worn around the forehead. However, it was made from a much wider strip of fabric than the browband, and worn so that most of the forehead was covered. The bandeau didn’t cover the whole head and, therefore, the top of the hair would be showing.

Slides & Combs

Like bobby grips, slides were also worn to keep hair in place, as well as for decoration. On waved hair, a slide would be used to keep the S-shaped element of a wave in place, 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, styles and decorations.

Transformations

Transformations (or wigs as we call them today) were very popular and heartily advertised in magazines like The Queen.  

Wigs allowed women to easily have a change of style or hair colour, or to create a bobbed look while keeping their long hair. Likewise, wigs were good for creating the waved hair look, as it wasn’t always a look that was easy to achieve and maintain for some. Wigs were mainly simple “pull on” style wigs that could be adjusted to fit any head.

Real hair wigs were made to look natural and worn as if so – women didn’t want their false hair to show or for people to know it was a wig. Discretion was the word. However, some wigs were made of silk and were very shiny.

There were also false pieces available, used to create a variety of effects; for example, a curled cluster to wear at the nape.

False hair 1920s
A selection of real hair pull-on wigs and false hair pieces from an advert.

Popular Hats

Cloche Hat

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, which had a much wider, deeply scooped brim.

The cloche was the 1920s hat.

Tam O'Shanter

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 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.

Find Out More

Sources:

Corson, R. (2000). Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. Peter Owen.

Drowne, K & Huber,P. (2004). The 1920s (American Popular Culture Through History). Greenwood Press.

Hill, D. D. (2002). Advertising to the American Woman, 1900-1999. Ohio State University Press. Peiss, K. (2011). Hope In A Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. First University of Pennsylvania.

Sherrow V. (2001). For Appearances’ Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Beauty and Grooming. Greenwood.
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9 thoughts on “Women’s 1920s Hairstyles: An Overview”

  1. How would an older woman (60-70) have worn her hair? I am required to attend a golden wedding celebration in 20s style and I have found a good black calf length sequinned dress with sleeves but have no idea what to do with my grey shortish hair, Everything I see advertised seems to me to be for young women

    1. Hi Jenny – older women may have gone for the bob (it was widespread among different ages and classes) or kept their longer hair worn up (e.g. Queen Mary).
      As your hair is already shortish, we’d personally embrace the classic 1920s shorter look – you can do whatever suits you e.g straight, waves, curls, centre or side part. Maybe accessorise with something like an elegant 1920s-style jewelled haircomb or headband? 🙂

    1. That is a really good question. Looking through the few pictures we found from this era, as well as books that cover “black hair throughout history”, it seems to be a “yes for some – no for others” answer. Some pictures show children with natural hair (often short), while others show kids with their (slightly longer) hair looking straighter and dressed into “fashionable” styles of the era (they also appear to be from a wealthier background – not necessarily rich, just not poor). As straightened hair had a big part to play in black women’s social standing, we can imagine that hair straightening was a part of many a girlhood. Madam Walker’s pressing comb and hair products were taking off in the 1920s, and some women who were young girls during this time and the 1930s recall being taught how to use the pressing comb by their mothers – see this book “Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness” on Google books.

  2. I am preparing to celebrate my husband’s birthday he is an African American and I wanted to show some of the styles back in 1926 his birth year. I found the clothing and the cars, but I could not find the hair styles of black women or men during that time.

    1. Hi Delores, Ladies would have had typical styles of the 1920s e.g. bobs and water waves (either straightened and styled, or wigs were worn). Men would have had short natural hair. Hope the pictures below help (Clarence Muse photo is signed 1932 – it’s the nearest we could get).
      https://hair-and-makeup-artist.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Clarence-Muse-1932.jpg
      https://hair-and-makeup-artist.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/1926-Susan-Kennedy.gif
      https://hair-and-makeup-artist.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/1920s.gif
      Also, look at Josephine Baker, who had a shiny, slicked down bob with kiss curls and/or a slight wave. Happy birthday to your husband 🙂

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