Home » Women’s 1940s Hairstyles: An Overview

Women’s 1940s Hairstyles: An Overview

Here we look at the essential elements that make classic 1940s hairstyles, like rolls, pomps, curls and waves. There were many ways to combine these elements. We also take a look at what influenced the hairstyles of the 1940s and some of the common hair accessories seen during this era.

Film 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.

The influence film 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

Example of working woman’s headwear during the war.

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, namely hair had to be off the collar while on duty. A hat was part of the uniform and, therefore, hair was dressed accordingly.

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 when working in fields and factories, as well as to hide a “bad hair day”. 

(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.

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.

1940s Hairstyles in General

Hairstyles in the 1940s were as varied as the women wearing them. Hair was dressed to suit the face, situation and hair type, rather than rigidly having to follow a certain fashion, as seen in some previous decades. Whatever hairstyle a woman chose, hair was feminine and soft, and always dressed off and away from the face (with exception of dressed fringes).

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. 

For factory and farm work, longer hair would often be set and left in pin curls under a headscarf or a turban. Alternatively, 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 and the shorter hairstyles suited their occupations well.

Pictures in magazines showed very groomed and sleek film stars. However, the everyday working-class woman would not have the time, money or personal hairstylist to spend on looking immaculate, especially during the war years. Nonetheless, they made the best of themselves and always managed to look well turned out.

Older woman may have carried on wearing the short waved styles of the 1930s (especially in the early 1940s), as it was familiar and old habits die hard. Alternatively, they would adopt one of the shorter everyday styles of the era.

1940s Hairstyle Elements

Curls & Waves

Waves were soft, not like the crisp crested waves of the 1920s and ’30s. Hair was always set with a wave, even if it was then brushed smooth for a hairstyle, as bone straight hair was simply not fashionable during the 1940s. Plus, hair needed the waves and curls to help achieve the lift and movement required of the hairstyles. 

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, barrel curls or by twisting it 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.

(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 overall look. A totally flexible element of a hairstyle, women could shape and position rolls as they wanted. 

Rolls could be situated on the top of the head, at the sides, coming back from the forehead or along the back. They could be symmetrical on each side of the face, or not symmetrical at all, or there could be just one roll. Likewise, the hair in a roll could be brushed smooth or it could have a slight wave in it.

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.

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

Pageboy

The pageboy has a smooth and curled under roll that goes all round the sides and back of the hair. This style suited medium to long hair, as it was able to achieve the roll.  Veronica Lake had a long pageboy.

The Victory Roll

While rolls had been part of 1940s hairstyling since the turn of the decade, a victory roll was a tight sausage at the back of the hair that is rolled upwards (rather than turned under like the pageboy).

Women also used to tie the top of an old stocking right around their heads like a headband and roll the hair over it, creating the victory roll.

“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]

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.

“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]

Nowadays, it seems all rolls inspired by the 1940s are referred to by bloggers and the like as victory rolls. However, in Britain in the 1940s the victory roll was a specific shape, as described above.

The Fringe

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

A fringe could be set with an S-shaped wave, which was then dressed to one side. Alternatively, it could be part of a mass of curls that sat high and slightly forward onto the face (like Betty Grable). There was also the full forward roll that sat on the forehead, sleek and smooth like a barrel.

Pompadours

Pompadours stand high up from the forehead, with the hair going back off the face. The could be either smooth, half-waved or fully waved. A pompadour was essentially a large reverse roll, albeit one that stood higher off the face and, therefore, the front hair needed to be longer than required for a roll.

(Colour pic): A smooth pompadour. (Black and white): Everyday women with half waved and then full waved pompadours.

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 Pathé.

Hair Accessories

Braids

Artificial braid (1947).

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 & 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.

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 hats. Hairstyles could be easily adopted to fit the hat – or find 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

Ladies at Elephant & Castle, London (1949).

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.

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, then use hair pins to secure it all in place.

Ribbon

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.

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

Snoods

Snood with a ribbon.

Snoods were a crocheted bag, often homemade, used to keep the back of the hair neat. 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.

The top of a snood was generally placed 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. It all depended on where the snood was being worn. For example, factory or field workers may wear a snood to help keep hair out of the way.

Sometimes snoods were made from the same material as a dress to create a matching item.

Turban

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.

Fashion expert from "Woman" magazine, Anne Edwards, shows how to tie a turban (1942).

Setting Hair

During the war, many products were hard to come by and women made do with whatever they could get. Setting lotion was made from things found in the home, like beer or sugar water. Pipe cleaners, rags or pin curls secured with grips would be used to twist and set the curl into the hair. Once dry, the hair could be brushed out and dressed.

Wealthy women could afford to visit the hairdresser and have their hair set. For those who didn’t have the money, setting hair 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. These were heated up in the fire – and one had to be careful not to singe the hair,

After the war, many products became more available. This included home perms, which allowed for small, tight 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. Basically, it was much easier and less time consuming than setting with rollers or rags every day.

Hairstyles from 1944 - flat on top and at the crown, with curls dressed and pinned in around the edges.

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.

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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39 thoughts on “Women’s 1940s Hairstyles: An Overview”

  1. One of the main reasons hairstyles in the 1940’s were so large, intense and tight was because the world was at war and women’s hair and fashion styles, particularly shoulder pads, reflected this. All these elements together made women look like they were wearing armor underneath! They were like tanks, ready to face the enemy! They, like the times, were extreme. Shoulder pads were not used in fashion to any great extent before or after WWII. When analyzing fashions, one must always take into account the times in which they were worn; Economics, politics, public belief systems, all these contribute to fashion.

    One of the finest aids to modern anthropology is the great cable channel Turner Classic Movies. These films show perfectly what was happening in the world and our nation when they were made and showed the fashions as a logical extension of the times. Thank you for a fine article.

    1. Great comment Jamie – we totally agree. World happenings completely influence and impact makeup, hair and fashion. Cheers 🙂

  2. EDWARD L MILLINGTON

    This is a guy, very fascinated by this history and quite surprised to see that not much today is really new.

  3. Just found your site whilst looking for inspiration for a vintage tea dance, going to tomorrow. Its given me lots of hair tips….especially as mine is short. Thank you

  4. The information and images have been invaluable, thanks so much.
    We are off to Bletchley Park next week for my daughter’s 15th birthday, she loves history and fascinated with the Enigma decoding machine after a visit to her school with it. Coincidentally they are having an outdoors screening of “The Imitation Game” and we are invited to dress up for it 1940’s style. Had great fun making the ‘rats’ and practising the hair-do after reading your web-site, just hope I can recreate it again next week!
    Thanks again.

    1. Hi Caz, 1940s hairstyles are great to do – and so much less fussy than some eras! Something to suit everyone. Thanks for your comment and have a fab time at Bletchley 🙂

  5. Thank you this helped me yesterday to dress authentically for a Forties evening at the Black Country museum …great tips on make up hair ect

  6. Thank you so much for the article! It’s really helpful. The whole site is helpful indeed.
    I’ve been in love with 1940s and 1960s hair styles for a long time and I’m glad I found your site.
    I think I’ve read some articles about 60s makeup in here a couple months ago… and they were amazing!
    I have a question, maybe you can help me… which hair rollers should I use to achieve these 40s hair styles? Maybe the velcro ones? I don’t want to use something with heat cause it’s expensive or will damage my hair.
    Would you please help me?
    Thanks in advance, this site is a gem.

  7. Doing some history research for my hairdressing course and my makeup course. This website and this article is absolutely amazing! Just what I needed! Thank you 🙂

  8. Hi, I really liked this article. I’m doing a paper on women’s fashions for a history class, and I am required to use MLA format for my sources. I can format it myself, but I was wondering if you might already have it?

    Also, I myself wear a lot of forties style clothes, but my hair is too short for most of these styles. Do you have any alternatives, specifically for hair just below the chin?

    1. Hi Lena – we don’t have any other format, just the website. Please help yourself to whatever you need.

      Short 1940s hairstyles: 1) Softly waved hair with a side part – use a grip if needed to hold the hair back off your face. 2) Or, if you have enough length on top, you could create the classic S-shaped fringe. 3) If your hair is long enough to curl under, you could have a sleek pageboy, where the curl under goes all along the ends of the hair and is U-shaped. Use a side parting.

      Here are some short late-40s styles. If it’s possible to swoop your hair straight up, you could use fake pieces to create something like “K” too:
      Shorter 1940s hairstyles

  9. Oh my I love this site. As a director/actor in our local drama group, this site is a godsend. Glad I accidentally discovered it. thanks so much

    1. Hi Leni, Thank you for your kind words – and so glad that our site is useful to you. Happy directing and acting! 🙂

  10. Thanks for post this website.. It is really amazing. Great article. Great pictures and little how to do snapshots. This and the make-up post have helped me do a bit more with my vintage look experimenting! Thanks again..

  11. Thanks for the enlightening article. I am writing a book set during WWII that mentions women’s hair styles. Your article explains in more detail than I’m able, how these hair styles were created. I’m going to refer my friends and reader to your article to help answer their questions about Victory rolls and the use of ‘rats.’
    Elaine Faber

    1. Can’t find a hair do at end of WW2 cut above the collar, just long enough to turn
      /flip up the ends..tidy frame around crown of head!

  12. I really enjoyed seeing this post! Love the styles and they so remind me of my mother and grandmother. I still have a pair of hair combs and a couple of hairpins that my mom used in the 40s…as a child it was fun to peek inside a container on her dresser and see the interesting items. Thank you for these memories!

    1. Hi Ann, Many thanks for commenting and we’re glad you enjoyed our post! How lovely that you have original family items. Enjoy those treasured memories 🙂

  13. What elegance; how lovely ladies looked way back then. Strange isn’t it how times have changed; these days, a lot of women seem to live in jeans. Hairstyles though, are more varied now; some very nice indeed, especially the mid-length ones. This seems to be a style that suits most women and face shapes.

    1. Hi Northernlass, Thanks for your comment and totally agree – such an elegant period and no matter how little money, resources or time, women always looked groomed. Even the land girls and factory lasses looked lovely! The joy of forties hairstyles is as you said – there’s a way to dress hair to suit pretty much everyone. Glorious!

  14. Stumbled across your site by chance and have enjoyed reading several of your articles, even though I have nothing to do with beauty! Articulate and interesting posts deserve a nod, esp. in a world of so many badly written websites.

  15. Great overview! I’m in a play set during this era, and in all my research on hairstyles, this is the FIRST posting I’ve seen that included the particulars of haircare and styling for Black women. A wonderfully thorough piece of work. Bravo!

  16. Great article. Great pictures and little how to do snapshots. This and the make-up post have helped me do a bit more with my vintage look experimenting!

    1. Hi Saka, Thanks for your comment – and we’re glad our info has helped. Check out British Pathe’s website for videos from many decades showing all sorts of authentic makeup/hair looks from each era.

    1. Hi Adaeze, Many thanks for your comment. Agreed. Thankfully there have been those who have stood up, stood fast and “broken the mold”, often in the face of personal ridicule or rejection, eventually changing attitudes as well as (often indirectly) fashion.

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