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.
Influences on the Hairstyles
Actresses such as Betty Grable, Anna Neagle, Veronica Lake, Dorothy Lamour, Rita Hayworth, and Ava Gardner epitomised glamour during the 1940s. They 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, the officials asked Veronica Lake to cut her trademark “peekaboo” long locks. Ms Lake kindly obliged.
World War II
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 be in the way in general.
Those in the armed services had rules to follow – for example, hair had to be off the collar while on duty. A hat was part of the uniform, and hair had to be appropriately dressed. Shorter hairstyles suited this type of work.
In the UK, washing hair was a luxury because products like shampoo were hard to obtain, and water was rationed. Scarves protected the hair from dirt when working in fields and factories. They also hid a bad hair day.
After the War
After the war ended, there was a gradual 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 some rationing was in place until 1954 in the UK. 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.
Hairstyles became looser and less structured looking. Victory rolls and pompadours were taking a backseat to sleekly waved hair.
Pictures in magazines showed very groomed and sleek film stars. Their hairstyles would be admired and copied by women as much as possible.
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.
Women's 1940s Hairstyles in General
Hairstyles in the 1940s were as varied as the women wearing them. And hair did not rigidly follow a dictated fashion, as seen in some previous decades. For example, hair could be short, long or mid-length and dressed according to an individual’s situation, tastes, and hair type.
Whatever hairstyle a woman chose, hair was always feminine, soft, and dressed off and away from the face (except fringes). If there was a parting, hair was generally parted to one side, though the occasional centre parting can be seen in old photographs.
An 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 likely adopt one of the shorter and easy-to-keep styles of the era.
1940s Hairstyle Elements
Curls & Waves
Waves were soft, not like the crisp crested waves of the 1920s and ’30s. Curls were for dressing up the hair. For example, on the opposite side to a roll, or piled on the crown area for an updo.
Hair was always set, even for a brushed-smooth hairstyle, as bone-straight hair was not fashionable during the 1940s. Additionally, the hair also needed setting to achieve the lift and movement required of the hairstyles.
For those with spare cash, hair was set or permed at the hairdressers. Most women, however, set their hair at home using pin curls, barrel curls or by twisting it up in rags. Hair could be left overnight in pin curls or under a scarf or snood while at work. It was ready to dress out in the morning or for a social event.
Rolls are quintessential 1940s and an essential part of defining the overall look for the decade.
They were a flexible element of a hairstyle, so women could shape and position the rolls as they wanted – for example, the top, the sides, the forehead, or around the nape. They could be worn symmetrically on each side of the face or not be symmetrical at all. Additionally, the hair could be brushed smooth or have a wave.
The shape and stability of a roll could be helped with backcombing or by rats. Hairpins would keep everything in place.
The pageboy is a smooth hairstyle with a curled-under roll going all around the sides and back of the hair. This style suited medium to long hair, as it had the length needed to achieve the roll. Veronica Lake wore a long pageboy.
The Victory Roll
Rolls had been part of 1940s hairstyling since the turn of the decade. A victory roll was a particular type of roll. It was a tight sausage at the back of the hair 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.
The name most likely came from pilots who, on returning from battle and having shot down an enemy plane, did a “victory roll” in their fighter, corkscrewing through the air before landing.
Nowadays, it seems that all rolls inspired by the 1940s are referred to by bloggers and the like as victory rolls. However, in 1940’s Britain, the victory roll was a specific shape – as described above.
In the 1940s, hair was dressed off the face. Therefore, if a woman did have a fringe, it was either dressed into the hairstyle, pinned to one side, or made into a feature. Hair was never just left flopped onto the face – it always had shape and purpose.
For example, the fringe could be set with an S-shaped wave and dressed to one side. Alternatively, it could be a mass of curls that sat high and slightly forward onto the face, as Betty Grable wore. There was also the full-forward roll that sat on the forehead – sleek and smooth like a barrel.
Pompadours stand high up from the forehead, with the hair going back off the face. They could be either smooth, half-waved or completely waved. A pompadour was essentially a big roll, albeit one that stood higher off the face.
Black Women's Hair
The vast majority of black women in the 1940s straightened their hair. It was simply the done thing to attain employment and be part of society. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s before this started to change, and natural afro hair was more accepted and embraced.
Straightening was a two-step process. Firstly, a protective pomade was applied to the hair. Then, a heated metal comb was run through, transforming tight curls into glossy straight hair. The straightened hair could be dressed into waves and rolls and pinned up in typical 1940s hairstyles.
Women with straightened hair would avoid getting their hair wet because the hair would go curly again.
Braids were popular throughout the decade. If someone didn’t have long hair, hairpieces could be used instead and pinned into the hair.
Hairpieces came in natural colours, though contrasting colours were also available. A strip of material or a scarf could also add colourful detail to a plait.
Grips, Combs & Slides
Hair grips (or bobby pins) were rare during the war, so women looked after them. Grips were shiny and worn visibly. For extra decoration, a small ribbon bow could be attached.
Combs and slides were made from Bakelite to look like tortoiseshell. If granny had some old ones knocking about, they might have even 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.
Hairnets were used to keep the back of the hair neat. Because they were less visible, they were considered to be more sophisticated than a snood.
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 small pillboxes and berets to wide-brimmed hats. Hairstyles could be easily adapted to fit the hat – or find the hat to suit 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 and 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.
Adornments could dress up a hat – for example, feathers, a veil, bows, beads, flowers, or ribbons.
Scarves were worn to keep the hair out of the face or help keep it protected from dirt. They came in different materials, sizes and patterns.
There were many ways to wear a scarf, including:
- Plaited into the hair and tied up.
- Folded into a triangle and tied on top of the head, like a turban.
- 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.
A popular way to easily dress up the hair. It was also a versatile way to add a bit of decoration. Fresh blooms could be used, but artificial flowers were popular. Made from silk or rayon, they came in various colours and styles.
Flowers could come already attached headband, comb or pins.
Not an accessory that was seen but essential to creating some of the 1940s hairstyles. Rats were used to bulk out rolls, keeping the structure more solid and stable. They were made from old stockings stuffed with either more old stockings or hair taken from the woman’s hairbrush.
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 hairpins to secure it all in place.
Ribbons & Bows
Ribbons were a bright and cheerful way to dress up hair. They could be used as decoration in several ways, including:
- Tied around the head and finished with a bow on the top or side.
- Fashioned into a bow and 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 were made from a purpose-made material or strips of fabric.
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.
Factory or field workers may have worn 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.
A turban was a length of material made from things like soft wool or rayon crepe. It was tied around the head and the long ends tucked underneath. The turban could be left as it was or decorated with things like pompoms or flowers.
During the war, many products were hard to come by. Women made do with whatever they could get. For example, setting lotion was made from things found in the home, like beer or sugar water.
Pipe cleaners, rags or pin curls would be used to twist and set the hair. Once dry, the hair could be brushed out and dressed as required. Wealthy women could afford to visit the hairdresser and have their hair set. Those who didn’t have the money just set their hair at home.
Electric curling irons were now available, but some women will have continued to use the old hot irons to create waves.
After the war, cosmetic products became more readily available, like home perms. It was easier to have permed hair, as it simply snapped it into shape, plus they lasted a long time. It was also less time consuming than the daily setting with rollers or rags.