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, 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
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.
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 always feminine, soft, and 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.
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. 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 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.
Rolls are quintessential 1940s and an essential part of defining the decade’s overall look. They are a totally flexible element of a hairstyle, so 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 running along the back. They could be worn symmetrically on each side of the face, or not be symmetrical at all. Wherever a woman decided to position a roll or two, the hair in it could be brushed smooth or it could have a slight wave.
If needed, the shape and stability of a roll could be helped with backcombing or by using rats – and everything would be held in places with hairpins.
The pageboy has a smooth and curled under roll that goes 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
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.
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.
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.
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 into a feature. Basically, hair was never just left flopped onto the face – it always 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 a mass of curls that sat high and slightly forward onto the face, like 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. 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.
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 accepted as part of society. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s before this really started to change and natural afro hair was more accepted and embraced.
Straightening was done by running a heated metal comb through the hair, transforming tight curls into glossy straight hair. A protective pomade would be applied to the hair before the hot comb was put through it.
The straightened hair could be dressed into waves, 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 enough hair, hairpieces could be used instead. Hairpieces came in natural colours, though contrasting colours were sometimes used.
Some material or a scarf could be plaited into the hair to create a colourful alternative.
The plaited hair was used in various ways including around the crown or 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.
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 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 wide-brimmed hats. Hairstyles could be easily adapted 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.
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.
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 hairpins to secure it all in place.
Ribbons were a bright and cheerful way to dress up hair. They could be used in several ways, including:
- 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 a purpose-made ribbon 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.
The top of a snood was generally placed somewhere between the crown and the back of the head.
The front of the hair was 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.
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.
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 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. These were heated up in the fire – and one had to be careful not to singe the hair.
After the war, cosmetic products became more available. This included home perms, which allowed for small and tight curls to be set permanently into the hair. It was easier to have permed hair, as it simply snapped it into shape, plus they lasted a long time. It was much easier and less time consuming than setting with rollers or rags every day.