Here’s a look at women’s 1950s hairstyles. Following on from the hardship of World War II and rationing, the fifties was a time of relative prosperity. Disposable income combined with an increase in mass media encouraged the consumption of fashion. New hair care products were designed to allow women to do their hair easily at home – and ladies did everything possible to change their hair.
Influences on Women's 1950s Hairstyles
Leading ladies like Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Dorothy Dandridge, Debbie Reynolds, and Doris Day influenced the latest hairstyles. Others like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield had their trademark looks.
While movies and the people in them were still very influential, television was the next big thing. More and more people were now devoting their free time to staying in and watching the box. Subsequently, this influenced how people saw themselves and the world around them.
Lucille Ball is arguably the biggest star of television during the 1950s. Her sitcom I Love Lucy (1951-7) was one of the most-watched programmes in America.
Mass media influenced beauty ideals and fashion. Hair and makeup adverts featured in all forms of media, including TV, cinema and magazines. The biggest stars of the day adorned the covers, such as Lucille Ball, who appeared on more TV Guide covers than any other person to date.
There was a love for Italian fashions, attitude and lifestyle during the 1950s, particularly in the USA. Italian films like La Strada (1954) sparked the ‘storia d’amore’.
Hollywood films with an Italian connection also sparked the love – for example, Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), The Rose Tattoo (1955), and Summertime (1955).
Hairdressers were making their mark, creating styles for their wealthy clients and helping to popularise fashion styles.
Raymond Bessone (also known as Mr Teasie-Weasie) was the British hairdresser during the 1950s. He often appeared on television and could be considered the first celebrity hairdresser with clients such as Diana Dors. He loved to use bold colour in his clients’ hair, and his chain of hair salons was very successful.
Louis Alexandre Raimon (known as Alexandre de Paris) was a famous French hairdresser who styled various stars of the screen, including Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, and Lauren Bacall.
The prominent hairdresser for the Hollywood movie industry was Sydney Guilaroff – the first hairdresser to get a screen credit for their work. Since the 1930s, Guilaroff had done the hair on many films. His status was such that iconic 1950s actress Grace Kelly chose him to style her hair for her 1956 wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco.
Teenagers became a recognised demographic in the 1950s. Having less pressure to grow up as quickly as their parents, they could dedicate more time to leisure and had money to spend. Consequently, the hair companies noticed and made products specifically geared towards the teen market.
Teenagers, in particular, were influenced by music, especially when rock and roll rocketed into the charts in the mid-’50s. Rock and roll was the music upstart of the decade, defining the 1950s teenager.
However, it was more than just a music style, meaning it also influenced attitudes, fashion, hair and lifestyle. It also divided the younger and older generations but brought young black and white audiences together.
Here is a video from 1956 showing some styles for teens using accessories:
Popular 1950s Hairstyles
The Poodle Cut
This short and tightly curled hairstyle resembled a poodle’s coat, hence the name. It was also known as a bubble cut. It was popular in the first half of the 1950s and was a good hairstyle for women with naturally curly hair.
The Italian Cut
The Italian cut hairstyle emerged in 1953, predominantly inspired by the stars of Italian movies, and became a popular choice for women.
It was a short and curly style like the poodle cut, but less tightly curled. It was a shaggy and loose yet sculptured hairstyle featuring all-over waves, soft curls and fluffy kiss curls.
Italian screen sirens Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren had the Italian cut. Elizabeth Taylor also adopted it at one point.
This women’s 1950s hairstyle was for medium length hair. It was a softer and slightly fuller version of the poodle cut. Here, the curls were looser and more brushed into waves. It could also have a little lift and volume to it.
It was a popular and versatile hairstyle that the wearer could adapt to suit their face shape.
The Cube Cut
The cube was a very short haircut with a fringe that was popular in Britain in the mid-1950s. The hair at the sides was cut across at mid-ear length, creating an angular and stepped look.
Video from 1955 looking at the cube cut and temporary hair colouring:
The Gamine Look or Pixie Cut
It was a short layered hairstyle with a high fringe that emerged in the early 1950s.
Several actresses wore this style, most noticeably Audrey Hepburn. Her long hair was cut short during a scene in Roman Holiday (1953) as a mark of her character’s independence.
There were also other short, masculine haircuts, such as the butch cut.
Pageboy or Brushed Under Bob
This fashionable and versatile hairstyle could vary in length from quite a short bob to shoulder-length.
The hair was styled to be sleek and smooth, possibly with a slight wave at the front or the sides – that all depended on the wearer’s choice. Ultimately, the hair was always curled under to form a continuous and smooth U-shaped roll around the back and sides.
Grace Kelly often wore her jaw-length hair in a sleek pageboy. Marilyn Monroe sometimes styled her hair this way too.
Long Hair & Horsetails
Most women over the age of 20 would generally wear their hair in a shorter style. However, some women did have long hair, particularly teenagers, students and “Beat Girls” like Bettie Page.
While long hair could be left down (like Bettie Page), tying it back into a ponytail was also fashionable – known in the 1950s as a horsetail.
The ponytail was a popular look for Western teenagers. It was so fashionable for young women that it was the hairstyle seen on the first version of Barbie in 1959.
It remained a popular look throughout the 1950s. Audrey Hepburn wore her long hair in a pony with a short fringe in Funny Face (1957). The 1950s fringe was short, finishing no longer than the middle of the forehead.
The modern bouffant started in the mid-’50s, becoming more popular by the end of the decade. It increased in size as the decade came to a close and started to see hair piled high on top of the head – a forerunner of the beehive.
The main elements of a bouffant hairstyle were volume and height. Backcombing and hairspray were needed to keep this look set rock solid. Ultimately, women might not touch their bouffant until their hair needed washing out.
Large wire mesh rollers were now on the market and were used to help set the hair with the lift needed for a bouffant style.
Black Women's 1950s Hairstyles
Straightening was carried out at home or in a black beauty salon.
The hot comb method (as used in previous decades) was still the primary method of straightening until chemical relaxers became more available. Firstly, a protective pomade or oil was put through the hair, followed by a heated metal comb. It transformed tight curls into glossy straight hair. The straightened hair was styled as required, staying this way until it got wet or washed.
Chemical hair relaxers were a permanent solution, as the hair stayed straight even after contact with water. It eliminated the need for hot combs.
Wigs were also popular as a quick and easy way to have the latest fashionable style. They removed the need for the time-consuming and potentially painful process of straightening.
Towards the end of the 1950s, a tiny minority of women started to leave their hair natural and not straightened. It would set the ball rolling for the politically charged afro revolution of the 1960s.
Setting & Perming Hair
There were two main ways to create curls and waves in hair – a wet set or perm.
The more traditional wet set techniques include using pin curls or rollers. First of all, a setting lotion would be applied to the wet hair, then the hair and set in pin curls or rollers. A drying hood baked the set into place.
Perming created longer-lasting sets, avoiding the need to wet set the hair as frequently.
Temporary & Fashion Hair Colours
Colouring products and techniques advanced in the 1950s, allowing women to change their hair colour on a whim at home. For example, one-step products that allowed hair to be bleached, shampooed and dyed easily at home came onto the market in 1950.
Some products allowed women to add bleached or coloured streaks to their hair. As a result, women became experimental with hair colour and liked to change it whenever it suited them.
Women didn’t just dye their hair in natural colours either – fashion colours were popular. As well as dying their hair one colour, women would also have two-tone hairstyles. For example, the front may be dyed green, and the back of the hair a dark grey.
Temporary colouring products were also popular. They allowed women to spruce up their hair in no time to match their outfit – as well as remove it without hassle. Products included sprays, paints, powders, and little hairpieces called flashes.
Gold and silver streaks painted onto the hair dressed it up. There were also metallic powders that could be were sprinkled or puffed into the hair to create an all-over shimmer effect. These coloured sprays and paint-on lacquer products were washed or brushed out easily.
The small flashes of coloured hair could be attached to someone’s hair with a grip or glued onto the front hairline with spirit gum. Also known as chameleon streaks, they came in a multitude of colours. Hair flashes were easily removed for use again at some point.
Two-tone hair demonstrated here by hairdresser Raymond Bessone:
Video from 1955 demonstrating hair flashes, or chameleon streaks:
Hairpieces were used to add detail, like a chignon or a plait. They also added length or volume, as sometimes hair fashions changed quicker than hair could grow. Therefore, a woman could easily turn short hair into an updo for the evening.
Pieces came in all sorts of colours so they could be colour-matched to the wearer’s hair colour. Likewise, a fashion colour could create contrast. Some hairpieces came ready curled and styled – they just needed pinning onto the head and dressing in with the natural hair.
Wearing flowers in the hair was popular with teens. In the mid-1950s, flowers became quite trendy and wreaths of carnations and daisies were worn around the head. A rose corsage was worn on the side of the head or pinned into a chignon.
Headbands were made of plastic, metal and material. They could be plain or decorated with things like flowers, jewels or fur.
Headbands helped when growing out shorter hairstyles like the Italian cut. For example, a thin headband was placed over the front hair, pulling it smooth. The back hair would then be fluffed out.
Made from material like silk organza, headscarves were loosely draped over the head and tied under the chin. If the material was long enough, they were also tied around the neck.
Women's 1950s Hats
Hats were essential for all but the most casual occasions in the early 1950s. However, by the mid-’50s, hats became worn less often, as the formality of having a hat, gloves and bag was tailing off.
Most 1950s hats were small and compact. The exception was sun hats – a wider-brimmed cartwheel type hat designed to keep the sun off the face in summer.
Hats came in various colours and could feature all sorts of decorative items, like feathers, rhinestones, pearls, or a veil.
Popular 1950s hats included:
- Lampshade or flowerpot hat.
- The circle hat – a very flat and thin circular hat that could consist of a few layers.
- French berets – especially liked by Beatnik college students.
- The pillbox – popular throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.
- The mushroom – a full hat with a mushroom-shaped brim.
- Juliet caps – a small skull cap type hat designed to show off hairstyles like the Italian cut.
- Bouffant Brims – a flying-saucer-shaped hat designed to be worn with a bouffant hairstyle.