Here’s a look at women’s hairstyles during the 1950s. 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 own hair easily at home – and ladies did everything that was 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 had a huge influence on how people saw themselves and the world around them.
Magazines & Advertisements
Mass media was a big influence on fashion. Adverts featured across all forms of media, including TV, cinema and magazines. They influenced and encouraged the ideal 1950s beauty and looks. Magazines, as always, were full of the latest trends and looks.
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. His clients included Diana Dors. He loved to use bold colour in his clients’ hair and his chain of hair salons were 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 and defines 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 was very popular in the first half of the 1950s. It was also known as a bubble cut.
Resembling a poodle’s coat, hence the name, it was a good hairstyle to adopt for those with naturally curly hair.
The Italian Cut
The popular Italian cut hairstyle emerged in 1953, predominantly inspired by the stars of Italian movies.
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 hairstyle for medium length hair 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.
This was a popular and versatile hairstyle that the wearer could easily adapt to their face shape.
The Cube Cut
This 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
This was a short layered hairstyle with a high fringe that emerged in the early 1950s.
Several actresses wore this style, most noticeably Audrey Hepburn. She had her long hair cut during a scene in Roman Holiday (1953), as a mark of her character’s independence.
There were other short, masculine haircuts too, like the butch cut.
Pageboy or Brushed Under Bob
This popular 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 ends of the hair were always turned under in a continuous and smooth U-shaped roll.
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, in particular teenagers, students and “Beat Girls” like Bettie Page.
While long hair could be left down, like Bettie Page, hair could also be tied back into a ponytail, which was known in the 1950s as a horsetail.
The ponytail was a popular look for Western teenagers, so much so that this hairstyle was seen on the first version of Barbie in 1959.
It was 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, getting both larger and more popular by the end of the decade. The late 1950s also saw the hair piled high on top of the head and this was 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 it needed washing out completely.
Large wire-mesh rollers were now on the market, and these were used to help set the hair with the lift needed for a bouffant style.
Black Women's Hairstyling
Straightening was done at home or in a black beauty salon.
The hot comb method, as used in previous decades, was still the main 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. This transformed tight curls into glossy straight hair. The straightened hair could then be styled as required and it stayed this way until it got wet or was washed.
Then chemical hair relaxers were introduced to the market. As it was permanent, the hair stayed straight even after contact with water or being washed. It eliminated the need for hot combs.
Wigs were also popular. They were a quick and easier way to have the latest fashionable style, without having to resort to 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. This would set the ball rolling for the politically-charged afro revolution of the 1960s.
Setting & Perming Hair
There were several ways to create curls and waves in hair – wet set or via a perm.
The more traditional wet set techniques include using pin curls or rollers. Here, a setting lotion would be applied to the wet hair before it was set in the pin curls or rollers. Hair could be dried under a hood, which really baked the set in.
Perming was popular for longer-lasting sets and to avoid having to wet set the hair more 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 sticking to the one colour, two-tone hairstyles were also done. For example, the front hair may be dyed a green colour and the back a dark grey.
Temporary colouring products were also very popular. They allowed women to spruce up their hair in no time to match their outfit – and remove it easily. Products included sprays, paints, powders, and little hairpieces called flashes.
Gold and silver streaks were painted onto the hair to dress 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 simply washed or brushed out.
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 were also used to add length or volume, as sometimes hair fashions changed quicker than hair could grow. You could also easily turn short hair into an updo for the evening.
Made from real hair, the pieces came in all colours so could be matched to the wearer’s own hair colour, or a fashion colour used for contrast. Some pieces came ready curled and styled – they simply 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.
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 a huge variety of colours and could feature all manner of decoration, 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 decade, and continued 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.