How to do old fashioned hair styles
In this post, we look at the general shapes of a 1940s hairstyle for women and the essential elements that make a 1940s hairstyle, like rolls and waves.
We also take a look at what influenced how women dressed their hair and the common hair accessories of the era.
For media makeup artists and hairdressers, the overall look of a period is handy to know, especially for film and TV crowd calls, where quickly getting a convincing silhouette is essential in creating the decade’s look and feel.
The Role of British Women during the War
The working woman’s headware during the war
Since the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, women had worked for the war effort, both on home soil and overseas.
They joined the armed forces, built bridges, worked in the factories, made tanks, and worked in fields (“land girls”), taking over jobs traditionally done by men. There were also voluntary groups who supported the work of civilian and military organisations.
The British Government introduced conscription in December 1941 with the National Service Act, making the enlisting of women for work duty legal.
Initially, only single women aged 20-30 were called up, but by mid-1943, almost 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were employed in essential work for the war effort. This left the men free to serve in the armed forces.
As well as dealing with work, women had to deal with rationing. Queuing up just to get a bit of butter or meat, and constantly having to balancing the menu was all part of rationing. Reinventing recipes and using substitutes as things became scare or unavailable, became a way of life.
At the end of the war in 1945, many women were dismissed from their work – it was generally viewed that they were doing “men’s work” and just keeping the jobs ticking over until the men returned. Women were kept on in industries that were not heavily unionised, as they were cheaper to employ than men. However, there were lasting effects of the wartime workers – women had shown that they could do the job and, within a few decades, women in the workforce became a common sight.
Influences on Hair and Fashion
Some classic ’40s styles: Lana Turner (main); curled bangs of Betty Grable (bottom centre); Rita Hayworth’s waves (bottom left)
Film stars influenced the hairstyles of the 1940s.
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.
Television was a rarity in the home, so going to the cinema was incredibly popular – just part of life for everyone.
The bill included the news, cartoons, a B-feature and finally the A-feature – it was a full evening’s entertainment.
The influence movie 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 obliged.
War 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 and get in the way in general. Those in the armed services had rules to follow (hair had to be off the collar while on duty) and a hat was part of the uniform, so 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 and to hide a “bad hair day”.
Various occupations where hair was required to be up and out of the way. L to R: Wren in the British Royal Navy; British Red Cross nurse; WAAF radar operator (indicated by the “fist and sparks” badge), part of the Royal Air Force; and ATS army girl (photos c. 1940-1945)
After the War
From a hair tint advert (Vogue, 1947)
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.
People wanted to leave the drabness of war behind them, and new products and fashions were heartily taken up.
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 in General
Everyday girls at Elephant and Castle, London, enjoying a magazine about sport – and sportsmen! (1949)
Throughout the decade, hair was generally between just below shoulder length or shorter.
Hair was cut with a rounded U-shape at the back, curving up towards the ears, and most haircuts had lots of layers – these were needed to create the styles.
If there was a parting, hair was generally parted to one side.
Whatever the hairstyle a woman chose, hair was worn feminine and soft, and always dressed off the face.
For factory and farm work, longer hair would often be set and left in pin curls under a headscarf/turban or, 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.
Pictures in magazines showed very groomed and sleek film stars. Everyday working-class women would not have the time, money or personal hairstylist to spend on looking immaculate, especially during the war years, but their hair still followed the overall look and fashion of the decade.
Older woman could still be seen wearing the short waved styles of the ’30s, especially in the early ’40s.
1940s Hairstyle Elements
Waves and Curls
Rita Hayworth with classic updo – straight up with curls on top and a soft waved fringe
Waves were soft, not like the crested waves of the 1920s/30s, and hair was always set with a wave – bone straight hair was simply not fashionable.
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 permed or pin curl set into the hair at the hairdressers, but many women simply set their hair at home using pin curls or twisted 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.
Everyday rolls (early 1940s)
Rolls are quintessential 1940s and an essential part of defining the decade’s look.
Rolls were a totally flexible element of a hairstyle – women could shape and position rolls as they wanted. The hair could be brushed smooth or it could have waves.
Rolls could be situated on the top of the head, at the sides, coming back from the forehead or along the back.
Side rolls could be positioned wherever. They could be symmetrical on each side of the face, or not symmetrical at all, or there could be just one roll!
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.
A smooth roll going all round the sides and back of the hair that was curled under was a pageboy. This style suited medium or longer hair to be 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 tightish sausage at the back of the hair that is rolled upwards (rather than turned under like the pageboy).
“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.” 
Women also used to tie the top of an old stocking around their heads like a headband and roll the hair over it, creating the victory roll.
“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.” 
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 as victory rolls, but in the 1940s a victory roll was a specific shape, as described above.
Bangs / Fringes
1940s hair was kept off the face, so if a woman had a fringe (bangs), it was dressed into the hairstyle or pinned to one side. Hair was never just flopped onto the face – it had shape and purpose!
Fringes could be shaped into a roll, or used to create a wave which was then dressed to one side, or it could be part of a mass of curls that sat high and slightly forward onto the face (just like Betty Grable).
Pompadours stand high up from the forehead, the hair going back off the face, and could be either smooth or waved.
Everyday 1940s styles including: 1) Drew Barrymore lookalike; 2) Smooth swept-back rolls c.1944; 3) Waved pompadour straight off the face; 4) Short page boy style with a bow, 1945; 5) a classic 1940s look. Source (Click picture to go large)
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 oils and a heated metal comb, transforming tight curls into glossy straight hair, and it stayed this way until it got wet or was washed. 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. 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 Pathe)
Hair dressed with a braided switch (late 1940s)
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 and Slides
Hair grips and slides used to keep waves shaped and off the face
Hair grips, or bobby pins, were quite rare during the war, so women looked after them. They were shiny and could be worn visibly. For extra decoration, a 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. Because they were less visible than a snood, they were considered more sophisticated.
Hats were a fun part of a woman’s attire, dressing up their otherwise plain clothes. There was no single style or shape – everything was worn, from the smaller pillboxes and berets to the wide-brimmed. Hairstyles could be easily adopted to fit the hat, or 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.
A hat could be easily changed by the addition of adornments like feathers, a veil, bows, beads, flowers or ribbons.
Two ways to wear a headscarf: wrapped up like a turban, or simply tied round one’s head (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.
Scarves could be worn in a variety of ways:
- 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.
Ribbons tied around the head
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 little ribbon bow to a simple 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.
A large roll that may have been helped with a bit of stuffing
Rats were used to bulk out rolls, keeping the structure more solid and stable.
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.
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, and use hair pins to secure.
A knitted snood decorated with ribbons (1943)
Snoods were a crocheted bag, often homemade, used to keep the back of the hair neat (especially for longer hair).
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.
A snood was generally positioned between the crown and the top of the head. The front of the hair was then either swept under the snood, or it was left out and styled, rolled or waved – it all depended on where the snood was being worn (e.g. at home or for manual work where long hair was best kept out of the way of machinery).
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.
Fashion expert from Woman Magazine, Anne Edwards, shows how to tie a turban
Pin-Up Perms were established in 1945 for home use. Advert c.1950 shows the shorter more compact styles of this time.
During the war, many products were hard to come by and women made do with whatever they could get.
Setting lotion was created from items found in the home – like beer or sugar water – with pipe cleaners, rags or pin curls used to create the waves.
Wealthy women could afford to visit the hairdresser and have their hair set. For those who couldn’t afford this, it 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, heating the irons in the fire. People recall the smell of their mother’s singed hair filling the house!
After the war, many products became more available and so perms and home perms rose in popularity, allowing for tighter and smaller 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 – much easier than setting with rollers or rags.
From a perm advert in a 1947 Vogue showing styles for different age groups
Find Out More:
 © Rhoda Woodward  © 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. 720pp.
Peiss, K. 2011. Hope In A Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. First University of Pennsylvania. 352pp.
Sherrow V. 2001. For Appearances’ Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Beauty and Grooming. Greenwood. 288pp.
The latest fashions as shown in Vogue August 1947