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With the current interest in vintage and burlesque fashions, there is a growing demand for ladies 20's, 30's 40's and 50's hair styling to compliment the outfits. Here is a guide, using references from original hairstyling books of the period, personal experience and professional advice on how to re create that glamourous Hollywood retro look at home.

There's no doubt about it, the wartime era was certainly a time of pure glamour when it came to hair. After the flapper era of the 1920's when the Shingle, Eton Crop, and Bob gave women boyish practical hairstyles, there came a time when women wanted to look more feminine with longer hair, waves, curls, partings, fringes, rolls and accessories. Recently Christina Aguilera has been playing the vamp in her pop videos with platinum pin curls. Dita von Teese is making waves with burlesque look, and Scarlet Johansson, with her carefully coiffured locks in The Black Dahlia, has revived the interest in retro hair styling.

First you will have to decide whether you want to adopt this new vintage look as an everyday thing, for a fancy dress party, wartime re-enactment or for just an evening out.

In this 'wash and go' era, we have forgotton just how long our great grandmothers took to do their hair, so please take into account the time and effort involved with sorts of these hairstyles.

There are salons around that will do this kind of look for you, but make sure you have a consultation first. See at the end of the guide for a link to one London salon.  Also, curls stay in better on hair that's got some degree of movement, either natural or permed. Remember too, that many movie stars wore wigs in those old films so their hair looked perfect for every shot. This is always an option for a special occasion if you want to try it and e bay has some great vintage style wigs to buy. Today's ones are pre styled, lightweight washable and inexpensive. Check on e bay for some really good deals.

I have designed this guide in a question and answer format as follows...

Q. Where do I start?

 A. Well, you start with what you've got. Short layers? A bob? Shoulder length hair? Past the shoulders? Whatever length you have there is likely to be a way of styling it for a good retro effect.  It might not come out completely true to period but remember its an image you are aiming for, not an exact historical re-creation.  Also the finished style might not look so good once you've slept on it, so involved styles are probably best kept for special evenings rather than everyday wear.

Q. What tools and products will I need?

A. In addition to a shampoo and conditioner, you'll need a firm hold setting agent such as mousse or setting lotion, serum for gloss and to ease frizz, plus a STRONG hair spray.  I tend to prefer the wetter non aerosol sprays because they give me a few seconds to adjust the style before drying rock hard into an all day hold that washes out. Depending on the style, you will also need dryers, a comb, a tail comb, a selection of quality brushes, pin curl clips, ghd styling irons (the small size are great for curling hair when you know how!), tongs, hair bands, valcro or heated rollers, hair accessories, hair pins, sectioning clips, kirby grips.  If you want to create Victory Rolls (those up-sweeping pinned 40's curls) you might want to pad the roll out with a 'rat'. As far as I know no one is making these now, so I suggest you get a bun ring (on e bay) in your colour and cut it down.

Q. It all sounds very involved - isn't there an easier way to get a retro hair style?

A. The good news is YES!  A good cut is the answer. Try a very short wide fringe (recently made even more popular by Kate Moss!) with an all one length club cut bob just to the middle or bottom of the ears. This works well on straight or wavy hair.  A short layered cut is easily plastered down to the head with wax or pomade with a deep parting and a couple of kiss curls by the ears like the old burlesque star Josephine Baker.  For quickness, long hair can be worn in a snood at the nape of the neck or can be taken into two high bunches with ribbons, plaited and wrapped across the head. A high rolled section at the front looks great and is quick to do.   It's very important to use accessories like large silk lilies or orchids to add glamour, colour, interest and to hide those grips and pins!.  For a land army girl look, tie a triangle scarf up on top of the head leaving out the fringe (think of Amy Winehouse's  expermental blonde 'do' - (except hopefully better!).)


Q. Okay, they're the quick fix ideas, but what about those rolls and curls?

A. To create a Hollywood look you must decide on the era you want to represent. In a nutshell, the 20's saw those no nonsense cuts I mentioned earlier. Spice things up for the evening with a headband and a feather and you have the great silent screen goddess image.  The 30's had hair quite neat and as flat to the head as possible.  Try pin curls or barrell curls (see below). If you are concerned they will drop, just leave the hairgrips in for a more interesting look.  Long hair can be parted, combed flat, finger waved, rolled and secured. The 40's typically saw side parted longer hair with height in the front and at the sides with height rolls cascading waves and curls at the back.  Backcombing didn't come into fashion till much later but you can cheat a bit to add fullness to thin hair as long as you disuise it well!  Another look of this time was to have a chignon at the back and tight curls on top - sides to be sleek. The 30's and 40's was a great era for hats, so do consider adding one to your style.  The 50's rockabilly image was more about bounce and body rather than set looking waves so try a Betty Page style wide short fringe and long bob tucked under, a sleek chignon or a glossy ponytail that's curled at the bottom.  Short hair was flat on top and gently waved or curled around the edges or go for a short wavy bob like Marilyn Monroe.

Q. How do I do those rolls, waves and curls?

A. Do a trawl of Youtube - you're likely to find some good videos on how to do retro hairstyles. But here is my is a guide to creating those looks...Every professional hairdresser has their own way of doing things - this is what works for me and my clients.  If you have difficulties, get a friend to help you, especially for the back of your hair.  Practice makes perfect, so have a few practice runs before an important occasion.  Work on clean hair that has a setting agent added to it.  Hair spray liberally once you have a good effect. Experiment! For example, pin curls can be worn as they are or if they don't look quite right comb them out when dry for a loose wave effect.  Rags can be usednto set hair just in the pony tail giving you a bunch of ringlets.

  • Finger waves - part the hair, comb a section down and push back to form a wave. Using your index and middle finger, trap the crest of the wave and secure with a sectioning clip (or a marcel wave clip if you are lucky enough to find any old ones!).  Continue down the section creating waves as you go.  Finish at the bottom with some form of curl - typically pin curls or barrel curls (but you could cheat and use rollers or tongs).  Dry well and remove clips.

  • Pin Curls - take a smal section, twirl it around your finger, place the curl flat on the hair and secure with a couple of kirby grips in a 'x' pattern or a clip.  Continue in rows, alternating the direction of the curls in each row.  Dry and remove the grips if required.

  • Curls - create with the use of rollers, tongs or by taking a section, winding it around the finger like a pin curl and then securing it upright (not flat like a pin curl), dry well and remove the girps.  Or you can use ghd hot irons on dry hair like this - use a mist of heat protecting spray, then take a small section, put the irons in at the roots, grasp and twist 180 degress and slowly pull the irons away from the head.  It won't feel as if you are curling the hair but when you release the irons the section should be a lovely ringlet - accentuated if you wind it around your fingers and spray to hold.  If it doesn't work move to another section before repeating .

  • Curling with rags - use stips of old sheet, j-cloth or similar to give long lasting ringlets on long hair as follows...on barely damp hair fold the ends of the the section into the rag, wind to the root or where ever you want the curls to start, tie the two ends of the rag together, continue all over the head, dry well and remove rags.

  • Rolls - take a section of hair, comb smooth, create a neat barrel curl, tuck the ends in neatly and secure with kirby grips. Repeat where desired. Pad them out with 'rats' if your hair is thin.

  • Chignon - section hair off from ear to ear across the top of the head.  Working on the back section, brush the hair to one side and place a secure row of kirby grips vertically from nape to near the top of the head.  Now brush the section the other way, roll with the fingers and secure with grips starting at the bottom so that the original row is covered.  Work as neatly as possible, tucking the ends of the hair into the cone you have created.  Arrange the top section in whichever way you want (e.g. curls, rolls etc.)  Any unsightly grips can be covered with accessories.  Slick down and spray well. You can do more than one chignon if you hair is very thick or make it assymetric (over to one side.)

  • TIPS

  • Don't work on dripping wet hair.  To set hair it needs to be just damp.

  • Make sure the hair is completely dry before removing rollers, rags etc

  • Don't expect curls to last too long if your hair is poker straight.

  • On hair pins, bend one end back before pushing into the style to secure it.

  • Use setting agents and lots of water soluble hair spray.

  • Go to a professional who has an interest in retro / vintage hairstyling for ideas or consultation.

  • Get a versatile cut if you want to vary your image.

  • Use media resources for ideas or get tips from old female relatives.

  • Try Clare's Accessories for cheap hair things or make your own using silk flowers, ribbons etc

  • Be daring! You don't know what you can create until you try

  • Try sleeping in a hair net to preserve your style.



Subtle is not a word one associates with vintage hair colouring. Hollywood stars needed striking hair colour that looked great in technicolour. If you want to really pile on the glamour go for platimum blonde. Think Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, Diana Dors, Jayne Mansfield. Alternatively, a ravishing red will conjure up memories of Tempest Storm, Lucille Ball. Jet black is the only colour to be if you want the Betty Page, or Clara Bow look. Delicious brunettes were also very favoured. If you want to introduce more than one colour to your retro style, think bold flashes, or a contrasting fringe rather than pretty delicate highlights. Remember the further you go away from your natural hair colour , the worse the roots are going to look when they appear. Consider your budget, your colouring, your lifestyle, your hair condition, before reaching for the peroxide bottle! It's wise to have a professional job done when it comes to colouring your hair and a test should always be undertaken to ensure you are not sensitive to the products. Henna is a natural plant based hair colour which you might also consider.

Just a word or ten about your make-up....

The right period hairstyle is nothing if not complimented by the correct makeup to complete the image. If you are thinking retro forget natural, sun kissed, healthy looks! For the Hollywood diva image you need pale matt foundation, plenty of powder, smokey eyes, lashings of mascara (false eyelashes for evening if possible), faint blusher, defined and neat elongated brows. Red lips are a must but find the right shade to suit you. Scarlet is the sexiest. Clara Bow was an actress in the '20's who popularised the 'Bow lips' which were very stylised, almost geisha-like. 'Forties looks were smouldering and the lips were full. If you want the 'Fifties image, use Winehouse-style eye liner. The 'Sixties saw much heavier eye makeup with emphasis on darkening the eyebrow socket with a very light or pearly shade on the lid and brow bone. In the 'Sixties, the lips were a little more natural in shape but the colour was pale pink or orange, preferably pearly. 

I do hope you have found this interesting.  This is all my own work - please credit me if you re-print it.  I am happy to answer questions (to the best of my ability) but for specialist advice please ask your hairdresser.

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Other guides I have written include a very popular one about car boot sales - do's and don'ts, as well as others on vintage clothing and furs.  If you are looking for a great salon for vintage or retro hair styling check out this one

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