How Contemporary Hairstyles Affect Historical Costume Movies: The 1930s – Part 1

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There are lots of movies that aim for a historical aesthetic when it comes to hairstyles and others where it’s a mishmash. But it seems to me that when historical costume movie/TV series hairstyles vary from what WOULD be historically accurate, it’s due to current-to-filming perceptions about hair. So, working decade-by-decade, let’s look at some of these not-so-accurate films/TV series and compare the hair to what’s going on at the time of filming, and see if I’m right! See my posts about the 1910s and 1920s to find out about historical hairstyles in the movie industry’s first decades.

Since I tend to make these posts way too long and overly complicated, and since I’m in France and about to head to the Fete Galantes at Versailles tonight, I’m going to split this into two posts! Today, ancient films through the 18th century. Next week, we’ll look at nineteenth century films!

 

Fashionable Hairstyles of the 1930s

Women’s Hairstyles

There are definite continuities with the 1920s, in particular, the more side-to-side “Marcel” type wave. But women’s hairstyles get longer — the bob goes out of fashion in 1929-30 — although “long” can mean just-below-chin-length to high on the shoulders. Most styles involve fluffy curls and waves, with some very smooth sections as well. Asymmetry is big, with side parts.

women's hairstyles 1930s

 

Men’s Hairstyles

For the gents, it’s short and slicked back — Brylcreem, baby! Side parts are de rigeur, sometimes you get some bump right on top of the forehead, and sometimes a little bit of length on the temple, but the back is almost always very short.

1930s hairstyles men

 

Historical Movie Hairstyles of the 1930s

Now let’s compare some of the hairstyles shown in historical costume films with what the character SHOULD have looked like.

Ancient Films of the 1930s

1934 Cleopatra

Cleopatra (1934): WHERE did this bangs/long straight hair look come from? Because it’s nothing like the hairstyle worn on the real Cleopatra (left).

I guess it’s a misread of this braided or twisted style?

1934 Cleopatra

Cleopatra (1934): I think it would be hard to NOT do the short, brushed-forward ‘do associated with Caesar, and yep, the film got it pretty spot on, including the little widow’s peak!

 

Medieval Films of the 1930s

1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): Okay, so the classic Errol Flynn movie got the slightly wavy length, but those little bangs? Nope.

1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): They actually put Olivia de Havilland in wimples! Futuristic space wimples, but wimples nonetheless.

1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood

But there’s also this whole long braid thing going on that just screams “ye oldey timey,” while notice that her hair from the ears up is in a very 1930s fluffy wave.

1931 A Connecticut Yankee

A Connecticut Yankee (1931): Just for a little WTFrockery on Arthurian Morgan le Fey…

 

Renaissance Films of the 1930s

1936 Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet (1936): Ah, the classic “Juliet cap.” It’s not half bad, actually, and the silhouette of the hair looks great. It’s just that it should be braided and/or otherwise long and styled, not just cut shoulder-length.

1936 Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet (1936): I’m not even sure what they’re going for here, but trust me, ain’t nobody rocking the waved/combed-back hair in 13th/14th-century Verona.

1933 The Private Life of Henry VIII

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933): A particular favorite. I’m not sure what Jane Seymour‘s hair would have looked like under those hoods, but TRUST ME, it wasn’t waved/fluffy curled/chin-length/with little spit curls in front.

 

17th-Century Films of the 1930s

1933 Queen Christina

Queen Christina (1933): This is a Spanish character, so comparing him with a 17th-century Spanish king. They went for some festive sideburns, but otherwise, this looks like a waved/brushed back/Brylcreemed ‘do to me!

1933 Queen Christina

Queen Christina (1933): Greta Garbo as the gender-bending queen of Sweden. I guess that accounts for the WTF hair, whose length and curl is very ’30s, but no idea about those twists on top?

 

Mid-18th-Century Films of the 1930s

Voltaire 1933

Voltaire (1933): Alright, I’ve gotta give it to them. They’ve broken up the curl a bit more than was done in the period, and it helps that this is so close to a women’s 1930s style, but this is a great approximation!

1933 The Devil's Brother

Other films, not so much. The 1930s LOVED the mid-18th century, but films like The Devil’s Brother (1933) took the short, curled, powdered updos of the mid-18th century and basically ’30s-ified them. Instead of matte white powdered hair, you get shiny white or platinum blonde. And the ubiquitous wave is allll ’30s.

1933 The Devil's Brother

With the guys, 1930s movies (like The Devil’s Brother again) embrace the queue (long tail) from the period, but instead of the short hair on top, and buckles (rolls) on the side, they swap it to waves. Which looks great, don’t get me wrong!

1933 voltaire

Back to Voltaire (1933), they’ve got the queue and even the shorter hair on top/sides right — but instead of buckles, they’re doing 1930s pincurls. Pretty! But not 18th c.

1933 voltaire

More Voltaire, more wave-wave-wave. I think they were looking at a 1760s slightly-high hairstyle for that shape in the back?

1935 Naughty Marietta

Naughty Marietta (1935) — The fluffiness of the wave is actually a better approximation of mid-18th century texture, but otherwise, this is gorgeously 1930s waves and curls.

1935 Naughty Marietta

Naughty Marietta again — hey, they added a side roll to the 1930s-wave! Go team!

 

Late 18th-Century Films of the 1930s

1938 Marie Antoinette

Oh, Marie Antoinette (1938), how I love your wigs… even if it’s all waaaaay too smooth and shiny. They actually did the long queue and side rolls on Louis XVI! But the front hair should be shorter on top, and powder should create a matte effect.

1938 Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (1938): Axel von Fersen only has a bit of wave and he’s got the long queue, but the lack of powder, plus the Brylcreem effect, is so very 1930s.

1938 Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette: They were clearly trying for a high, late 1760s/early 1770s tete de mouton look here. Again, it’s the shine that’s wrong — and for this style, it needs vertical curls in front. The back hair also looks like it’s down and rolled, rather than up smoothly as it should be.

1938 Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette: I actually quite like this! The shape is a bit too rounded instead of triangular, and I bet whatever is going on in back is very faux, and that’s a LOT of buckles (rolls) — but they did get the ringlets behind the ears, and the height, and the long hanging ringlets. And it’s purdy!

1938 Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (1938): Again I give props, because they got the short in front/sides, long in back cut right. Instead of curls or frizz around the face, however, they turned it into a wide wave, which is a nod to ’30s fashion.

1933 Berkeley Square

Berkeley Square (1933) also got the overall late 18th-century wide around the face, long in back silhouette right. But the front/sides should be more curls or frizz rather than wave, and while the back COULD be ringlet-y, that seems excessive for the period.

1933 Berkeley Square

Berkeley Square (1933): Yes, men’s hairstyles stayed long but got pretty pared-down in the late 1780s and 1790s. And yes, some men stopped powdering. But you still should see the short on top/sides, and a vestige of a buckle/roll at the ears. Instead, Berkeley Square went for a minimal wave.

 

Do you see historical or 1930s references in these hairstyles that I missed? What’s your take on the perception of historical hairstyles in this era?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

17 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    What about The Scarlet Pimpernel? Hav beaucoup fun at Versailles

    Reply
  2. txrus

    Can’t wait to see what you have to say about the 1960’s beehives in all the westerns especially shows like ‘The Big Valley’!

    Reply
  3. hsc

    “Cleopatra (1934): WHERE did this bangs/long straight hair look come from?”

    Those bangs were Claudette Colbert’s “signature look,” to which they just added a fall for length. Since this was an actress who allegedly vetoed any camera setups that showed what she deemed the “bad side” of her face, nobody was touching those bangs.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      That’s very typical of the ’30s & ’40s — many movie stars kept their signature styles regardless of the film. The studios promoted this bec. they thought it was better to have “recognizable” stars to promote films. Another obvious example is Bette Davis & her eyebrows in historical movies, lol!

      Reply
      • hsc

        Actually, Bette Davis famously shaved her eyebrows and hairline twice to play Queen Elizabeth, in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939) and “The Virgin Queen” (1955).

        Other movies didn’t change her looks as much, but as you said, this was typical of the studio system.

        Reply
        • Trystan L. Bass

          Yep, those were the rare exceptions, bec. she was specifically interested in the role. But Davis did a ton of historical films (see our WCW page on her), & the studio made her keep her contemporary look in as many of them as possible.

          Reply
    • Teresa

      That may be so for Colbert, but I also think that straight hair and bangs look is what many people think of as “ancient Egyptian.” But real ancient Egyptians wore a variety of hairstyles; and studies of human remains from Egypt show that there was quite of range of color and texture, even in agricultural communities in predynastic Upper Egypt. Ramesses II, from an eastern Delta family, had had auburn hair, as did the “Elder Lady” (probably Queen Tiye) from KV 35. The Elder Lady’s hair was rather long and wavy, but she did not have bangs. Also from the Valley of the Kings comes a middle-aged Ramesside lady with an upswept hairdo.

      That elegant gentleman whose statue you’ve shown for comparative purposes is wearing a wig. He was a member of Pharaoh’s tomb-building crew, so in day-to-day life his attire would be much simpler–he’s likely to have had his head shaven, and he certainly would have if he was also acting as a priest.

      It’s odd that in the movies, Cleopatra isn’t shown with the hairstyles that she wears in statuary and coin portraits. I have a suspicion that Hollywood types just can’t imagine the Queen wearing her hair in a bun! And she probably wore Egyptian diadems and gowns for ceremonial occasions (as the “new Isis”), not for visiting Rome or going about her everyday duties. The Ptolemaic diadem is a simple band of cloth as shown above.

      Reply
  4. Lynelle

    You say you make these posts too long, I say they’re not long enough! I always enjoy these posts.

    Reply
  5. ljones1966

    Will you be covering the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century?

    Reply
  6. Kaite Fink

    Did you mean to put Clark Gable’s image with the ladies? I’m sure he’s happy there, though I’m curious if this was a test or an entertaining mistake!

    Reply

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