How Contemporary Hairstyles Affect Historical Costume Movies: The 1950s


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, 1920s, 1930s in two parts, and 1940s in two parts to find out about historical hairstyles in the movie industry’s earlier decades.


Fashionable Hairstyles of the 1950s

Women’s Hairstyles

Women’s hairstyles of the 1950s were mostly shorter than many eras, with everything from short cropped curls, to waved chin-length styles, as well as updos. The silhouette was a bit puffy on top, and hair was usually in big waves rather than tight curls. Bangs tended to be short and side-swept.

1950s women's hairstyles

1950s women’s hairstyles

Men’s Hairstyles

Men’s hair could be a bit longer on top and poufy, like James Dean and Elvis, but most men went for short, side-parted, and slicked back.

1950s men's hairstyles

1950s men’s hairstyles

Historical Movie Hairstyles of the 1950s

Ancient Films of the 1950s

1953 Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar (1953) | Roman male portrait bust of Marcus Antonius. Fine-grained yellowish marble. Flavian age (69—96 A.D.). Rome, Vatican Museums, Chiaramonti Museum

Not bad, whoever did Marlon Brando’s hair! It helps that a short cut was fashionable for men in this decade. On the right you can see a real pushed-forward style of the era; the real Caesar appears to have been curly!

1953 Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar (1953) | Portrait of a woman, perhaps Octavia Minor, Augustan period (between 27 BC and 14 AD), Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Now we get much further afield. Okay, both hairstyles have some pouf on top, although those pincurls on the side of Greer Garson’s pouf seem “oldey timey.” They also both have buns, but note the different positions (low on the neck in the real deal, higher on Garson). And, of course, the ringlets!

1951 Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis (1951) | Marble bust of Roman Empress Poppaea Sabina, National Museum of Rome

I actually kind of like these weird braided hairstyles from Quo Vadis – at least they got the high, crown-shaped look, even if the loopy braid on top seems very Dr. Seuss. The perfectly structured pincurls around the face look great too!

1951 Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis (1951) | Fresco, Catacombs of San Gennaro at Naples | The healing of a bleeding woman, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome, 4th century

You find me a clear image of a specifically Christian woman from early Rome’s hair, and I’ll give you $5. I doubt it looked like Deborah Kerr’s Perfect Ponytail.

Medieval Films of the 1950s

1952 Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe (1952) | Queen Berengaria of Navarre, Abbaye de l’Épau | Codex Rossianus 555, fol. 12v, 1453

1952 Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe (1952) | Isabella of Angoulême, tomb in the church of Fontevraud Abbey

As always, you can just throw out most medieval films, because ALL WE SHOULD BE SEEING ARE VEILS. No hair! None!

1952 Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe (1952) | Effigy of Richard I of England in the church of Fontevraud Abbey | King John’s Tomb, Worcester Cathedral

Slightly long waves on the real Richard I, compared to a poufy pompadour look on Robert Taylor.

1955 Richard III

Richard III (1955) | Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of Isabella of Portugal, 1450s, J. Paul Getty Museum | Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Young Girl, c. 1470, Gemäldegalerie

So technically we’re looking at hair here, but I had to give props for this double-pointed hennin headdress, even if they didn’t get the actual look right, as well as the little forehead loop. The hair down, though, is fantasy.

1955 Richard III

Richard III (1955) | Portrait of Richard III of England, late 16th c., National Portrait Gallery

Clearly they were going with Serious Business on Laurence Olivier in Richard III, and they did a pretty darn good job on the long, chin-length hair.

16th Century Films of the 1950s

1953 Young Bess

Young Bess (1953) | Portrait of Elizabeth I as a Princess, c. 1546, Windsor Castle

They tried to make Jean Simmons look young by leaving the back of her hair down (and putting coffee filters on her head?), but let us look to the real young princess Elizabeth to note that there was no hair down, no matter HOW young (okay, maybe if you’re 1 year old?) in the 16th century.

Young Bess (1953)

After Michael Sittow, Mary Rose Tudor (1496-1533), 16th century, Kunsthistorisches Museum | Young Bess (1953)

On the other hand, this hood may be a little hot-glue-y and we seem to be missing a center part, but I’m happy with this hair. The partlet, on the other hand…

Young Bess (1953)

Jean Clouet, Madeleine of France, c. 1522, Weiss Gallery| Young Bess (1953) | Lady Jane Dudley (née Grey), 1590s?, National Portrait Gallery

I’m not enough of an expert on French hoods to know what goes UNDER the hood — did they wear any kind of coif, and did they ever leave off the hood part? Compare Madeleine of France, who yes has a coif but it’s longer than Simmons’, and Jane Grey, who ditched the hood.

Young Bess (1953)

Young Bess (1953) | Hans Holbein, Portrait Miniature of Elizabeth, Lady Audley, c. 1538, Royal Collection | Lucas Horenbout, c. 1543, via Wikimedia Commons

Needs a center part, but otherwise, we’re in business!

1953 Young Bess

Young Bess (1953) | Nicolas Denisot, Portrait of Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudele, 1547-49, National Maritime Museum

Maybe I’ll just never understand Stewart Granger’s appeal, but his slightly poufy pompadour look has nothing to do with the real Thomas Seymour or mid-16th century English men’s hairstyles.

1955 The Virgin Queen

The Virgin Queen (1955) | Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1575, National Portrait Gallery | Portrait of Elizabeth I of England, the Armada Portrait, c. 1588, Woburn Abbey | Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, A genuine and realistic c.1595 portrait of queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, via Wikimedia Commons

Oh god. They wanted to make Bette Davis look super stylized as Queen Elizabeth I, which I can live with, but the real QEI does not appear to have used Crayola red as her hair color — she’s much more strawberry blonde to orange-y red — and those structured curls are just whack.

1955 The Virgin Queen

The Virgin Queen (1955) | Nicholas Hilliard, Portrait of a Woman, c. 1585-90, Victoria and Albert Museum | Robert Peake the elder, Portrait of Anne Knollys, 1582, Denver Art Museum

Points for the rolled, heart-shaped hairstyle! Minus 2 points for the teeny curls around the face.

1955 The Virgin Queen

The Virgin Queen (1955) | ‘H’ monogrammist (floruit 1588), Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh), 1588, National Portrait Gallery | Circle of William Segar, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester 1532-1588, 1580-85, Weiss Gallery

Alright, the real Walter Raleigh did go for a slightly longer ‘do, so I’m giving a pass even if these styles are straight outta 1955.

17th Century Films of the 1950s

1952 Singin’ in the Rain

Singin’ in the Rain (152) | Mary Villiers, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox (1622 – 85), c. 1640, Skokloster Castle

I have no idea what is going on in the (for comic effect) 17th century-set first film-within-a-film in Singin’ in the Rain. The title is The Dueling Cavalier, so I’m comparing it with English Civil War hairstyles… which are very, very different. Wait, I’ve just realized The Dueling Cavalier is the later film, this one is The Royal Rascal. I give up!

18th Century Films of the 1950s

1952 Scaramouche

Scaramouche (1952) | After François-Hubert Drouais, Portrait of Marie-Antoinette, c. 1770, Museum of the History of France | Attributed to Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Marie-Aurore de Saxe, c. 1777, Musée de la vie romantique | Joseph Ducreux, Portrait of Princess Maria Theresa of Savoy (1756-1805), 1775, Palace of Versailles

Scaramouche had a lot of confusion about the 18th century, including Janet Leigh’s hair. Given Marie-Antoinette‘s age in the film, Leigh should be in something like one of these styles… instead she’s in fingerwave hell.

1952 Scaramouche

Scaramouche (1952) | Joseph Ducreux, Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the later Queen Marie Antoinette of France, 1769, Palace of Versailles | Marie Antoinette, 1770, Palace of Versailles

Marie-Antoinette does much better in Scaramouche. I guess we have to chalk Leigh up to Leading Lady Hair?

Although if anyone can explain Eleanor Parker’s 1000% Veronica Lake/Rita Hayworth hair I’d be much obliged. I guess you can’t be a sex symbol with your hair up?

1952 Scaramouche

Scaramouche (1952) | Joseph de Saint-Michel, Portrait of Monsieur Beeherfer de Vaugency, 1776, Bonhams | Per Krafft the Elder, Antoine Bournonville, c. 1782-92, via Wikimedia Commons | John Singleton Copley, Portrait of John Ward, 2nd Viscount Dudley and Ward, c. 1782-88, via Wikimedia Commons | Wig Maker, Barber, Wigs, The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert, 1771

They didn’t do TOO bad with the villain’s hair in Scaramouche. He’s at least got the short around the face, long in back style, although he should have rolls (buckles) on the sides. The ringlets on the queue do check out.

1952 Scaramouche

Scaramouche (1952) | Pompeo Batoni, Portrait of Joseph Henry of Straffan, 1750-55, Walters Art Museum | Pompeo Batoni, James Caulfeild, 4th Viscount Charlemont (Later 1st Earl of Charlemont), 1753-56, Yale Center for British Art | Wig Maker, Barber, Wigs, The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert, 1771

Stewart Granger, on the other hand… ok, so OCCASIONLLY men eschewed hair powder in the 18th century, but these two guys painted by Batoni are among the very few I can find before the 1790s.

Singin’ in the Rain (152)

Singin’ in the Rain (152) | Louis Tocqué, Portrait of Frederik de Løvenørn (1715-1779), 1736, The Museum of National History | Gustaf Lundberg (attr.), Monsieur de Vergennes, 1771-74, Louvre Museum

Back to Singin’ in the Rain, this time for the 18th century-set film within a film. Gene Kelly’s shiny white wig is too shiny, but part for the course. He SHOULD have rolls at each ear, unless you’re going to go back as far as the 1730s, when the hair was more short-curls and hadn’t yet developed into full rolls.

Singin’ in the Rain (152)

Singin’ in the Rain (152) | Jacques Caffieri, Mademoiselle Luzy, de la Comédie-Française, 1776, Musée Carnavalet

The problem is that Lina Lamont’s 18th century hair is sort of a high 1770s style, so… They got the back wrong — it should hang down and loop up — but so do many, many films.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

Shadow of the Guillotine (1956) | 3D copy of Felix Lecomte, Bust of Marie-Antoinette, 1783, original at the Chateau de Versailles

I was surprised by how well the hairstyles in Shadow of the Guillotine worked, although maybe it’s because it’s a French film? They got the short poufy around the face, long in back difference, although the wave seems a bit modern. You can see an amazing 3D reconstruction of this bust of Marie-Antoinette, and it really helps to wrap your brain around these hairstyles.

Regency Films of the 1950s

Désirée (1954)

Désirée (1954) | François Gérard, Joséphine in coronation costume, 1807-08, Musée national du Château de Fontainebleau

I feel like Désirée took real 1800s hairstyles and bumped them up a bit, especially for Josephine‘s coronation.

Désirée (1954)

Désirée (1954) | François Gérard, Portrait of Désirée Clary (1777-1860), 1810, Le Musée Bernadotte, Musée Marmottan | François Gérard, Désirée Clary, Reine de Suède et de Norvège, 1808, The Royal Palaces | Desideria av Sverige-Norge, 1829, Skokloster Castle

I’m pretty happy with Jean Simmons’ hair! The updo portion seems a bit big, but they got the short curls pushed into the face.

Désirée (1954)

Désirée (1954) | Jacques-Louis David, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812, National Gallery of Art | After Paul Delaroche, Napoleon Bonaparte, 19th c., via Wikimedia Commons

You kind of can’t not do Napoleon hair right, both because it’s iconic and because it’s easy.

Mid- to Late-19th Century Films of the 1950s

1952 My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel (1952) | Giuseppe Tominz: Portrait of Matilde Hoffmann/Giuseppina Dennler, c. 1840, Gorica Museum | Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Young lady at her toilette, 1840, Vienna Museum

I have a lot of questions about the hair in My Cousin Rachel. The center parted, ringlets on either side of the face, back up checks out…

1952 My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel (1952) | Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Victoria, Princess Royal (1840-1901), later Empress Frederick of Germany, 1857, Royal Collection

But what IS GOING on with these Princess Leia buns? Some of them appear to be all curls, and some are smooth with a twist around them. I had a hard time finding ANYTHING that compared, so I just threw in a style with a lot of side-focus to say, mayyyyybe?

1952 My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel (1952) | Benesch Pál: Deák Ferenc. Akvarell, 1840s, Budapesti Történeti Múzeum | Karl Bryullov, Self portrait, 1848, Tretyakov Gallery | John A Macdonald, from 1842 or 1843, via Wikimedia Commons | Giuseppe Tominz, Portrait of Vincenzo Sambo, 1845-50, via Wikimedia Commons

They got lucky that men’s 1840s hairstyles are similarly long, curly/wavy, and side-parted.

1956 The King and I

The King and I (1956) | Anna Leonowens, late 1860s/early 1870s?, via Wikimedia Commons.

The King and I got too 1950s-bangs-y, but otherwise, okay. That photograph of the real Leonowens is allegedly from the period she was in Siam, c. 1862, but it looks about a decade later to me.

1955 Sissi

Sissi (1955) | Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Courtly Gala Dress with Diamond Stars, 1865, Het Loo Palace

The real Empress Elisabeth was known for her incredibly long hair that she put up into amazing styles, so it makes sense that Sissi tried to literally recreate some of them. The star hairstyle is iconic!

1955 Sissi

Sissi (1955) | Ludwig Angerer, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, 1862, via Wikimedia Commons | Emil Rabending, Photograph of the empress Elisabeth (1837-1898), 1867, via Wikimedia Commons

The braided ‘dos also check out.

1955 Sissi

Sissi (1955) | Ludwig Angerer, Elisabeth, Kaiserin von Österreich (1837–1898), c. 1865, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s harder to know what they were going for with these loose curls, which seem a bit too square for the period.

1955 Sissi

Sissi (1955) | Franz Hanfstaengl, Photograph of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, 1854, via Wikimedia Commons

And the young Elisabeth did not ignore actual contemporary hair fashions, and would have gone with a center part and width on the side of the face, not on top, in the 1850s.

1951 Showboat

Showboat (1951) | Hayman Selig Mendelssohn, Princess Elizabeth of Hesse, 1887, Royal Collection | Hayman Selig Mendelssohn, Princess Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine, 1887, Royal Collection

Showboat appears to be 1880s-ish. Ava Gardner’s hair seems pure 1950s, with a wavy ponytail, and doesn’t have much to do with real 1880s hairstyles.

1951 Showboat

Showboat (1951) | Hanssen, Carl Joh., Composer and teacher of music, Gustav Fr. Lange (1887), Oslo Museum | Gösta Florman, Otto Lundberg, porträtt, 1887, Swedish Performing Arts Agency

The gents check out, minus the sideburns.

1953 Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane (1953) | Calamity Jane, c. 1885-90, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University | Calamity Jane, Gen. Crook’s scout, no. 2, 1895, Library of Congress

Doris Day is 1000% Doris Day in Calamity Jane.

1955 Nana

Nana (1955) | Édouard Manet, Nana, 1877, Kunsthalle Hamburg | Ottonie Bendroth, 1882, Swedish Performing Arts Agency

Nana confuses me on multiple levels. Those straight-across bangs need some wave to them, stat!

Early 20th Century Films of the 1950s

1958 Gigi

Gigi (1958) | Duchess Elisabeth von Bayern, 1899, via Wikimedia Commons | Wm Notman & Son, Missie E. Dorothy Benson, Montreal, QC, 1907, McCord Museum

Gigi is supposed to turn-of-the-century. I’m okay with the updo, although it seems more early 1890s to me, but the bangs and hair down just doesn’t check out. Even VERY YOUNG girls did something with their hair.

1951 The African Queen

The African Queen (1951) | Grand Duchess Olga Nikolayevna, 1914, via Wikimedia Commons | Harris & Ewing photo studio, Hattie Caraway, later first female member of United States Senate (from Arkansas). Full-length studio portrait, sitting, facing front, 1914, Library of Congress | Jane Arminda Delano, 1862-1919, 1914, Library of Congress

I guess Katharine Hepburn‘s character is supposed to be super out of fashion? I don’t know, I’ve never seen this! If she were more up to date she’d have hair that was much closer to the head on top and full on the nape of the neck. Older women do still have some pouf going on, but it’s nowhere near the level of pouf on top of Hepburn’s head.

1920s Films of the 1950s

1952 Singin’ in the Rain

Some guy I didn’t write it down I’m running out of steam don’t hurt me | Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

1920s men’s styles: far too easy.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) | One of those Pinterest collages

Debbie Reynolds’ bangs seem too bang-y, and the hair in back slightly too long, for the 1920s. But they got the wave right!

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) | Louise Brooks

Cyd Charise is pretty darn spot on for a 1920s straight bob.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) | More of those Pinterest photo collages

Debbie’s hair here seems SUPER 1950s, although not all women immediate bobbed their hair and indeed wore low buns.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) | More Pinterest photo collages

And while I don’t love Lina Lamont’s comb-over, and think it’s a bit too poufy on top, the 1920s was a weird era, man.

What’s your take on 1950s does historical hair?


About the author



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.

15 Responses

  1. Shashwat

    Although there are no visual sources to tell us if a coif was worn under a hood,it is strong suggested that the crimped golden ruffle was attached to the coif,if the hood were a multi part headdress.Many reenactors wear coifs or forehead cloths under their hoods because wired buckram isn’t the most pleasing sensation on the head.
    Those leia buns in ‘My cousin Rachel’ might be referencing a portrait of Christina Antoinietta Cornelia Vetterlein.Except the portrait seems heavily influenced by Italian Renaissance.

  2. Katie

    I must comment upon the men’s facial hair (or lack there-of) the 1950’s was a clean-shaven decade, and it really stands out in certain eras (the late-medieval and Tudor especially, but also the 1840’s-1880’s saw the return of the beard or moustache) there are several characters who should have long full beards who are either clean-shaven or sporting a very faint goatee. Its something always sticks out to me, like bangs when there shouldn’t be bangs.

  3. mmcquown

    I think Hollywood had its own code, especially for hair: long, loose hair on women says, “nonconformist, rebellious, morally questionable” men’s lack of powder in the hair says, “rebellious but sincere and honourable.”

  4. M.E. Lawrence

    I love giggling at contemporary versions of non-contemporary hairstyles, but it’s the make-up that drives me mad. A more-or-less accurate hair silhouette with some modern tweaks is acceptable (meaning I don’t jump with alarm), but lashings of blue eye shadow and black liner and shiny, shiny lipstick? Yuck. Apart from the lipstick, Romy Schneider as Elisabeth is really pretty good, with her great piles of hair. If you’re going to fuck up history, do it in the style of an operetta.

  5. Lily

    That hat from Richard III is a real hat…. I can’t get a picture easily, but it’s often called a butterfly hennin and there are a number of images of it in period artwork. But she should still have her hair up!

  6. Saraquill

    How much yelling at the screen did you do? I hope you had plenty of throat drops.

  7. ktkittentoes

    I sincerely hope no one ever uses pictures of my hair in the future. It does not follow fashion, but instead pursues its own inclinations.

  8. Sarcasm-hime

    As someone who had ridiculously long hair for 20 years, I am certain that even in the original images of Sissi she was wearing a shitton of false hair. Length doesn’t give you that volume. I discovered this to my shock when I finally achieved my childhood dream of “Princess Leia Hair” and realized that it was physically impossible without hairpieces XD

  9. Mona

    Katherine Hepburn plays a spinster missionary in Africa whose character is unworldly. No fashionable coiffure for her.

    • Heather Ripley


      And @Kendra, plz watch The African Queen, its a wonderful film!!

  10. Aleko

    The African Queen I totally love (and not merely because the great Kate Hepburn not only looked rather like my mother but was here, essentially, playing her). I think you’re being unfair here. The action takes place in 1914, and Rosie Sayer has been in Africa for ten years. So let’s say she left home for Darkest Africa in 1904, with a trunkful of clothes that she has had no opportunity or motivation to update since (even if she knew what was fashionable at home). Given her family’s stern, God-fearing, thrifty background she was unlikely back home ever to have worn anything fashion-forward, or done her hair in a less-than-100%-conservative way, so the production designers very sensibly gave her a tropical version (i.e. all in white linen/calico) of standard 1890s outdoor daywear, with hairdo to match.

    By about halfway through the movie she’s down to her camisole and long broderie-anglaise-edged drawers, the rest of her clothes having been torn up for bandages, sails, flags and what-have-you; but search for images of her before her missionary outfit starts to go to pieces and you’ll see she has a shirtwaist blouse with a high, lace-edged collar; a hip-length loose duster coat with slightly-leg-of-mutton sleeves; a long skirt with plenty of petticoats, with a her broad-brimmed hat which she sometimes wears with a veil over it tied under her chin, just like an 1890s lady motorist. It’s all of a piece: this is respectable 1890s English wear adapted for the tropics. And her hairdo is exactly what was worn under those flattish 1890s hats with their big brims: a small bun/topknot right on top of the head and the side/back hair floofed out horizontally under the hat brim.

    Those tiers of regimented tight curls on Bette Davis look like something a Flavian Empress would wear! Take Bette’s ruff away and give her a stola, and she’d look just right next to the Empress Domitia and Julia Flavia. Even the hair colour would pass, near enough; I think you can get something pretty close with henna, and Roman women did use that.

    I don’t think all 18th-century men powdered their hair all the time. Men who were neither keen on snappy dressing nor frequented places where formal dress was de rigueur, might only have powdered for special and occasions. (Which of course having one’s portrait painted was, hence the rarity of unpowdered portraits.) And in ‘Scaramouche’, Grainger’s character was actually a performer in a travelling commedia dell’arte company, not someone you’s expect to dress or do his hair respectably.

  11. Gwyn

    The 1920’s guy you can’t remember who it was looks a good deal like young Mr. Hemingway.

  12. Lynn

    I do have to speak up for young Gigi. At the park it looks like her hair is down, as in the picture you pulled. But when she gets into her apartment and removes the hat you can see that it is in a half- up style like the child pictured. Blame a mom who used to threaten me with “Gigi lessons” so I could turn from an uncultured heathen into someone pleasant. 😆😆😆 I’m not sure she ever sat down and watched the whole movie with me or else she would have known that was courtesan training she was threatening me with!! Albeit only the externals…


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