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 post about the 1910s to find out about historical hairstyles in the movie industry’s first decade.
Today, it’s all about the 1920s. Movies transitioned from silent film into talkies, all the hot girls bobbed their hair, and historical movies continued to be big at the box office … and color me shocked, but there are actually some semi-decent historical hairstyles in these films!
Fashionable Hairstyles of the 1920s
The 1920s was all about change, change, change — at least it seemed that way to the people who were living then. Women’s hair underwent a radical transition — from long hair worn in various updos for centuries (okay, a very few women cropped their hair in the 1790s, but we’re talking .05%), women chopped off their hair into that radical statement of modernity: the bob! Of course, nothing is quite as radical as it might seem on first glance, so let’s look at how this developed and then changed.
In the very first years of the 1920s, popular women’s hairstyles were similar to those of the late 1910s — long hair worn up on the back of the head or nape of the neck, with the hair somewhat loose around the face.
The bob — a short, chin-length cut, frequently with bangs — was actually introduced by a few fashion-forward people (like dancer Irene Castle) in the mid-1910s. It wasn’t until about 1920 that the style truly became fashionable. It was primarily younger (high school and college) or fashionable women who bobbed their hair … and there were many variations on the style:
Here are two compilations that show the variety of different female hairstyles across the decade. Notice how a few women still wear their hair long, although it is arranged in such a way that it falls on the face in mimicry of the bob. Also note how some of the hair is sleek and flat, others are waved in the typical-of-the-era side-to-side wave, and others are fluffy and curly. In general, most bobbed styles end between the bottoms of the ears down to the chin. Most women went for side parts, and asymmetrical styles were fashionable.
Notice in particular the number of women who have their hair in a fingerwave or Marcel wave, the so-typical-of-the-1920s side to side wave (look below at second row left if you’re confused, then look at how many other women have a similar wave). Also note how many have hair that hangs into their face — we’ll see that a lot when we look at the various films below.
Men’s hair in the 1920s was almost always short and combed away from the face. Rudolph Valentino popularized the slick look, but not everyone followed suit. Hair could have a center, side, or no part.
Historical Movie Hairstyles of the 1920s
Now let’s compare some of the hairstyles shown in historical films with what the character SHOULD have looked like. There were actually a lot of historically-set movies in this decade.
Medieval Films of the 1920s
Robin Hood (1922) is set during the reign of English King Richard the Lionheart, which means late 1180s-90s. Now, I am no expert on hairstyles this early, and it was hard to track down many images that were 1) from these specific decades AND 2) English. What I was able to find for women is notable for the veils covering (totally or partially) the women’s hair. One woman is shown with her hair down, unstyled, and uncovered … but of course this is a religious image, and religious images frequently use hair-down as a way to identify saints, the Virgin Mary, or other not-of-the-period people. Enid Bennett as Lady Marian Fitzwalter has long hair with a center part, which seems suspicious to me. Her frizzy curl seems very 1920s (and her floral wreath seems very renfaire!).
Douglas Fairbanks plays Robin Hood aka the Earl of Huntingdon in a VERY UNFORTUNATE WIG. I would say that thing needs to be taxidermied, except nobody would want to display it. Anyway, let’s compare it to two images of kings of this era. In the center image of Richard the Lionheart, his hair is wavy, side parted, cropped at the nape of the neck, and sort of swooping back over the ears. In the image of Henry II, it’s the same length and brushed backwards. Compare that to Fairbanks, who has a side part and about the right length of hair, but the bangs and the wave along the front of the face are throwing things off. That wave, in particular, seems similar to the woman’s Marcel wave that was so popular in this era.
Renaissance Films of the 1920s
Lucrezia Borgia (1922) was a German film. Liane Haid as Lucrezia has a long, bushy, curly style that seems very romantic and even sort of 1910s-ish. Yes, there is one image purportedly of Lucrezia (second from left) that shows her with her hair down, but it’s supposed to be Saint Catherine, which means her hair is marking her as not-of-this-time. The three ladies on the right show Italian hairstyles of Lucrezia’s era (1480-1519). While the right-most lady seems to wear her hair long, all three have slightly waved hair that is center parted and very flat to the head. Two of them have sheer caps covering their hair.
When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922) is all about Mary Tudor — no, not Mary I, but Princess Mary, Henry VIII of England’s youngest sister. She was shipped off to marry the elderly King Louis XII of France, and this image shows her during this period. I have VERY FEW IDEAS what is going on here, other than maybe the pearls allow her to pick up the alien mothership’s signal. But really, if we look beyond the pearl-twisted headdress, actress Marion Davies’ hair is a curly, banged bob — right out of the fashion magazines. Compare that to the real Mary in the center and right (both images done during her brief tenure as queen of France). In the center, her hair is straight, center parted, and drawn down over the ears and then back. On the right, all we can see is that her hair is center parted and pulled back.
Anna Boleyn (1920) is another German film. Emil Jannings is a dead ringer for Henry VIII of this era, and his short-cropped, brushed back hair (and beard!) are nearly identical to the portrait of the real Henry. Go Anna Boleyn! Of course, it helps that this isn’t too far from what was fashionable for men in the 1920s…
These servants from Anna Boleyn are interesting. No, their hair isn’t accurate to the period that the film is supposed to be in (1530s), but compare them to an early portrait of Henry VIII from 1509. I can’t tell if the bangs are correct, but the Prince Valiant hair — chopped off at the bottom of the chin — is very much the same!
This image from Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924) amuses me to no end. Based upon a novel, it’s set in 1550s England. Mary Pickford is allll 1920s, alll the time, baby, with her center parted, down over the ears, Marcel waved hair, which is long and styled in a knot behind the ear. This has 0% to do with real historical hairstyles of the era, which were center parted and then built up above the temples to fill out the corners of the hood.
I’m not positive exactly which decade of the 16th century The Sea Hawk (1924, no relation to the 1940 film/story) is supposed to be set in, but since we’re talking English pirates, I decided to compare the leads to privateers Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. Milton Sills and Lloyd Hughes both have short hair that is side parted and brushed back — pure 1920s, plus the guy on the left looks like he’s using a lot of styling goop. Meanwhile, Francis and Walter have hair that is curly and tousled, brushed forward or up.
17th-Century Films of the 1920s
The Three Musketeers (1921) hairstyle designers obviously did their research. Most of the women are in Not Too Shabby attempts at early- to mid-17th century French styles. The book is set in 1625, when women’s hair was: center parted, styled very close to the head into an arrangement at the back of the head, but with long ringlets hanging down from the ears; some women had a short fringe along the forehead. Most of the actresses have surprisingly similar hairstyles, even if far right’s side part is a little dubious.
Looking at the gents, they’re again not doing half bad! Most of the men are in center parted, shoulder-length of longer, curly or wavy styles, which is exactly what is seen in period portraits. Okay, far left guy’s hair looks a little slick, but we can deal. The actor playing Cardinal Richelieu (far right) even looks impressively like his real-life counterpart (directly below)!
The Scarlet Letter (1922), on the other hand, didn’t try as hard with their men’s hairstyles. Lars Hanson (as Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale) has a hairstyle that’s a slightly long version of the standard men’s 1920s side-parted, brushed-back ‘do — with a bonus Marcel wave. It was hard to find specific images to compare him to — the book was set in the 1640s — but Oliver Cromwell and an American man show a very different style than in this movie: soft parts, hair brushed down rather than back, and top-of-the-shoulder length.
However, Lillian Gish in the same film actually looks great! Both she and an American woman of the 1640s wear their hair styled up and covered with caps. Okay, so Gish has a little bit of a wave showing, which seems like a nod towards the 1920s, but really this is quite good!
Nell Gwyn (1926) seems to have gotten confused about the 1660s-70s and the 1830s. Scroll down and look under “Early 19th Century Films” at La Boheme, and see just how closely Dorothy Gish as Nell’s hair matches! What the hell? It’s nothing like the curly hair styled into an oval, with long ringlets, of the 1670s-80s.
Mid-18th-Century Films of the 1920s
I believe Annie Laurie (1927) was based on the Scottish song of the same name, which is about a romance between two Scots in the late 1690s/early 1700s. There’s very little about Lillian Gish’s hair that reads of that period — which would be center parted, high on top, arranged at the back of the head, with long trailing ringlets (see center image) — but I suppose you could argue that it’s evocative of the 1730s-40s, when the hair was worn in an arrangement at the crown of the head, and there were a lot of medium-length ringlets low on the ear and on the nape of the neck.
The Last of the Mohicans (1920) should be set in the 1750s. The hairstyles worn by Barbara Bedford as British colonel’s daughter Cora Munro are more French than English/American, but the loose arrangement around the head and the long ringlets really aren’t that bad!
The hair/wig designer for Bonnie Prince Charlie (1923) clearly went for eighteenth-century-esque rather than anything more specific. Comparing actor Ivor Novello with the real Charles of the 1740s shows they both have a long queue that’s in ringlets. However, the real Charles has a wig that is short and curled in front, while his screen portrayal has fuzzy, wavy long hair (pulled back, yes). There were definitely a variety of styles popular in this era, but they would almost all have had short, curled hair around the face.
Rudolph Valentino in Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) is so hot, and the costumes/hairstyles are so gorgeous, that I almost want to forgive anything. I’m impressed that they got the short hair around the face that so many films miss, even to this day. Of course, they styled that shorter hair in a Marcel wave which is all 1920s, baby. This is the era in which shiny white wigs come into style, a misreading of the historical sources — in the eighteenth century, hair was turned white (or even more often, grey) through powder, which gives a matte effect. I wonder if the shiny hair created through the use of styling products influenced the trend for shiny white wigs?
The hair on Bebe Daniels, from the same film, could be said to be going for the tete de mouton hairstyle, which looks like short curls. However, they reversed where the short curls and longer hair should be — on Daniels, it’s long around the face/on top and short curls in back/below. It should be vice versa — short curls on top and around the face, with long hair pulled up in back and arranged at the crown of the head.
Madame Pompadour (1927) is clearly also happy to go for “esque” rather than anything specific. Okay, so the hair worn up with a few short hanging ringlets. But the style is high on top, which is more like the 1760s (see Madame du Barry in the Scaramouche image below), and lightly Marcel waved, which is more 1920s. And the shiny white hair is totally 20th century.
Scaramouche (1923) is another film with not-half-bad hair, if we look at Alice Terry’s overall silhouette — up and high on the crown of the head, with a long ringlet on one side. And although they’re weirdly placed, they clearly thought they were going for 18th century with the soft rolls. However, the amount of hair falling forward onto the forehead, is much more 1920s. I am impressed that they didn’t do a Marcel wave! That being said, it’s hard to see exactly what’s going on in back. What it should be is long, straight, and pulled up from the nape of the neck to the crown of the head — and I doubt that’s happening here, but I can’t be sure. I also like that the hair doesn’t look shiny.
Late 18th-Century Films of the 1920s
Janice Meredith (1924) (set just before the American Revolution) is another mixed bag. One of the male actors looks quite good — clearly we’ve got a shiny white wig here, but they got the high, egg shape seen on foppish men’s wigs in the 1770s, with long hair in back tied into a queue. They did miss the side rolls (“buckles” in the period) and went for a Marcel wave.
However, I have no idea what’s up with the ladies. The older lady on the left has the high egg shape of the late 1760s-mid 1770s. But the short curls eat her face, and it’s just a shitty wig. Marion Davies, on the other hand, looks totally 1920s in her puffy curls around the face. The long ringlets are a nod to the period, at least!
I so plan to watch Orphans of the Storm (1921) soon, because every image I see just looks outstanding. Set just before and during the French revolution, Lillian and Dorothy Gish play two lower class sisters who go to Paris and have adventures that include hanging with the aristocracy. The men’s wigs aren’t horrible — the guy on the far left actually has the shorter hair on top (the “toupet”), and that sections ends where it should, at the crown of the head, for the 1780s. He’s also got side rolls, and a long queue. Second from the left guy’s hair looks like it’s from a different film. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on, but it just looks kind of janky, like a wig that fell on the costume shop floor, got picked up, and slapped on someone’s head.
Lillian and Dorothy’s hair is entertainingly 1920s. Sometimes they’re in long, Mary Pickford ringlets (far left). Other times they’re in frizzy, low on the face, mock-bob updos (center and right). It’s hard to even compare them to lower-class women of the revolutionary era, who were wearing their hair in shortish, tousled curls around the face, with longer curls in back, covered by hats and caps.
The upper-class wigs in Orphans of the Storm are fabulous, but not in a historically accurate way! None of these ladies have eyes, let alone foreheads. There’s a total mishmash of shapes — far left and center are in faux-1770s high styles that stand up instead of leaning towards the crown of the head the way they should, and they’re mostly just fuzzy masses instead of having any of the details of a real 1770s style. Far right seems to be going for 1780s hair, with shorter hair around the face and longer curls coming from underneath on the sides (and hopefully long in back? can’t tell). But compare her to the two real French women from the late 1780s and you can see how faux this all is. The hair should be pushed out of the face, in frizzy or curly curls, and shouldn’t look like polyester batting bought at JoAnn’s fabrics.
Lady Hamilton (1921), on the other hand, really WENT FOR IT! Wow! This is another German production. Conrad Veidt as Lord Nelson is clearly missing powder, but otherwise they got the almost triangular shape of men’s hair, cropped below the ears, nearly perfect. I’d love to see the back!
John Barrymore as Beau Brummell (1924) is clearly making no efforts towards a historical hairstyle. His waved, combed-back hair is all 1920s, and looks nothing like the tousled, longish curls — or the high on top, brushed forward curls — worn by the real Brummell in the first decade of the 1800s.
Early 19th-Century Films of the 1920s
Madame Sans-Gêne (1925) starred Gloria Swanson as Catherine Hubscher, a prominent noblewoman of Napoleon’s reign. The film is lost, so I’m a little fuzzy exactly when this image is supposed represent — it doesn’t look much like Hubscher in the center right image (which looks very 1790s to me), but it’s actually really quite good when looking at the later image (far right, c. 1810). They got the same flat spitcurls around the face — although those are conveniently close to the 1920s fashion for waves on the face — and the high crown arrangement of the Empire period.
The Mark of Zorro (1920) is another fuzzily dated period. All I can figure out is that it’s set in the early 19th century in Spanish-owned California. I couldn’t find any images of women from California, but I did find this portrait of an older Mexican lady from 1816, which is close enough. It really doesn’t matter, though, because there isn’t really anything about actress Marguerite De La Motte’s hair that’s at all historical. The loose waves, low on the face and drawn back to the nape of the neck, are totally 1920s. Hey, at least she’s not wearing a bob?
La Bohème (1926), based on the opera of the same name, stars Lillian Gish as a lower-class bohemian woman in 1830 Paris. Her center part, short ringlets around the face, and high bun aren’t 100% perfect — in particular, the bun should be something more elaborate — but the silhouette is right on.
Mid 19th-Century Films of the 1920s
The novel Ramona (published in 1884) used to be a Big Deal in the myth of California, but it’s largely forgotten now. It tells the story of a mixed race, Scottish/Native American woman who lives in Southern California just after the Mexican-American War (1846-7, after which California became U.S. territory). It very much romanticized the “traditional” Mexican period of California.
Anyway, in the film version of 1928, Dolores del Rio plays the titular character. I spent waaaaay too much time trying to find images of Native American, or barring that, Mexican-American women from California in the 1850s, trying to find a source for those braids. Most of the images of Native American women (top row center left and right, and bottom row center left) dated from later (1880s-1900s), and wore their hair like top row center left — parted in the middle, side-swept bangs, and long, blunt-cut everywhere else. I did find one Native American woman (bottom row, center left) who has what looks to be looped-up braids, but I’m not positive. Top row, center right is the woman who is supposed to have inspired the character of Ramona, but that image is from much later in her life. Nearly all of the Mexican-American Californian women I could find were wearing the same kinds of hairstyles seen on Anglo women: center parted, swooping low around the ears, and arranged on the back of the head or nape of the neck. I did find one — but only one! — Mexican-American Californian who was wearing her hair in center-parted braids. My hunch is that the braids are a reference to a romanticized “Indian princess” look, a stereotypical midwest/East Coast Native American look, or a Mexican Native American look, but I can’t be positive. What I can add is that while del Rio’s hair worn low around the ears could be claimed to be an 1850s nod, the wave is clearly 1920s — and I feel like they’re much more trying to give her a 1920s bob look, with the addition of long braids, than anything else.
Late 19th-Century Films of the 1920s
The novel on which Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921) was based was published in 1886. Mary Pickford plays both the titular character and his mother (the hell?) — here we’re looking at the mother character. They did get the high crown/top of the head look of the late 1880s, but those fat ringlets just scream classic Mary Pickford to me, how about you?
Do you see historical or 1920s references in these hairstyles that I missed? What’s your take on the perception of historical hairstyles in this era?
One of my favorites is Buster Keaton’s “the General,” which takes place during the Civil War. Buster Keaton actually looks AMAZING, with the longish, side-parted hair that’s kind of plastered down on top and kind of wings out at ear level… His large, floppy bowtie is a little more 1850s, but everything else is so spot on, I’ll forgive him. :-) Typically, though, they went for a much more trendy look for his lady-love… They at least gave her a center part, but it’s a low-foreheaded Marcel wave, with Mary Pickford sausage curls. And her dress! I swear, they took a frilly, full-skirted summer frock from 1916 and then put one single hula hoop in the hem. Ghastly!
Cool, I’ll check it out!
The General is such an amazing film. It also has what was then one of the most expensive scenes ever filmed, with an actual locomotive going down in an actual stream with a ton of extras.
Gösta Berlings Saga from 1924, directed by Mauritz Stiller and featuring a pre-Hollywood Garbo, might be worth your while too. It’s based on an 1890’s novel by Swedish Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, set in 1820’s Sweden, and deals with a deposed minister who drinks and seduces women, people selling their souls to the devil and stuff like that. Haven’t seen it in ages, but the costumes look pretty good on the men and so-so on the ladies.
Your blog is utterly wonderful! This post was excellent, I’m off to find all of these that I haven’t watched now. Thank you!
Kendra: If you ever get around to editing or updating this, perhaps you could consider removing the very offensive term ‘squaw’ from the last picture caption. It’s just rude.
I’m very much enjoying these blogs. Thank you for all your hard work.
Thanks for the comment! I try to be really careful about language, so I almost had a heart attack when I saw your comment… but then I realized, that’s the official (museum) title of the photograph. I guess my formatting doesn’t make that clear enough? I agree, it’s a very offensive term.
And, I just went in and put quotes around all the official image titles, to clarify. Hopefully that helps. I’m thinking that the title of that photo may date FROM 1875, hence the offensive language.