How Contemporary Hairstyles Affect Historical Costume Movies: The 1930s – Part 2


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.

I was literally writing part 1 of this post — about how 1930s hairstyles affected historical styles seen on screen — on the day I was prepping for the Fêtes Galantes, a faaaabulous over-the-top costume event at Versailles. And I was on the world’s crappiest wifi! So I had to give up after covering films from the ancient period through the 18th century. Take a look at that first post for a bit about the trends seen in contemporary 1930s hairstyles, then join me as we look at hairstyles supposedly set in the 19th century:

Historical Movie Hairstyles of the 1930s

Early 19th Century Films of the 1930s

The House of Rothschild (1934)

The House of Rothschild (1934) is set in the early 19th century. It isn’t half bad — the braid around the head, the short, curly fringe — but those perfect sausage curls are totally 1930s and something we’re going to see again and again.

Becky Sharp (1935)

Becky Sharp (1935), an adaptation of Vanity Fair and set in the 1810s — ultra-defined sausage curls are totally 1930s.

Anthony Adverse (1936)

Anthony Adverse (1936) is another to do quite well at the overall silhouette of Regency hair. Other styles from the film aren’t quite so well done.

The Buccaneer (1938)

The Buccaneer (1938) is about Jean Lafitte, the early 19th century Louisiana pirate. It’s pretty hard to see what’s going on in the portrait of Lafitte (right), so I guess I won’t get too stressed about this brushed-forward ‘do?

Mid-19th Century Films of the 1930s

Camille (1936)

Camille (1936) is a great example of the trend of reversing mid-19th century hairstyles, which were generally up in back and down (and curled) in front.

The Girl of the Golden West (1938)

The Girl of the Golden West (1938) also reverses things, and the shoulder length hair is totally modern.

Smilin' Through (1932)

Smilin’ Through (1932) does it too. Okay, so the mid-Victorians loved them some ringlets, it’s true!

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

Ok, so Empress Eugenie of France (right) shows that these films, like The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), aren’t totally crazy. But up in front, ringlet-y in back is far too ubiquitous in 1930s films.

Jezebel (1938)

As are sausage curls, as seen on Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938).

Little Women (1933)

Oh, Little Women (1933). Beth (top left) isn’t actually half bad — compare her to this mid-19th century illustration of the very same character (below). But Jo’s short, curly bangs just did not exist in the 19th century, which was all about loooong hair (see the real Louisa May Alcott, center bottom). Of course, things aren’t helped by the fact that real-life actress Katharine Hepburn is and looks way too old to wear her hair down. As does the actress playing Amy — yes, young girls did go for hanging ringlets in the period. But that forehead fringe is totally modern.

Suez (1938)

Suez (1938) did a decent job getting the high-on-the-temples late 1860s style! I’m impressed!

Juarez (1938)

Somebody over at Juarez (1938) did their homework! Compare Bette Davis to the real Empress Carlotta of Mexico…

Juarez (1938)

And again!

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Gone with the Wind (1939) could really use its own post, but let’s start with Scarlett’s “I’m unmarried, so I wear my hair down” barbecue dress hair. Yes, very young girls wore their hair “down” in the Victorian era. But compare way-too-old-to-pull-this-off Vivien Leigh to Queen Victoria’s daughters in 1862 on the right, with only very-youngest Beatrice wearing this style. Neither Helena or Beatrice were married yet, but both wear their hair up.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Gone with the Wind (1939) again. Yes, nets (aka snoods) were popular in the era, and India Wilkes’s center part and fullness on the sides of the face works quite well!

Gone with the Wind (1939)

I do like Scarlett’s married hairstyles, which have that low fullness and center part you see in the mid- to late-1860s.

Smilin' Through (1932)

Men’s hairstyles in the mid-19th century tended to be brushed forward with long sideburns, so I’m giving Leslie Howard in Smilin’ Through (1932) a pass.

1850s men hairstyles

And you see a range of hairstyles on men, and definitely the use of styling products.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) went for it with the sideburns!

David Copperfield (1935)

But the wave in David Copperfield (1935) seems somewhat modern to me.

The Old Maid (1939)

The Old Maid (1939) – I guess?

Late 19th Century Films of the 1930s

In Old Chicago (1937)

In Old Chicago (1937) is set during the Chicago Fire of 1871. And, points are definitely due for the center part, up in front, long ringlets in back look!

Dodge City (1939)

Dodge City (1939), on the other hand… Olivia de Havilland’s waves in front, long in back is SO 1930s.

1888 La Saison

1880s-90s styles tended to be up high on top of the head, with very short bangs/fringe.

Anna Karenina (1935)

Anna Karenina (1935) got things right on this supporting character.

Anna Karenina (1935)

But if someone could PLEASE explain Greta Garbo‘s Anna Karenina (1935) hair, I’d be much obliged. So the short curls on the forehead work. But WTF with the shoulder-length, end-curled back??

Cimarron (1931)

Cimarron (1931) — I’m liking it! Also, proof Carol Burnett is a ghost.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) basically takes a 1930s look and frizzes it up.

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

In She Done Him Wrong (1933), Mae West’s hair is GORGEOUS. But yeah, it’s ALL 1930s finger waves.

The Bowery (1933)

The Bowery (1933): it’s messy, but I’ll take it.

The Merry Widow (1934)

The Merry Widow (1934) is basically modern, finger-waved and pincurled ‘dos.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again (1939): I have NO idea. It’s Marlene Dietrich, I’m sure there were clauses in her contract.

San Francisco (1936)

San Francisco (1936) is totally confused about 1906 hairstyles, which should be full around the face or on the forehead in the “pompadour” style.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

A Woman Rebels (1936) — the hair on older-Katharine-Hepburn (far right) works?

1870s men hairstyles

Late 19th c. gents again show a range of hairstyles, but they tend to be shorter than those seen mid-century.

Dodge City (1939)

So I guess Dodge City (1939) passes muster?

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again (1939) — Jimmy Stewart’s hair works for late 19th century or 1930s, so I guess that’s a bonus!

Jesse James (1939)

The real Jesse James went for slicked back/side and lots of product, so I’m okay with the style worn in Jesse James (1939)!

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

She Done Him Wrong (1933) – it’s Cary Grant, so I’ll slide past the fact that this just seems of-the-moment rather than 1890s-ish.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) – can a comb-forward ever be wrong?

Cimarron (1931)

Cimarron (1931) – I’m actually kind of impressed they went for the slightly-long wonky look!

San Francisco (1936)

San Francisco (1936) is just Clark Gable being Clark Gable. Sure, I guess?

Which other 1930s films have hairstyles that need discussing?

11 Responses

  1. Femme_Fashion_Forward

    If there’s ever historical inacuracy in period films, it’s always with the hair!! This is something that bugs me a lot so I really appreciated your post! 😃

    • M.E. Lawrence

      Hair and eyebrows (which, I guess, are also hair). One could write a scholarly thesis about the history of fashionable eyebrows.

      • hsc

        The eyebrows always bother me, too– especially ’20s- and ’30s-set movies with contemporary eyebrows. Totally ruins it for me.

  2. Susan Pola Staples

    Green Dolphin Street cones to mind. And of course Norma Shearer’s Marie Antoinette and Leslie Howard’s Scarlet Pimpernel. And would Maureen OHara’s Hunchback of Notre Dame count too?

    But why do they try to get a somewhat correct clothing look and foul up the hair?
    There are references for the 1860s on up in Godeys, portraits and photos.

  3. Peacoclaur

    Ahhh the 90s – when the great hairpin shortage began…

  4. hsc

    I love this post and the previous entry, and I’m looking forward to future installments!

    You definitely know more about this subject than I do, but one part of this kind of surprised me:

    “Oh, Little Women (1933). […] Jo’s short, curly bangs just did not exist in the 19th century, which was all about loooong hair (see the real Louisa May Alcott, center bottom). […] Amy — yes, young girls did go for hanging ringlets in the period. But that forehead fringe is totally modern.”

    I may be misinterpreting what Alcott was trying to describe, but there’s a scene in chapter 3 where Meg and Jo are getting done up for a New Year’s Eve dance, and Jo curls Meg’s hair with a heated curling iron to give her a “cloud of little ringlets” over her forehead.

    Unfortunately, Jo did it wrong, and the little paper-wrapped curls come off, and leave Meg with an “uneven frizzle on her forehead”, which Amy (who has naturally curly hair) tells her can be fixed: “Just frizzle it, and tie your ribbon so the ends come on your forehead a bit, and it will look like the last fashion. I’ve seen many girls do it so.”

    I always envisioned the “cloud of little ringlets” Jo was trying to achieve as pretty much the same as what Hepburn has over the forehead. I’m not sure what Amy was proposing as a remedy, but it seems to imply that the “last” (latest?) fashion involved short frizzled bangs. (Of course, Amy was an “affected, niminy-piminy chit”.)

  5. MrsC

    I was about to say something about how GWTW moved partings to the middle and that was because of the fashion going into the 40s but do we think it fair to suggest that the movie had a big influence on hair styles as much as the time influenced the movie?

  6. Shadeaufax

    I love this article. TV shows make me crazy using contemporary hairstyles in westerns! I really enjoy the comparison illustrations. Thank you for your work.