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, and 1930s in two parts to find out about historical hairstyles in the movie industry’s earlier decades.
This is such a good post series, but it is SO MUCH WORK to put these suckers together. So I’ve been putting off this next installment, and yet again, I need to split this decade into two posts, or I will spontaneously combust.
Fashionable Hairstyles of the 1940s
Women’s hairstyles of the 1940s were longer and less structured than those of the 1930s. Short hairstyles still existed but were more likely to be updos than actual short cuts. Waves and curls were popular, but these were looser than previously seen, and there was frequently volume on top of the head.
Short, often waved, and slicked back with Brylcreem, baby. There might be a bit of height on top of the forehead, echoing women’s styles.
Historical Movie Hairstyles of the 1940s
Medieval Films of the 1940s
In a way, looking at medieval films isn’t fair at all, because I’ll have to say the same thing about every single one: you shouldn’t SEE any hair at all! It should all be veils and wimples, all the time. Nonetheless, Jean Simmons is gorgeous in her perfect braids, 1940s bangs, and weird headpiece.
However, I couldn’t not include this one, because check those giant side rolls! They’re SO 1940s, with the little wave at the top.
15th-Century Films of the 1940s
So most of the period images of Isabella of Castile show her with her hair covered, but there is this one painting with a center part, long swooped over the ears sides, and the most Droopy Dog effect ever. Christopher Columbus (1949) clearly felt the need to add some big glam with that giant side/bottom roll that is a pumped up version of the 1940s style.
So they actually made an effort by giving Columbus much longer hair than was fashionable, but the wave along the top and sides is SO 1940s!
16th-Century Films of the 1940s
I’m not actually sure whether The Spanish Main is supposed to be set in the 16th or 17th century (the clothes just look ye oldey timey, and it’s about pirates). But something about Maureen O’Hara‘s dress made me think of Isabella of Portugal, so sure why not. The coronet of braids is passable, the waved hair on the forehead, not so much.
Shocking not at all a bad take on MQoS! The cap is a little chintzy, but the hair looks pretty great with the center part and tight side curls.
The boys of The Sea Hawk don’t look bad — obviously the lefthand guy is the baddie, given that little swoop forehead at the sideburns. Errol Flynn‘s hair is passably like Sir Walter Raleigh’s short, curly crop.
While the hair rolls around the face are awfully perfect (and 1930s-y), I don’t hate what they’ve done to Queen Elizabeth/Flora Robson here! Her hair is up!
17th-Century Films of the 1940s
I’m not totally sure which decade Ruy Blas is supposed to be, but I don’t hate the braid arrangement. The rhinestone spray is a bit much, however…
The Three Musketeers is supposed to be set in 1620s
1720s [EDIT: TYPO, hence why it’s in the 17th c. section] France, but apparently no one told Lana Turner. Her hair is GORGEOUS, but it should be center parted, close the head, with long trailing ringlets. Instead we’ve got a high forehead wave, ringlets and a braid.
Yeah, that’s supposed to be Nell Gwyn far left, and another well-to-do English lady in the center. Their overly-tight ringlets don’t have much to do with hairstyles of the 1660s, but props for the hair being up. The height on both foreheads definitely is another nod to contemporary styles.
I really need to rewatch this so I can review it! Our far left lady is 1000% 1940s, with the waves on the forehead, medium curls at the base, and flat on the back of the head. The titular “Wicked Lady” (center two images) gets a giant roll thingie of hair that is quite fabulous, even if it looks nothing like hairstyles of the 1660s-80s and instead like a bigger, rounder version of the 1940s side/nape of neck roll.
And then we have our heartthrob, who is freaking me out with the Brylcreem. Okay, so probably not all men of the late 17th century wore long, curled wigs like the Earl of Rochester there, and it’s something that they went with a longer length?
I HAVE to rewatch and review Forever Amber, because DAMN girl! The overall silhouette of both styles is so 1940s — the nape of the neck length, the height on top — although at least the braided style is actually styled. It looks nothing like 1660s hairstyles, tho’, aside from the fact that both are curled.
It’s always hard to date the swashbuckler movies, so I threw in two contemporary sources for comparison, just to show that aside from some bling in the hair, The Gallant Blade is making literally no attempts at a period style.
Our guy is basically rocking a pompadour, which, no.
But the elderly lady gets a vaguely period do! Granted, the 1940s liked height, but that heart-shaped look and the short curls check out.
I had a hard time finding a comparison image — anyone got a middle class-y, 1670s American woman handy? So I thought I’d just go with a slightly dated, not totally royal look. 17th century hair was about the center part and curls on the side of the face. Penn of Pennsylvania is going the “ringlets are oldey timey” route, with a totally 1940s high wave on the top of the forehead.
18th-Century Films of the 1940s
Oh Nelson Eddy, I Do Not Understand Your Charm. New Moon is set in Louisiana, so it checks out that he’s not wearing a wig or powder, and they gave us a teeny little pigtail there to emulate the queue of men’s 18th-century styles. But the sides should have some kind of roll to them, not a wave, and the center part makes me shudder.
I’m not sure if I can say anything bad about Jeanette MacDonald‘s hair, because it’s SO frickin’ pretty. I think they’re trying to go for one of those late 1760s/early 1770s tete de mouton styles. The main differences are the length of the curls — the extension down onto the neck seems very 1940s — the flat, waved bit on the top of the head is a no, and the back is more 1940s (down and waved) than 1760s/70s (up and smooth).
I have always wanted someone to explain Tallulah Bankhead as Catherine the Great‘s hair in A Royal Scandal. Please. Explain. What. Is. Going. On. Here.
It’s hard to say anything negative regarding Vivien Leigh, because she is SO fabulous and SO scary. Nonetheless — we’ve got yet another case of “ringlets = oldey timey” here, and in no way looking like the wide and frizzy, with long ringlets, ‘do of the 1780s/90s.
Now we’ve got some height, including a braid, but again, it’s nothing like the 1790s styles.
1800s-10s Films of the 1940s
Magnificent Doll is a biopic of Dolley Madison, set in the 1800s-10s. While her hair being up is great, the extreme height on the left is SO not Regency/Federal era … and some tendrils would be nice.
This take on Vanity Fair went for hair up (yay!), with what looks like cheerleader ringlets (boo) on top — I guess it’s not bad? The makeup is another story…
Once again, let us say it — yes, sometimes in historical eras, women wore “bangs.” But they didn’t wear BANGS. And certainly not with a big ol’ wave in them.
Actually, not bad! Curly, tousled, pushed forward… I’m liking this!
The Bad Lord Byron got called out in Snark Week for its brioche hair, which is lovely, edible, and nothing like what the real Caroline Lamb would have worn. Okay, it’s up?
I’m slightly confused how the lovely Ingrid Bergman is looking THIS Empress Josephine in 1800s-ish Australia, but let’s not split hairs (see what I did there?). Granted, this looks like one of those cheerleader curl clip-ons, and should be higher on the head, with some curls at the side of the face, but it’s not terrible. I think it’s the tiara that pulls it all together!
1820s Films of the 1940s
Another film that I’m confused as to the time period it’s supposed to be — looks like 1800s-20s. I decided to compare it with an 1820s ‘do, as that’s not an era frequently seen on screen. Which is unfair, because the hair isn’t bad for 1800s-10s. 1820s hair, on the other hand, tends to have center parted bunches of curls at the temples.
Now, New Wine IS supposed to be 1820s, so, no. Okay, the high crown braid checks out! But the wave should be barrel curls and no length on the nape of the neck.
And that’s where my stamina gave out. Check back in a few weeks for part 2!
‘Three Musketeers’ is meant to be in 1620s (Louis XIII’s reign, and includes assassination of Buckingham), not 1720s. You may wish to change the comparison painting.
What started as a typo led me to a mistake, but it’s too much work to fix it now! Y’all can just twitch about how wrong I am :)
Yay! Thanks for this. I really find it interesting. I think the hair is one of those things where I too would be tempted to make it “relatable” but… that’s just a quick way to looking dated in a few years. I mean, maybe some people don’t care, maybe a lot, but it’s just the sort of attention to detail that I think really shows (and often I take to indicate an overall attitude towards the history).
Under the one about Josephine you mentioned her being in “Australia”. I know you meant Austria! Good work though. People get mad at me when I point out un-historical things in movies and tv and say I’m nitpicking. I don’t look at it that way. So many people get their “history” from movies. If something is easily researchable, why not do it??
No really! Australia! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Under_Capricorn
I, too, find Nelson Eddy unshaggable. But I wonder why Hollywood did? The hair runs the gambit from really missing the point to meh to semi-acceptable. But Vivien Leigh could not look more beautiful and I need to find the Ingrid Bergman one. She also looks beautiful.
BTW will you do an episode by episode of Catherine the Great? Pretty please, with cases of Macallen, Chateau Lafite and Chateau Mouton Rothschild, and Glenfeddich.
Excellent big collar in The Man In Grey (sorry, just taking a total side-swerve here)
Kendra, you are a goddess to have put such love and work and scholarship and time into this subject. Nothing is more fun than strange and ahistorical movie hair styles. (Could we just bury every picture of Nelson Eddy, though? Ralph Bellamy, too.)
Wonderful snark. I know about 40s hairstyles because of all the 40s costume dramas I watched as a kid.
Off topic, but I would love to see a man crush on Michael Rennie (wicked lady brylcreem guy). He was one of my first heartthrobs (after Roy Rogers). I fell for him in Desiree, but see that he’s got a lot of costume dramas to his record.
Sometimes I wonder what required more time and effort,18th century coiffures or the painfully immaculate pincurls of the ’30s and shoulder rolls of the ’40s
That was certainly interesting. I still say that you guys should do the costumes for “Gone With the Wind”. You would be surprised at how much the fashions of the late 1930s influenced Walter Plunkett’s designs.
I was watching a June Allyson/Peter Lawford movie the other day, which was set in the 1920s but made in 1947. The men all passed easily for collegiate men in the ’20s, costume-wise (hair was a little suspect), but the women were universally clad in sweater sets more appropriate for the late ’40s, and their hair was straight from your graphics here. Apparently costumers couldn’t be bothered to stretch even to a modern period.
I’m getting Hedwig and the Angry Inch vibes from that Bandit of Sherwood Forest pic