How Contemporary Hairstyles Affect Historical Costume Movies: The 1940s, Part 1


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

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.

1940s women's hairstyles

Thank you, whoever makes those hairstyle collages on Pinterest.

1940s women's hairstyles
1940s Victory rolls

And, of course, let us not forget to specifically highlight “Victory rolls,” which could be symmetrical or asymmetrical, high on the head or more towards the sides. Note in particular the center image, with the side/nape of neck roll, as that’s going to come up more than once below.


Men’s Hairstyles

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.

1940s mens hairstyles

Although I had to make this collage myself. Harumph!


Historical Movie Hairstyles of the 1940s

Medieval Films of the 1940s

1948 Hamlet

Hamlet (1948) | Sculpted image of Queen Ingiburga of Denmark (née Princess of Sweden) on her grave and that of her husband King Eric Meanwith at St. Benedict’s Church, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

The Bandit of Sherwood Forest 1946

The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946) | Isabella of Angoulême, tomb in the church of Fontevraud Abbey (France), via Wikimedia Commons

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

1949 Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus (1949) | Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504), queen of Castile and León c. 1490, Museo del Prado.

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.

1949 Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus (1949) | Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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

1945 The Spanish Main

The Spanish Main (1945) | Portrait of Isabella of Portugal by Titian, 1548, Museo del Prado

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.

1940 The Heart of a Queen

The Heart of a Queen (1940) | Mary, Queen of Scots after Nicholas Hilliard, 1578, National Portrait Gallery

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.

1940 The Sea Hawk

The Sea Hawk (1940) | Sir Walter Raleigh by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1585, National Portrait Gallery

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.

1940 The Sea Hawk

The Sea Hawk (1940) | Queen Elizabeth I (the “Armada Portrait”), c. 1588, National Portrait Gallery

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

1948 Ruy Blas

Ruy Blas (1948) | Rodrigo de Villandrando, Portrait of Elisabeth of France (1602–1644), c. 1620, Museum del Prado

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 (1948)

The Three Musketeers (1948) | Domenico Duprà, Bárbara de Braganza, reina consorte de España, 1725, Museo del Prado

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.

1941 Hudson's Bay

Hudson’s Bay (1941) | Peter Lely, Portrait of Nell Gwyn (1650-1687), c. 1675, National Portrait Gallery

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.

1945 The Wicked Lady

The Wicked Lady (1945) | Pierre Mignard, Louise de Keroual, duchesse de Portsmouth, 1682, National Portrait Gallery

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.

1945 The Wicked Lady

The Wicked Lady (1945) | Peter Lely, Portrait of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, c. 1677, Victoria & Albert Museum

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?

1947 Forever Amber

Forever Amber (1947) | Peter Lely, Portrait of Mrs Moll Davies, mistress of Charles II, c. 1665 via Wikimedia Commons

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.

1948 The Gallant Blade

The Gallant Blade (1948) | Gedeon Romandon, Elisabeth Sophia, Princesse v. Brandenburg Herzogin v. Sachsen Meiningen. geb. 1674 gest. 1748, 1691, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg | Henri Gascar, Portrait of Barbara Villiers Duchess of Cleveland 1641 – 1709, 17th century, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

1948 The Gallant Blade

The Gallant Blade (1948) | John Michael Wright, Portrait of King James II and VII in armour as Duke of York (1633-1701), 1660-65, Government Art Collection

Our guy is basically rocking a pompadour, which, no.

1948 The Gallant Blade

The Gallant Blade (1948) | Pierre Gobert, Portrait of Élisabeth Charlotte d’Orléans (1676-1744), 1690-98, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

1941 Penn of Pennsylvania

Penn of Pennsylvania (1941) | Frans van Mieris the Elder, Portrait of a lady with a dog in her lap, 1672, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

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

1940 New Moon

New Moon (1940) | John Singleton Copley, Samuel Verplanck, 1771, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

1940 New Moon

New Moon (1940) | Augustin Pajou, Madame du Barry (1746–1793), 1772, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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).

1945 A Royal Scandal

A Royal Scandal (1945) | Fyodor Rokotov, Portrait of Catherine II of Russia, c. 1770, Hermitage Museum

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.

1941 That Hamilton Woman

That Hamilton Woman (1941) | George Romney, Portrait of a Lady, fourth quarter of the 18th century, Wawel Castle

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.

1941 That Hamilton Woman

That Hamilton Woman (1941) | George Romney, Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, in a White Turban, 1791, Huntington Library

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 (1946)

Magnificent Doll (1946) | Gilbert Stuart, Dolley Madison, 1804, White House

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.

1949 Becky Sharp

Becky Sharp (1949) | Joseph Kreutzinger, Maria Leopoldina of Austria (1797-1826), empress consort of Brazil, 1815, Schönbrunn Palace

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…

1943 The Man in Grey

The Man in Grey (1943) | François Gérard, Caroline Bonaparte, 1812, Musée Fesch

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.

1943 The Man in Grey

The Man in Grey (1943) | Antoni Brodowski, Portrait of Józefa Poniatowskiego, c. 1813, via Wikimedia Commons

Actually, not bad! Curly, tousled, pushed forward… I’m liking this!

1949 The Bad Lord Byron

The Bad Lord Byron (1949) | Eliza Trotter, Lady Caroline Lamb, c. 1810s, National Portrait Gallery

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?

1949 The Bad Lord Byron - Snark Week Frock Flicks
1949 Under Capricorn

Under Capricorn (1949) | Tsarin of Russia, Elizabeth Alexeievna. Pavlovsk, c. 1800s, via Wikimedia Commons

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

1947 L'aigle à Deux Têtes

L’Aigle à Deux Têtes (1947) | Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, The Duchesse de Berry in a Blue Velvet Dress, 1824, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

1941 New Wine

New Wine (1941) | Anthelme-François Lagrenée, Portrait of Ekaterina Orlova (1797-1885), 1829/32, via Wikimedia COmmons

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!


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.

14 Responses

  1. NuitsdeYoung

    ‘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.

    • Kendra

      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 :)

  2. Nzie

    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).

  3. Missy

    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??

  4. Susan Pola Staples

    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.

  5. Black Tulip

    Excellent big collar in The Man In Grey (sorry, just taking a total side-swerve here)

  6. M.E. Lawrence

    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.)

  7. Terry Towels

    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.

  8. Shashwat

    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

  9. Lee Jones

    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.

  10. mjsamuelson

    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.

  11. Justme

    I’m getting Hedwig and the Angry Inch vibes from that Bandit of Sherwood Forest pic