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 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.
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.
Historical Movie Hairstyles of the 1950s
Ancient Films of the 1950s
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!
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!
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!
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
As always, you can just throw out most medieval films, because ALL WE SHOULD BE SEEING ARE VEILS. No hair! None!
Slightly long waves on the real Richard I, compared to a poufy pompadour look on Robert Taylor.
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.
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
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.
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…
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.
Needs a center part, but otherwise, we’re in business!
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.
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.
Points for the rolled, heart-shaped hairstyle! Minus 2 points for the teeny curls around the face.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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…
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?
They got lucky that men’s 1840s hairstyles are similarly long, curly/wavy, and side-parted.
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.
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!
The braided ‘dos also check out.
It’s harder to know what they were going for with these loose curls, which seem a bit too square for the period.
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.
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.
The gents check out, minus the sideburns.
Doris Day is 1000% Doris Day in Calamity Jane.
Nana confuses me on multiple levels. Those straight-across bangs need some wave to them, stat!
Early 20th Century Films of the 1950s
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.
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
1920s men’s styles: far too easy.
Debbie Reynolds’ bangs seem too bang-y, and the hair in back slightly too long, for the 1920s. But they got the wave right!
Cyd Charise is pretty darn spot on for a 1920s straight bob.
Debbie’s hair here seems SUPER 1950s, although not all women immediate bobbed their hair and indeed wore low buns.
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?