Iconic Hairstyles from the 20th Century

The 20th century brought with it much upheaval; from politics to pop culture, humanity took strides – and suffered setbacks – over the course of 100 years. When it came to hairstyles, every decade seemed to spawn something new, and it’s fair to say that one or two cuts really did come to shape (and later, define) an age. So, let’s take a look back at some of modern history’s most iconic hairstyles; the ones that (for better or worse) we’ll never forget.

1900s and 1910s

By the late 1800s, a new kind of feminine ideal had arrived; the ‘Gibson Girl’  – named after her creator, the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson  – wore her hair piled high atop her head in a chignon. Having a huge influence on western beauty, the Gibson Girl look remained in vogue for the next 20 years or so.

Curls and ringlets were preferable, since permanent curling methods had been invented by the early 1900s. Often, half of the hair was pinned up, with the rest of it worn loosely over the shoulders in ringlets.


1920s

The ‘Roaring Twenties’ captured a sense of rebellion. Post-war prosperity gave way to nightclubs, jazz clubs and cocktail bars; urban life flourished, and the younger generation (especially those who were wealthy) enjoyed the hedonism that came with it. Additionally, women had been given the right to vote in 1918; this newfound feeling of empowerment could be seen in the fashions of the day – and in the hairstyles that women chose to adopt.

Liberating themselves from their long, Victorian locks, a generation of young women wore their hair short; emulating silent film actresses like Louise Brooks (pictured below), the ‘flapper girl’ look was born. Hair was either worn straight, shaped into ‘finger waves,’ or set into ‘marcel waves.’

Brooks’ short bob (or ‘shingle cut’) is especially iconic simply because it was so different to the hairstyles that preceded it; sharp, short and angular, it still looks edgy today. Recreate Lou Lou’s look by asking your stylist to cut your bob so that it’s tapered at the back; straighten the hair and mist over with a finishing spray to achieve that legendary shine.


1930s

By the 1930s, the glitz of the ‘Jazz Age’ had dwindled; global economic downturn and mass unemployment put an end to frivolity. One thing that did thrive in the 30s though? Cinema. As more and more people sought respite from the ‘Great Depression,’ they found their escape in film. The ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood created beauty icons around the world; curls were softer, and women tended to wear their hair shoulder-length. Since hats were so popular, it was usual for hairstyles to remain less voluminous at the crown than at the base, so as to accommodate them.

Actress Jean Harlow (Hollywood’s original ‘blonde bombshell’) enthralled moviegoers in the 30s. Nicknamed ‘The Platinum Blonde,’ she went to extreme lengths to achieve her striking hue; every week, Harlow’s stylist Alfred Pagano applied a mix of peroxide, ammonia, cleaning bleach and soap flakes to the star’s long-suffering scalp. For obvious reasons, we don’t recommend that you go bleach blonde the old-fashioned way; instead, book an appointment with your colourist.


1940s

Just as they did during the First World War, women were required to head out into the workforce after the onset of the Second World War. Initially, only single women aged 20-30 were enlisted to work, but by 1943, almost 80% of married women (and 90% of single women) were employed in the war effort. As such, women’s hairstyles needed to become more practical. Regardless of the hands-on factory and farm work that many women undertook, the ‘worn-in’ look just didn’t take off; instead, hair was perfectly coiffed and pinned back off the face.

Named for its resemblance to the ‘victory manoeuvre’ of fighter planes at the time, the ‘victory roll’ hairstyle became de rigueur for stars and civilians alike. Actress and singer Betty Grable was (and is) the ultimate poster girl for Wartime beauty; rarely seen without her victory rolls, her image paved the way for the pin-up – a look that’s still so popular today.


1950s

Another wave of post-war prosperity hit in the 50s. Salaries and disposable incomes were on the up; TV’s (and advertising) became commonplace – consumer culture had arrived. With new media came new influences in fashion and beauty; the concept of glamour dominated the mainstream, though so too, did the ultra-feminine ‘housewife’ ideal – which harnessed a conservative, suburban simplicity.

None reflected this mix of ‘girl-next-door’ freshness and glamorous siren more so than Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe. Full of contradictions, she was shrewd and knowing, yet vulnerable and girlish – often playing this up in her film roles. Suffice to say, her look remains as one of the decade’s most notable; her shoulder-length hair and soft, platinum curls defined ‘the bombshell.’


1960s

Everything about 60s fashion and beauty harnessed a sense of liberation; freeing themselves from the stuffy conservatism of the bourgeois 50s, young people adopted a freer attitude – with the style to match. From the mod cuts made famous by legendary stylist Vidal Sassoon to Mary Quant’s invention of the mini skirt, youth culture was rebellious, raucous and free-spirited. Hairstyles were diverse, ranging from super-short cuts to long, straight styles. The main thing was that women no longer felt the need to spend hours preening their hair with rollers; even the beehive – one of the decade’s most notable updos – could be achieved with just a bit of backcombing (and a lot of hair spray!).

Distinguishing themselves from their parents’ generation, ‘youthquakers’ (as they were known) also brought androgynous fashion – and hairstyles – to the fore. The invention of the pill meant that women were no longer limited to becoming wives and mothers. Young people felt less constrained by traditional gender roles, and expressed this through their style; boys grew their hair out, or sported ‘mop tops,’ whilst girls chopped theirs off. Model Twiggy’s deep-parted pixie cut and slender frame exemplified the 60s look.


1970s

Hairstyles in this decade were varied, as an outspoken, empowered generation of young people  created their own identities. Spurred on by the radicalism of the 60s and faced with political turmoil, young people were drawn to the subcultures that began to emerge. With its eclectic mix of trends, the 70s are full of decade-defining looks.

The counter-culture hippie movement, which began in the late 60s, continued to thrive in the early 70s. Both men and women adopted a natural look with longer, free-flowing hair; short, angular cuts and flammable beehives had almost entirely disappeared by this time.

By the mid-70s however, a new subculture had arrived; politically-driven and subversive, punk turned ‘peace and love’ on its head. Punk hairstyles were big, bold and deliberately far from ‘the norm.’ Mohawks, mullets and non-natural hair colours were proudly worn by both genders – the whole thing was about independent self-expression.

Even in mainstream society, hairstyles like ‘the shag’ and ‘the pageboy’ had an androgynous edge. The ‘feathered look’ – one of the most popular cuts from the decade – was seen on everyone from Brooke Shields to John Travolta, though it was Charlie’s Angel’s star Farrah Fawcett who really made it iconic.


1980s

The 80s saw a return to more conservative values, yet fashion and beauty took a bold turn; instead of subverting the status quo, it was all about making a statement. From shoulder-padded jackets to big, blingy jewellery, it was a decade where the old adage ‘less is more’ meant diddly-squat. When it came to hair, bigger really was better. Gravity-defying ‘dos took centre stage; loose waves wouldn’t cut it – it was all about the perm.

Then, in 1981, the world was introduced to a new pop superstar; one who would come to influence women’s fashion and beauty trends for the next 3 decades. With her bleached, ribboned hair and stacks of bracelets, young girls all over the world mimicked Madonna’s look.


1990s

Where the 80s were flashy, the 90s were minimalist. Whether you were into grunge or high-fashion, the bold colours and big hair of the previous decade made way for streamlined silhouettes and simple cuts.

A little show called Friends crash-landed into people’s living rooms and brought us (amongst other things), a hairstyle that became one of the decade’s biggest trends. Jennifer Aniston – then an unknown actress – and her choppy, layered lengths have become the stuff of legend. Aptly named after her on-screen character, ‘The Rachel’ spawned an army of lookalikes around the world; if that’s not iconic, we don’t know what is.


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