The evolution of hairstyles throughout the years is fascinating. Throughout history, women have always found fascinating ways to style their hair. For instance, in the 18th century, Marie Antoinette and other French royals and noblewomen piled their hair sky high with padding and extensions, then they’d stick decorations, such as silk birds and flowers, into their huge updos. We could go on about the extensive history of hairstyles through the centuries. To keep things simple, however, we’ll go over women’s hairstyles through the decades of the 20th and early 21st centuries. You may recognize some of these hairstyles from period-piece movies and TV shows that recreate these styles.
Early Hairstyles of the 20th Century
Upper-class women’s hairstyles of the 1900s and 1910s featured partial and full updos similar to those of the Victorian era, but they were looser than their late-1800s counterparts. These hairstyles often featured loosely updone waves. The Gibson Girl hairdo, for example, was a loosely wavy topknot that encircled a woman’s head. These early 20th century hairstyles also featured middle parts, floral decorations, and metal headpieces. Overall, these hairstyles presented a relaxed version of the more rigid women’s hairstyles of the previous century.
Next, the 1920s presented an important moment in the history of hair cutting: the invention of the bob. The bob represented the first time short hair became fashionable in recent centuries. Early Hollywood actresses including Irene Castle and Louise Brooks popularized the bob at this time. Due to Hollywood’s growing style influence, this hairstyle became popular with young people across the social classes. However, some women kept their hair long and pinned it up underneath the backs of their heads to mimic the look of the bob. This faux bob hairstyle often included finger waves—small curls positioned on the sides of both women’s and men’s heads—to add texture to the hair. You may have seen both these 1920s hairstyles in the later seasons of Downton Abbey: Lady Mary Crawley chops her hair into a bob, while her sister Lady Edith and their mother Cora, Countess of Grantham, wear faux bobs with finger waves. In the 1920s, women’s hairstyles departed from the 19th century completely and entered a new age that included different hair lengths and textures.
A new hair wave emerged in the 1930s: the Marcel wave, created by French hairstylist Francois Marcel. Stylists achieved this wave by curling clients’ hair into an S-shape with an older style of heat iron. Bobby pins and special pomade held the curls in place. Hollywood actresses Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy made this style popular throughout the United States at the time. Jean Harlow also popularized the blonde bombshell look with her short, bleach-blonde curls. Hairstyles didn’t change dramatically from the 1920s to the 1930s due to the scarcity of the Great Depression.
Overall, the hairstyles of the early 20th century showed American women emerging from the rigid Victorian era and embracing change through their hair. They loosened their updos, curled their hair, and cut it off when they felt like doing so.
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In the 1940s, long locks came back into fashion. These longer hairstyles often featured large, cascading waves. Hollywood actresses of the 1940s often sported these waves, and we now refer to them as “Old Hollywood Waves.” Modern actresses such as Amy Adams sometimes sport these waves on the red carpet. You can also see a period recreation of these waves on Peggy Carter, a popular 1940s character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and TV shows. She often pairs long brunette ’40s waves with bright red lips for an iconic hair and beauty look.
Hairstyles of the 1950s grew shorter again, though not at short as the bobs of the 1920s. These styles were often curly. Some looks featured tighter, shorter curls, such as Sophia Loren’s iconic hairstyles, while others were a bit longer and sleeker, like Marilyn Monroe’s. During the ’50s, Marilyn Monroe also reinvented the blonde bombshell look for a whole new postwar generation.
Some new trends emerged in the 1960s. These trends included the bouffant, which women teased and sprayed into a stiff dome above their heads. Jacqueline Kennedy wore this style often, as did Mary Tyler Moore when she appeared as housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. These bouffants had stiff ends to match their domed tops. French actress Brigitte Bardot wore a smaller dome on her bouffant paired with looser hair strands below it for a more relaxed ’60s hairstyle.
Then the 1970s brought pin-straight hair to the forefront. Cher sported straight hair throughout the decade, and TV characters like Marcia and Jan Brady sported the look as well. At the same time, Black women embraced their natural hair and began wearing afros in a range of sizes. Actress Pam Grier often wore an afro, as did activist Angela Davis. Both of these styles marked a departure from the carefully coiffed looks of previous decades.
If you want to see recent recreations of looks from the 1950s through the 1970s, the Disney+ series WandaVision. In it, powerful witch Wanda Maximoff uses her magic powers to recreate classic American sitcoms, and she sports some of the signature styles mentioned above while doing it. Overall, these mid-century styles come back to through period pieces, formal updos, and hair fashion trends to help us widen our styling options.
Hairstyles From the 1980s Through Today
Women’s hairstyles reached new heights in the 1980s when permanent waves and large, teased styles became popular. Madonna and Whitney Houston wore perms during this decade, while the women of the hit soap opera Dynasty wore the big, teased styles. 1980s hairstyles project the excessive consumerism of the era through their styles’ height, their waves and curls, and the amount of product they took to create.
Then two different styles emerged in the 1990s. Black women popularized braids after preferring other styles for decades once Janet Jackson wore braids in the film Poetic Justice in 1993. Then white women began asking their hair stylists for “the Rachel” in 1994, after Jennifer Aniston wore a short, curved but layered and choppy hairstyle during the first season of the sitcom Friends. These hairstyles came directly from film and television, showing the media’s influence on women’s personal styles at the end of the 20th century.
Once the 2000s hit, the growing Millennial generation brought about a few trends as they came of age. Chunky highlights, crimped hair, and butterfly clips gained popularity at the beginning of the decade. Then the swing bob—shorter at the back, longer in the front—grew popular after celebrities such as Victoria Beckham and Katie Holmes sported the look in the late 2000s.
The early 2010s saw the rise of the ombre look, with long hair dyed dark at the top and fading to dramatically lighter shades at the ends. Ciara and Drew Barrymore both wore this look at the time. As the decade went on, women began wearing their hair in many different ways. Some women wear it long, others wear it short. Some show off their natural hair while others prefer relaxers and silk press looks. Other women shave their heads. In 2020, many women chose low-maintenance looks due to COVID-19 lockdowns, which limited their access to appointments in hair salons.
Now we’re in the present day, where we’ve come a long way from the carefully coiffed styles of the early 20th century. It will be interesting to see where women’s hairstyles go from here.
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