Make no mistake. In the 1920s, a woman deciding to cut her hair was serious business. Simply put, long hair was considered feminine and short hair was not. Consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story from 1920 called “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” Bernice, the quintessential predictable woman, is tricked into getting her hair cut into a bob. She is suddenly shunned by the boys while her family worries about the scandal her new ‘do will cause.
Magazines such as “Ladies Home Journal” printed stories asking, “To Bob or Not to Bob?” Dancer Irene Castle was one of the first to decide to bob in 1915. Many famous persons followed. Opera Singer Mary Garden said in 1927 “I consider getting rid of our long hair one of the many little shackles that women have cast aside in their passage to freedom.” Actress Mary Pickford, who did not bob her hair because of the pressure she felt from her family and her fans, said, “I could give a lengthy and, I think, convincing discourse about long hair making a woman more feminine, but there is some doubt in my mind as to whether it does or not. Of one thing I am sure: she looks smarter with a bob, and smartness rather than beauty seems to be the goal of every woman these days.” Read more about Castle, Garden and Pickford’s
Long Hair that Looks Shorts
Those women that did not cut their hair still rarely simply let their hair hang loose and free. Long hair at the beach was glamorous but otherwise hair was neatly arranged around the base of the neck or pulled into a bun or chignon at the back. The bun or cottage loaf had been a working class hairstyle for centuries. The 1920s only made it different by styling it a bit flatter, or rolled under for even more smoothness. All that long hair had to fit under a tighter and tighter fitting hat so styles were made to be flat and smooth in the back and full in the front.
Frizzy curls and waves on the side of the face were the preference in the early ’20s, followed by smoother, sculpted waves in the mid-twenties. Hair covered ears sometimes into flat buns on either side to look like she was wearing earphones, called cootie garages.
In the evenings, long hair was arranged up high and slightly protruded, looking a lot like the styles of Greek goddesses. If a woman didn’t have enough hair of her own, hair pieces were added. Using wads of a woman’s own hair, pulled from her own brush, was another way to add volume and padding to her hair arrangements.
To Bob or Not to Bob
Even with all the effort to swath long hair into a faux bob style by 1924, most woman were taking the plunge and chopping off long locks. An all over set of curls were in style for the early ’20s. Messy, frizzy and large was the Bohemian look the young flappers embraced.
Curling irons emerged with wood handles and round iron shafts that must be heated over coals– although when heated too hot, it damaged more hair than curled it. A new permanent wave machine of large heavy metal rollers was invented and became very popular for achieving tight curly waves. Many women discovered that their hair was naturally curly once they cut the weight off long hair. No permanent waves needed for them. It is interesting to note that while white women were going to a lot of trouble to curl their hair, many African American women were going to the same trouble to straighten their hair.
When women started to bob their hair they couldn’t go to the neighborhood salon– they didn’t exist yet! Bobbing was done at home in the hands of a trustworthy friend or an obliging men’s barber. What a shock it must have been for men’s sacred place to be invaded by a woman who wanted to look like men. Barbers had to quickly learn to cut women’s hair, following all the latest styles the movies were showing. By the end of the twenties women’s only salon industry exploded. Keeping short hair neat and curly was too much for most women to do at home– regular trips to the salon were necessary.
Once a woman cut her hair, she was at the mercy of her community’s criticism. The reactions to short hair were mixed from both women and men. Some do-it-yourselfers tried to cut their own hair, which only made it look ridiculous. Many women kept their heads covered in scarfs, kitchen bonnets and hats until hair grew out.
Others who opted for professional cuts may have had a better haircut but not necessarily a better reaction. The shock of less hair and the disapproving comments from older family members were enough to make many women feel like a “hussy”. While some husbands and fathers liked the short looks, most did not.
Especially conservative Christians who believed long hair was a sign of godliness in women. Eventually, all parties found a comfort zone with the new styles. Hair regrew and the town barber became more skilled at these new cuts. Friends who at first thought bobbed hair was shameful eventually gave in and bobbed their own hair, too.
Bobbed Hair Styles
Bob cuts came in different styles with funny names, such as Orchid bob, Coconut bob, Egyptian bob, Charleston cut, or the Shingle, but there were only two main styles. Short and curly or short and straight.
Bobs with bangs were common in both curly and straight styles. Straight hair bangs were either cut straight across covering the eyebrows or heart-shaped with the middle shorter than the sides. The sides of the bang curled into points resting on the cheek bones. Billie Dove took the pointed ends to shorter heights with her classic “split curls” made extra pointy with green gel (like petroleum jelly). They curled up on her forehead and cheeks giving that very baby doe-eyed look she was famous for.
Spit curls were also called kiss curls. The number of kiss curls a young woman wore were sometimes thought to be the same number of men she had been kissed by.
The cropped hairstyle wasn’t content with ear level cuts. The shingled cut, although short lived, created the shortest of the cuts: The Eton crop. It was named after the famous English school whose boys wore their hair slightly longer than was usual for the decade. The cut was essentially a men’s haircut with fully exposed ears and often a shaved neck, too. It was called a boyish bob for good reason. Brilliantine was slicked onto the hair to give the cut shine and staying power. A kiss curl or two along the forehead softened the very masculine cut. For all the drama the Eton crop caused in the ’20s, it was the most practical for wearing cloche hats.
By the late ’20s, most women were turning away from curly hair (which didn’t work well under a cloche hat) and instead took to the art of Marcel waving. Not a new invention, Marcel waving required finger wave sculpting wet hair or a Marcel iron. Marcel irons made the job easier, although more dangerous, if the iron was overheated on the stove. Electric models came into play in the mid 1920s, making it much safer and easier to wave hair.
Waves required more daily care and attention to a woman’s hair. The waved look was so popular that it lasted all of the 1930s and into the 1940s as well. Sculpted waves, soft at first and angular patterns later, took on the geometric shapes common in Art Deco art. A hairstyle had always been a work of art and the ’20s just made it fit the times.
Additional Hair History
A book of 20s and 30s hairstyles with style names, picture, basic styling and cutting directions.
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