1940s Hair and Makeup

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1940s hair & makeup advice & tutorial

The 1940s is a popular era for filmmakers, so if you are a makeup artist for short films, the chances are high that you’ll be recreating this period look with 1940s hair and makeup styles. Read on to find out more about the decade of war and austerity, the New Look, and the reasons why bright red lipstick forms part of your essential 1940s makeup box.

1940s hair and makeup

  • Men had a short back and sides, swept away from the face with lotion
  • Women had soft curls, with longer hair wrapped into vintage rolls or a pageboy style
  • Short hair styles, headscarves and turbans were especially popular with working women
  • Makeup was subtle and neutral, except for bright red lips and colour nails
  • More colours slowly crept into the colour palette after the war

1940s men’s hair styles

In the 1940s, men had very little choice about their hairstyle given society’s expectation for people to conform. In every portrait from the decade, the hairstyle for men is remarkably similar. Only the parting or the hair colour seems to differentiate individuals.

Therefore, it’s a short back and sides to period the 1940s look for men. Create a straight side parting. Then use a styling product such as Brylcream, and pull it through the hair. Style the hair away from the face, so the sides sweep to the back. The top of the hair can have a bit more volume or even a gentle finger wave across the top hairline, but away from the face. No long hair, no fringe, no beard or other facial hair.

Military characters may require an even shorter cut, especially around the ears and neck. Absolutely no facial hair in the 1940s look, unless it’s an RAF moustache.

Women’s hair in the 1940s

Women’s hair in the 1940s gave much more scope for individual preference and suitability. But the waves and rolls that came to define the 1940s look makes for an easy vintage hair project.

How did they style hair in the 40s?

Many women continued to have their hair permed throughout the war, even as it became ever more expensive. But the majority of women created soft waves using rag rolling or the pin curl technique.

First, apply a setting lotion. Sugar mixed with water was a good setting lotion, though sugar was heavily rationed during the war.

Then take a lock, curl it tightly into place against the scalp, and keep it in place with a hairpin.

Once all the curls are completed and the lotion has set, take the hairpins out.

Brush the soft curls gently.

Then create a victory roll, or a pageboy style.

How do you do victory rolls?

Victory rolls were very popular in Britain during the Second World War. It’s a great solution where your actors and extras have long hair, especially as the position and size of a victory roll depended on individual preference.

You can hold the style in place with backcombing, setting lotion, or lots of hairspray. You’ll also need a lot of hairpins.

Popular styles included a victory roll at the top or coming away from the forehead, or a side roll on one or both sides of the head. A victory roll at the back of the head was less common but still done. Coming up from the collar helped keep long hair out of the way.

To do a victory roll, take a piece of stocking which has been sewn into a roll and stuffed. Then roll the long hair round it. Keep winding, so the roll goes upwards.

1940s pageboy style

The 1940s pageboy style is similar to making victory rolls, but the hair is wound down instead of upwards.

So the hair goes down the scalp, and then folds down into the roll just above the collar. The roll extends from the right side all the way round the back of the head to the left. It can be slightly raised at the front to form a gentle curve down into the centre of the back.

As with victory rolls, the 1940s pageboy style was most commonly seen with a side parting.

How do you do a 40s hairstyle for short hair?

Over 8,000 wrens were trained during the Second World War, and they had to have their hair no longer than collar level. Similar rules or encouragement also led to factory and land workers sporting a short hairstyle, including cropped hair.

In addition, it was often difficult to keep hair clean, or to wash it frequently. Many people spent time in air raid shelters and living with relatives, while others worked in fields and factories. Meanwhile the government encouraged households to limit use of hot water to conserve fuel supplies. Hair care products were also harder to obtain. You can see why headscarves and turbans were popular.

Women always styled their hair away from the face, or pinned it back in soft curls and waves. The parting would almost always be a side parting. Even short hair had soft curls, using perms, rag rolls or the pin curl technique.

1940s hairstyles for black actors

Africans arrived on British shores with the Romans, and it is estimated that by the end of the 18th century there were 10,000 Black people in London and perhaps a further 5,000 across the rest of the country. Ignatius Sancho had enough serious wealth to vote in 1774 and 1780, and London’s first Black Mayor was elected mayor of Battersea in 1913.

Filmmakers are slowly waking up to the fact that a period setting can authentically include a diverse cast. Therefore, if you’re going to work as a makeup artist on short films, it’s essential to learn about treating and styling different types of hair.

In the 1940s, Black women attempted to protect their hair with an oil based pomade, before dividing it into sections and then straightening it with a heated metal comb. The glossy straightened hair was then pin curled to create soft waves. Finally, rolls were added, usually to the top of the head.

1940s hair and makeup tutorial

The 1940s makeup history is one dominated by war and austerity, and the attempts of ordinary women to overcome adversity with beauty products.

Fashion historian Amber Butchart and makeup artist Rebecca Butterworth show us how to recreate the hair and makeup of a 1940s wren, in this video recorded for the National Trust at Dover Castle’s wartime tunnels.

How do you do 1940s makeup?

  • If you want to do 1940s makeup, take the following steps:
  • Apply vanishing cream (moisturiser) across all areas of the face
  • A base layer of neutral powder, close to the natural skin colour, applied by a powder puff
  • Apply subtle, matt eye shadow in a natural tone
  • Use a black or brown eye liner to gently define the lash lines
  • Darken the eyelashes with black mascara, making them long and luscious
  • Angle and arch the medium thick eyebrows by pulling a brow pencil gently through them
  • Rouge the cheeks, for a gently rosy complexion
  • Apply bright red lipstick to the lips

Filmmakers seem to make a beeline for wartime scripts. However, if your period piece is for the late 1940s, the makeup look is similar but with more variety in the colour palette.

Lipstick colours can include brown, orange, and pink, although red lips continued for many years. Meanwhile, subtle eye shadow tints of brown, blue, violet, green and even gold are fine. You should also add more definition to the shape of the eyes, using heavier eyeliner. Aim for the almond shape of doe eyes with your eye makeup.

Uniforms dominated the wartime wardrobe

During World War II (1939-1945), between a quarter and a third of the British population were entitled to wear some form of uniform. Men and women in the armed forces, hospital staff, the land army, factory floor staff, and hospital staff are just some of the occupations which demanded an occupational uniform. Military touches even crept in to civilian fashion trends as early as Spring 1940.

Dressing in a showy or expensive way became seen as bad form. In the same way, hairstyles and makeup became part of the daily outfit which left little to creative individualism. There were always some people pushing boundaries, but when you’re recreating the period look for a short film, stick to the basics.

Was red lipstick a sign of patriotism during WWII?

As strange as it may seem, makeup was used as a morale booster during the Second World War. Even the government supported its use by avoiding comprehensive rationing of cosmetics, although they did levy heavy taxes restricted production to 25% of prewar levels. According to the Imperial War Museum letting personal standards slip suggested low morale and was discouraged.

Fashion magazines quickly embraced the message, warning women not to let the home side down by turning into a fright or a sloven. On screen were images of Hollywood, where rationing and short supplies were unknown. Real women had to raise families and run their home without modern appliances. Many more also now worked in traditionally male jobs. Bombing campaigns battered cities and towns across Britain, and everyday life was full of hardship. Yet women still valued beauty and emulated fashionable hair styles.

There was also a rumour that Hitler hated makeup, and in particular the red lipstick of the 1930’s Weimar Berlin. For red lipstick to become the de facto cosmetic used by the majority of women added to the sense of anti-Nazi activity. It’s not surprising, therefore, that ‘Auxiliary Red’, ‘Victory Red’ and ‘Homefront Ammunition’ were among the popular makeup brand names.

What colours were popular in the 1940’s?

Throughout most of 1940s Britain, popular makeup colours were very neutral. The exception was red lipstick and a matching red nail varnish.

Face powder was a pale neutral colour. Foreign holidays and the concept of tanning was beyond the average British resident. Hollywood glamour presented pale movie stars at a time most film was still black and white.

Eyebrows and eye shadow was subtle shades of brown. Towards the end of the decade, brown, blue, violet, and green were more commonplace, but subtlety was still key.

Be very aware of the lighting on set, as it affects how subtle (or not) the makeup colours come across. Only the red lipstick and nails should pop.

Wartime beauty product alternatives

During World War II, the British government imposed high taxes on cosmetics, and limited production to 25% of prewar levels. While makeup brands didn’t find their products rationed, there was a shortage of affordable cosmetics to meet the demand of popular makeup styles.

Given the general shortages and price of lipstick, women could resort to colouring their lips with beetroot juice. Beetroot juice also came in handy for adding rouge to the cheeks.

Black mascara was another important feature of the 1940s makeup look. Again, if there was a shortage, women had to be creative to find an alternative. Boot polish and burnt corks mixed with vaseline were real substitutes to mascara. The burnt corks and vaseline combo was also used to darken and define eyebrows, in place of a brow pencil.

Traditional stockings were rationed in 1941. The following year nylon was invented in America, and the year after that nylon stockings were rationed in Britain. Leg makeup was a solution. Tales suggest many a young woman painted her legs with boiled walnut shells, coffee, tea bags or gravy browning. Then a line was drawn down the leg with an eyeliner or brow pencil, suggesting a seam. But the reality is a streaky, sticky mess, so perhaps this was more myth than reality.

Do NOT use any of these alternatives when acting as makeup artist on a short film! It could cause problems for the health of the performer. Also, the effect on film will be far less consistent than with cosmetics.

Christian Dior: The New Look

World War II clothes rationing in the UK began on June 1, 1941. It was still in place when Christian Dior launched his debut haute couture collection in Paris on February 12, 1947, despite the war having ended two years previously. The sweeping A-line skirts which fell below the mid-calf characterised his collection, which was quickly dubbed the New Look.

Women now saw these new designs in fashion magazines, upmarket shop window displays, and in the hollywood glamour of cinema movies. Mounting pressures to overthrow the years of austerity and embrace these New Look designs eventually led to the government ending clothing coupons on 15 March 1949.

The elegance of the New Look had an important influence on the emerging 1940s hair and makeup styles.

Lipstick colours widened to include brown, orange, and pink, while eye shadow tints of brown, blue, violet, and green became more commonplace.

Remember, fashions change over 10 years, and the 1940s was no different. It was just a slower and more subtle set of changes, as the country struggled with the ravages of World War II, rationing, austerity and a difficult postwar environment.


It’s best to practice your skills in creating vintage hair styles and 1940s makeup before you step near the actors on a short film. What looks easy in a vintage makeup tutorial can be challenging for your current ability. Or, you might turn a young woman into a 1940s Hollywood beauty, just to realise how wrong it looks for the character. Sometimes even just a poor choice of cosmetics for the setting can undo good work.

But the 1940s hair and makeup look is iconic and looks very good when done well. It’s a nice vintage look for any makeup artist to work on and really helps a 1940s story come to life.