Beyond the Bob: 1920s Hairstyles for the Rapunzels Among Us

Listen: ♪ Shall I Have It Bobbed or Shingled? 

One of the first challenges I came across when preparing to work as a costumed historical interpreter on 1920s street at Fort Edmonton Park last summer was the issue of hairstyles. Namely, when you think of the 1920s, what pops into your head? Probably something like this:

Eatons Spring and Summer 1926, page 17. (Mail order catalogues always began with women’s fashion.) Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Known as the “bob”, this short hairstyle is iconic of the 1920s, a decade which saw dramatic changes in women’s fashion and attitude. As in nineteenth century dress reform movements, a woman’s fashion choices and outward appearance reflected but also affected the gender roles women would and could play. Called the “garçonne” or “boyish” look  (“garçonne” being a feminized version of the French term for “boy”), or what many of us today would call “flapper style”, the silhouette of the 1920s was very slender and almost rectangular, with lean bodies, flat chests and narrow hips. This shape was achieved not through corsetting but girdling, which could be just as restrictive. Short hairstyles, like the bob or the shingle, were a significant component of this boyish look. Ironically, the obvious use of makeup such as rouge, eyeliner, and bright red lipstick among women who were not ladies of the night or stage actors became almost socially acceptable… though as with any fashion trend, the visible use of makeup was still frowned upon by old fuddy-duddies worried about the moral degredation apparent in modern society. (“Kids these days!” – said older people in every generation ever.)  Youth culture was in, and nothing visually marked the dramatic change in ideas than the look of young women with short hair. Cutting one’s hair into a bob was more than a fashion statement; it was a statement about a woman’s attitude towards modernity and how they viewed their own body.

So bobs are iconic to the 1920s and of course I wanted to portray myself when in character as a modern Bright Young Thing at Fort Edmonton Park. I was provided with a lovely drop-waist dress in “modern” rayon fabric by our talented costumer, and got my dancing shoes and makeup. However, there was yet one problem to be overcome to complete my 1920s “look”: I have waist-length hair.

Shall I get it shingled or bobbed??  Photograph taken at the Selkirk Hotel on 1920s Steet at Fort Edmonton after work. The woman on the left was at the time an interpreter on 1885 street, with era-appropriate long hair. Observe me on the right: how could I possibly make that hairstyle fit the 1920s?
Shall I have it shingled or bobbed?! ♪
Photograph taken at the Selkirk Hotel on 1920s Steet at Fort Edmonton after work. The redheaded woman on the left  (with whom I was having a long-hair measuring competition – she won by a hair an inch) was at the time an interpreter on 1885 street, with era-appropriate long hair. Observe me on the right: how could I possibly tame that hair into a style accurate to the 1920s?

To put the finishing touches on my outfit, I would have to change my hairstyle dramatically. 1920s Street is in fact the only era portrayed at Fort Edmonton Park in which I have to hide the length of my hair instead of showing it off. Did I really want to chop it all off for work? No, not really. Maybe not ever. (Well, maybe to support cancer research or to create wigs for cancer patients.) I have been growing out my hair continuously since high school, and have only had the ends trimmed once or twice every few years since then. I am happy with it. It had taken a long time to get it to that length, and I like doing twists and braids and buns. I didn’t want to cut it short for what would only be a short period of time; come the autumn – and winter – I wanted my hair long again. Cutting it would cause me much anxiety and would change my fashion style and the framing of my face entirely.

But here’s the thing: my dilemma is not unique to historical interpreters. It was a struggle – sometimes mental, sometimes literal, with Victorian and Edwardian parents – that women in the past also went through. Women didn’t wake up in 1920 and go happily en masse to the hairdressers to have their hair put into bobs simply because it was the new fashion. It was far more controversial than that, particularly among the older generations. Until the 1920s, women had been raised for generations believing that short hair was a masculine trait and that real women wore their hair long. Then, they were suddenly faced with this new, extreme fashion of short hair. But was it just a passing trend? Would they look ridiculous the next year when it went out of style, after taking so drastic an action? If you cut your hair, that’s it. Going back is not as simple as parting your hair differently, or curling or straightening your hair instead, as had been the case with previous extremes in fashionable hairstyles. (I’m looking at you, awkward 1830s!) Cutting your hair is permanent and it can take years to grow your hair back to the length it once was. For women who had experienced almost nothing but variations on the theme of long hairstyles, choosing to cut your hair was a big step. There is no going back. So what do you do if you want to play it safe and keep your hair long? Can you still be a fashionable young woman?

Enter the forgotten long hairstyles of the 1920s: the nervous bob (AKA a Swaithed Hairstyle or faux bob) and Mary Pickford curls. Oh, yes, and why not the “earphone” hairstyle too? These women were doing the cinnamon bun hairstyle before Princess Leia made it cool. For the purposes of this blog post, let’s put braids and buns aside and discuss the main alternatives to bobbed hair in the 1920s – Mary Pickford curls and the nervous bob.

Mary Pickford - the girl with the curls. From "Coquette" (1929)? Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
Mary Pickford – the girl with the curls. (Note: while wearing a short skirt and very fashionable shoes, she appears to be dressed as some sort of fairy – do not take this as proof of the popularity of lolita-style fashion in the 1920s!) Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

(Canadian born!) actor, writer, and producer Mary Pickford was famous for her long hair – she was “the girl with the curls.” In the 1910s and early 1920s, she was famous for roles that emphasized her youthfulness and innocence. With that, of course, came long hair, emulated by many a young woman, particularly in the first half of the decade. These were thick, heavy, and above all long ringlettes. When she cut her hair in the mid-1920s, it was headline news across the world – it even made the front page of the New York Times. It was probably one of the single most famous haircuts ever, and really speaks to the divisiveness and extremity that was the bobbed hairstyle.

'Sick of Cinderella' – Mary Pickford before and after she bobbed her hair (Courtesy Birds Eye View, via Silent London)
“Sick of Cinderella” – Mary Pickford before and after she bobbed her hair (Courtesy Birds Eye View, via Silent London)

Young women emulated Mary Pickford’s style well into the 1920s. Photographs of high school girls in Western Canada in 1928, for instance, show that well over half of the students wearing their hair in this way. However, the main reason that I didn’t do Mary Pickford curls on a daily basis is because they are a lot of work. It’s not that they can’t be done accurately in the twenty-first century – it’s definitely possible, just time-consuming. You can even use your current metal or ceramic hair curlers to achieve similar effects with less risk of damaging your hair than you would in the era you are emulating. Non-electric hair straighteners and curling irons have existed for ages. Hair irons were often literal clothes irons put on the stove and ironed on an ironing board, though metal irons and crimpers not dissimilar in design from modern ones were also used and heated on wood burning stoves as well. However, even the early electric ones in the 1920s could still fry the hair of the users. No thanks! Still, don’t be afraid to use modern electric hair straighteners in creating your Mary Pickford hairstyle – the fancy modern ceramic ones may not be period-appropriate, but the effects will be.

These curls can also be created in a different way, far less damaging for one’s hair, though too time-consuming for an impatient young thing like myself: through the use of rags. (Tutorials linked below in the “resources” section.) They work in essence like modern hair curlers and have been used for ages. (You may recall scenes from movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s works that show the characters creating the small curls popular during the Regency era this way.) It involves wetting the hair, rolling it up tightly with a small piece of fabric, and tying it off. Then, all one has to do is sleep and let it dry out overnight, and in the morning, when you take the rags out, you end up with ringlettes – the same scientific principle is the reason why one’s hair comes out of braids wavy or kinky. I have also done “rag curls” before, because ringlets were popular in the 1840s as well, “when” I previously worked at the park, but with my length of hair they take up to half an hour of prep time the night before and about ten or fifteen minutes in the morning… and I wasn’t a skilled enough hair dresser to make sure that they came out perfectly every time. If you mess up, there are no quick fixes, and I would often do a hasty bun if the ringlettes didn’t come out the way I wanted them to. However, rag curls are definitely feasible and easier than one might think.

Then there’s the issue of how representative Mary Pickford curls are of the 1920s period, related to issues of “historical accuracy”, which we’ve discussed before. Long hair, while accurate to the 1920s, particularly for young woman, even moreso for the first half of the decade, is just not what visitors expect. The year that I worked on 1920s street at Fort Edmonton Park, we had four costumed historical interpreters, several volunteers, a (male) historical worker, a roving troupe of drama people, and costumed game and ride attendants who were mostly limited to the Midway. On the street, there were therefore two full time female interpreters in costume, and so with our days off factored in, four days a week there could only be a single woman in 1920s costume on the street representing a city with a population in the tens of thousands. 1920s street is also the street closest to the entrance at the train station in the park, so we were often the first people in costume visitors see. Often, it is better to meet visitor’s expectations right away – so it’s obvious we’re in 1920s costumes – than to challenge visitor expectations right off the bat. 1920s = short hair in most people’s minds. If they’re looking at you from a distance, you want to be recognizable as an employee in costume. If we were in a large group of costumed interpreters, I would have considered doing the Mary Pickford curls in a nice contrast to the other interpreters in bobs. However, I was often alone (the only woman who lived in Edmonton in 1920, by all appearances!) and so I instead adopted the nervous bob or faux bob as my daily hairstyle. Despite the fact that Mary Pickford curls were still quite popular among young women even until the mid-to-late 1920s, historical representativeness was still a valid concern for us at the park. In my case, I was playing into visitor expectations – but only halfway. Instead of bobbing my hair with a pair of scissors, I could use my hair as a jumping off point for just how explosively controversial bobbed hair actually was. It’s stealth interpretation.

I may be getting ahead of myself. What is a nervous bob, exactly? Women who didn’t want to cut their hair – or who were forbidden from doing so by their parents, employers, or social expectations – could simulate the effects of short hair with gratuitous use of hair pins. For that reason, they are also known colloquially, at least where I’m from in North America, as “bobby pins.” (I blew the minds of many visitors with this simple fact.) It was sometimes called the “nervous” bob because those who wore it were considered too “nervous” to cut their hair into a “real” bob – though I am uncertain of how popular this term was, or if the hairstyle had a proper name at the time. In simple terms, it involves brushing out your hair, folding or curling it underneath itself, and securing it with bobby pins to create the illusion of short hair. There are numerous ways of doing so. One of my fellow costumed interpreters would curl her hair into ringlettes and pin them individually up and under, giving her hair a wavy look, which was also very fashionable in the 1920s. Her hair was just past shoulder length, but my hair, which is almost waist-length, would pull itself out of that hairstyle due to its sheer weight. I know because we tried.

I had two techniques that I found relatively simple, which became my daily hair styling staples. In one, I would braid my hair loosely and tuck the long part underneath the base, pinning it in place with large bobby pins after evening it out to hide the bulk. I would also put my hair in a low ponytail (secured by an inaccurate brown or black elastic to match my hair colour), and twist it until it folded into a bun (my usual technique), which would then be tucked underneath itself so that the hair closest to my skull covered it. This may be difficult to visualize, so to that end, I have included a photoset of what my hair generally looked like. Also included is a photograph of a nervous bob as done by another interpreter on 1920s street. In this photoset, my hairstyle is the result of a loose side braid, folded back and forth and pinned underneath my unbraided hair, creating the illusion of a short hairstyle, particularly when viewed from the front:

Caveat: as previously mentioned, my hair goes down to my waist. I have probably the maximum advisable length of hair to try to stuff into a nervous bob. This hairstyle actually works even better if you have mid- or shoulder-length hair, as it is likely to look far less bulky and more natural than my own when I dress my hair in this way. Furthermore, my hair is not layered. Layered hair may make nervous bobs and other up-dos more difficult to do, as I have found that the ends tend to flip out of areas you want to control more tightly.

Drawbacks to nervous bobs:

  • Real bobbed hairstyles take almost zero time to style in the morning, if done well. Brushing takes almost no time. Nervous bobs, even with practice, can still take at least five or ten minutes to do.
  • Your hair does not disappear. It sounds like an obvious observation, but it means that you still have the bulk of your hair on the nape of your neck, which can be hot in the summertime and can make it difficult to wear a stylish cloche hat. Luckily for me, it was also fashionable to wear hats with the brims low on one’s forehead with one’s nose ever so slightly in the air, so I didn’t have to try to fit the bulky part of my hairstyle under the hat’s brim.
  • You must take care to secure your hair well before doing any strenuous activity, such as dancing the night away doing the Charleston with a real Sheik. You don’t want it popping out in the middle of a dance!

Advantages to nervous bobs:

  • You can look reasonably fashionable without annoying your more conservative (read: nineteenth-century) family members and colleagues! Remember, until the late twenties Western society as a whole viewed women with short hair as morally suspect. A professional nurse, for example, could still be fired in the 1920s if she decided to bob her hair (even if her uniform involved a whimple which covered her hair). If you were trying to look mature and professional so you could keep one of the few employment opportunities open to women in the 1920s, it probably wasn’t advisable to cut your hair short. Unless you were, say, a glamorous newspaper writer who wrote columns on fashion and the modern woman. Then it was a good career move.
  • They keep your hair versatile. For the modern (read: twenty-first century woman), you can play at having short hair one day, then decide to go for a Gibson Girl topknot the next, or wear your hair down and loose for the bohemian look the day after. Long hair, I find, is far more versatile than short or mid-length hair when it comes to hairstyles. For so much of our history, women have worn their long hair in any number of ways. The possibilities are almost limitless if you have the right length of hair. Retro and steampunk looks are “in”; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to new hairstyles. Why limit yourself by chopping off the majority of your hair?

One final disclaimer: I am not a professional hairdresser or hair stylist. My experience solely comes from historical research (I have found photographic hairstyle tutorials from as early as 1911!) and practice, practice, practice. If you spend five days a week for four and a half months dressing your hair in this way, you learn a thing or two if only so you don’t have to redo your hair every hour as it falls out. (That’s valuable time you could have spent practicing your driving skills in 1920s vehicles! Am I right, ladies?) What works for me and my hair may not work for you and yours.  For example, I almost always dress my hair when it’s damp (I don’t use a blow drier), which I find gives it weight and promotes smoothness (I often have a bit of frizz if I dress my hair when it’s put in an up do when dry) and prevents my preferred hairstyle from sliding around as I pin it. Having damp hair makes my hairstyles more stable. I have no idea if it is advisable to dress your hair while very damp – I have not yet asked a professional hair dresser – but in my case it works really well, allowing me to avoid using hair products, or “lotions and potions” as my mother calls them. I did not use hairspray in any of these photographs, but for some it may be useful in securing the hair in place. The best piece of advice I can give you is to practice dressing your hair in its new hairstyle when you’re in no rush, so you can see how your hair sits. Everyone is of course a special unique snowflake; your hair will hold differently depending on the length and thickness of your hair, the size of your bobby pins, how damp your hair is when it goes in… any number of factors. Practice makes perfect!

A Hello Girl at the Alberta Government Telephone Office on 1920s Street at Fort Edmonton Park. (Incidentally, I wasn't a pretend operator: that machine actually connects 15 working phones within the park!)
A Hello Girl sporting a nervous bob at the Alberta Government Telephone Office on 1920s Street at Fort Edmonton Park. Interestingly, the photograph behind my head depicts operators from the 1920s in Edmonton… who upon closer inspection also have faux-bobs like myself. Visit Fort Edmonton yourself to investigate my claim!  Furthermore it should be noted, I wasn’t a pretend operator: that machine actually connects 15 working phones within the park! (No, I will never stop plugging the park. It is a magical place full of history and wonder.)

Resources for 1920s fashion and style:

  • series on the development of fashion in the 1910s and 1920s: The History of the Flapper, Part 1: A Call for FreedomPart 2: Makeup Makes a Bold EntrancePart 3: The Rectangular Silhouette, and finally Part 4: Emboldened By the Bob. See also: The Rebellious Roll Garters
  • Photo Detective series on the many varieties of bobbed hair.
  • An extensive online collection of Canadian Mail Order Catalogues is available for viewing in PDF format via Library and Archives Canada. This is an incredible resource for those interested in historical fashions and material culture. They are also key word searchable. You’d be amazed at what you can find in these catalogues. Exercise instructions and music on records from the 1920s! Early deodorant brands like Odorono! And of course amazing fashion styles – they always begin with women’s fashions.
  • In case my instructions weren’t very easy to visualize, here are a few Youtube tutorials that may come in handy: a rag curl tutorial (for those attempting traditional Regency curls or the Mary Pickford look, or, alternatively, have broken hair curling irons) and a finger wave tutorial.
  • Further 1920s long hair tutorials, including faux finger waves. Bonus: silent-film style instruction cards in their videos.
  • Mary Pickford biography via Library and Archives Canada.
  • Mary Pickford: from the ‘girl with the curls’ to ‘woman’s woman’ via Silent London.
  • Why I Have Not Bobbed Mine” by Mary Pickford in which she justifies convincingly the advantages of long hair. This page also includes stories from other women with bobbed hair, either for or against, but always acknowledging that it was no easy decision to go forward with shorn locks.
  • The Virtual Gramophone, Library and Archives Canada’s collection of historical sound recordings, which include popular songs from the 1920s. For example, why not check out Yes! We Have No Bananas? and of course Shall I Have It Bobbed Or Shingled? Many if not all are downloadable, so coupled with the music that industrious people have uploaded onto Youtube, you now have a soundtrack for your 1920s themed dance party!
  • Speaking of which: Charleston tutorials on Youtube! (Uh, I may have gone overboard in this set of links? You’re not complaining, are you?)
    • Here’s a historical tutorial (beginning at about 1:00, after the demo) from the time period, in which they go through the steps in slow motion. Also includes a video of a couple dancing the Charleston on top of a taxi cab. Shenanigans!
    • Dance Move Fridays: The Charletson: honestly, I find these guys a little bit annoying: they say that the Charleston is from the 1940s! Shock and horror! But they admit that they’re not historians, just dancing fiends. Nevertheless, their tutorial is very clear and they do have some sweet moves. Edit: wait, I take back my first comment. They grow on you, particularly as yous see how much fun they’re having dancing.
    • How To Charleston: this woman is very methodical in teaching a variety of moves, going from the basic butterfly knees (yes, from the 1920s! And considered obscene at the time!) to the more complicated steps. She doesn’t quite manage the full twist in the step in the end (not like in the Dance Move Fridays guys do), but I find that her video was very helpful in letting me know where I should be putting my weight as I do that step.
    • How to Charleston 1920s style – Lesson 1 (Solo Charleston):  this dapper man hints at the many varieties of Charleston moves, and teaches the solo Charleston as well as partnered versions of the dance.
    • Honestly, there are so many dancing tutorials on youtube. I feel like that’s almost the site’s true calling. You can spend hours going through various videos. Happy dancing, fashionable ladies!