Women’s hairstyles of the 1950s were generally short, soft and curled. While these styles may seem relatively simple, they required significant amounts of work to create. Women often had their hair professionally styled, then kept the same curls for several days at a time. Several basic techniques worked to create curl, texture and height.
The shampoo set, or shampoo and set, is an old-fashioned way of curling the hair, developed before the advent of the home hairdryer. Women in the 1950s often went to the salon to have their hair professionally shampooed, conditioned and wound on rollers. Stylists then treated the hair with hairspray or other products and dried it under a large, industrial hairdryer. Larger rollers produced a softer curl, while smaller ones produced a tight curl. Women would cover their hair at night and sleep on it carefully to preserve the set for several days.
Similar to the shampoo set, the overnight curl used rollers and hairspray or mousse, but could be done at home. Women put their hair up into curlers of the appropriate size after washing, then slept on the curlers to allow the hair to dry in a proper shape. Overnight curl sets were less expensive, but often produced a less professional result, since stylists had access to more detailed curl patterns. Sleeping in curlers could be very uncomfortable until the advent of soft foam rollers. According to the Encyclopedia of Hair, very large rollers, or even soda cans, were used to create the bouffant styles of the late 1950s.
Some women had their hair permanently curled, instead of using curlers or going to the salon for regular curl sets. The permanent wave was originally developed in the 1930s, and by the 1950s, was available both at salons and in home kits. This process was more complex and took longer than perm technology developed later in the century. It also still required women to curl their hair, since the perm didn’t offer a desirable sculpted look.
Pin curling was popular from the 1920s up through the 1950s, and involved using bobby pins to hold small locks of hair in tight curls against the head. Like overnight curling with rollers, pin curling required women to wash their hair and sleep in the curl set. Pin curls are tighter and more spiral-shaped than curls set with rollers, and were often placed around the front of the head and as part of the bangs. Women frequently combined pin curls with other types of curls to create the desired texture.
As the 1950s progressed, and larger hairstyles such as the bouffant became popular, women began to backcomb or tease their hair. This technique involves combing the hair back in the opposite direction of the strand, creating fine, fluffy tangles near the scalp. These lift the hair above them, giving it volume, especially when combined with hairspray and other hold products. Backcombing can damage the hair over time by abrading it, and often creates split ends and breakage.
References and ResourcesFifties Web; Hairstyles and Makeup; Candace Rich
The Salon Bordeaux: How to Tease (Backcomb) Hair
"The Sunday Times"; Making Waves; Helen Brown; October 14, 2007
"The 1950s"; William H. Young et al; 2004
"Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History"; Victoria Sherrow; 2006