The 1930s witnessed a change in hairstyles from the androgynous, boyish flapper look of the twenties to both soft and hard feminine curls combed in sleek up-swept hairdos, sophisticated shapes and elegant zigzags. Women all over the world were copying the Hollywood stars wearing ringlets and full, lush deep waves. It was in 1938 that Shirley Temple, the muse of a whole ringlet generation, sported her famous curls in the movie “Little Miss Broadway” and Bette Davis wore ringlets in “Jezebel.”


After a decade of curls and more curls, 1938 summarized the best of coiffure trends and previewed what 1940s hairstyles would look like. Some women wore their hair smooth at the crown to accommodate large-brimmed or high hats tilted to one side. Others had curls framing the face and the ends or gave volume to their hairdos by adding soft, lush waves. Many of the styles required hair pulled back into an array of small curls on the neckline, secured with hairpins. This was an era of sophistication and elegance. Every hair had to be in place.

The Most Popular Hairstyles in 1938

A Universal newsreel from 1938 shows Joseph, a hairstylist in the Helena Rubinstein salon, reproducing a few of the new push-up coiffures. The first one, inspired by actress Danielle Derrieux’s appearance in “The Rage of Paris,” required brushing hair upward on the sides and catching it on the top in little ringlets in various designs and shapes. Another hairstyle brought back the hairdo of mid-19th-century Empress Eugenie, who popularized a center-parted hair dressed in long ringlets. An adaptation of 1780s curly updos with hair ornaments variations followed; and as for the younger generation, Joseph recommended a curly style inspired by Rembrandt’s models.

Ringlets and Waves

Dating back from the silent movie screen stars, ringlets became popular thanks to Shirley Temple, a trend setter not only for women, but also for little girls’ dress-up fashion. This hairdo required wrapping the hair around the finger and tying it up with soft rag scraps.

Some women went for the Greta Garbo look, styling their medium-length hair with finger waves. The coiffures were parted in the middle and pulled back and up on the sides to form a roll, while the back was rolled under or knit together in tight sausage cluster curls. Also popular in 1938 was hair pulled back into one roll with the back turned up either or under.

Cold Perm and Color

In 1938, Arnold F. Willat invented the cold wave perm, the precursor of the modern perm. Unlike previous systems, it required no machine and no heat. In the salon, the hairdresser wrapped the hair on rods and applied a reduction lotion of ammonium thioglycolate, also known as perm salt. Even today, the cold perm is the most popular method for permanent waves and suitable for nearly all types of hair.

Inspired by glamorous movie stars like Jean Harlow, bolder women were leaving the salons with more than a curly updo, their glamorous look completed with a light shade of platinum blond.