Posted in Fashion History, Film, Historical Hair and Make-up, History, Mrs Beeton, Vintage, World War Two

Women’s Hair & Beauty In The 1930s

Grandmother favoured a braided hair style with deep 'waves' framing the face.
©Come Step Back in Time. My Grandmother who was a hairdresser in the 1930s. She wears her hair in a popular style of the period, braided with deep ‘waves’ to frame the face.

I am fifteen years of age and attend West Kensington Central School. I live in Shepherds Bush at present and have done all my life. I have fair hair, blue eyes and am about 5ft 2 inches in height. I like school very much but I do not like going home in the evenings to a lot of homework. It is my ambition to be a hairdresser but my parents are very doubtful and prefer the Civil Service. I am fond of sports, hockey and tennis in particular. My chief dislike is housework, cooking, sewing and other duties I do not dislike but I can never force myself to do housework with a good heart. My best subject at school is maths, and at this I make progress but French on the other hand is my weakest. I think I have a few good qualities but I am afraid to think of my bad ones in case they outrun the good. I am very determined to get a thing if I have set my heart on it, but on the other hand I am obstinate.

My Grandmother The Society Hairdresser

The above extract is from an essay written by my late grandmother in 1931 when she was just fifteen.  The self-confessed ‘obstinate’ streak served her well, rejecting her parents’ wish that she join the Civil Service and instead leaving school at sixteen to train as a hairdresser.  The Headmistress of her School in West Kensington was not best pleased, after all she was practically top of her class in mathematics and could pick from a wide range of employment options.

My grandmother as a young girl in the late 1920s.
©Come Step Back in Time. My grandmother as a young girl in the late 1920s.

My late grandmother knew what she wanted to be and didn’t waste any time in embarking upon her career choice. She enjoyed a highly successful, albeit relatively short, career as a society hairdresser in London. By the end of the 1930s, now in her early twenties, she was managing one of the top hair and beauty salons in Mayfair. This exclusive Square Mile meant her clients were a mix of wealthy business people and stars from the entertainment industry.

Grandmother striking a film star pose in the 1930s.
©Come Step Back in Time. Grandmother striking a film star pose in the 1930s.

During a recent trawl through our family archives, which are currently kept by my Aunt, we discovered a pile of old papers belonging to my grandmother. Imagine our thrill when we noticed some of her original business cards from the 1930s sticking-out from the bundle. The address on the front is not the salon address but her home address in Shepherds Bush. In addition to her work at the salon she also had a number of private clients.

Grandmother's original business cards from the 1930s.
©Come Step Back in Time. Grandmother’s original business cards from the 1930s.

World War II interrupted the working lives of many women including my grandmother. Hairdressers were known to have very nimble fingers and as such were often asked to contribute towards the war effort by working in the munitions factories. My grandmother decided that this was not for her (perhaps the obstinate streak rearing its head once more) and following her marriage to my late grandfather in 1940, they moved to Essex.

My grandparents on their wedding day in 1940. My grandmother wore a blue satin bias cut wedding gown.
©Come Step Back in Time. My grandparents on their wedding day in 1940. My grandmother wore a blue satin bias cut wedding gown.

Until my mother was born in 1944, grandmother continued to work as a hairdresser, managing another salon in Galleywood, near Chelmsford. If she were alive today, I often wonder what she would think of all the permatans, vajazzles and hair extensions. Although, to be honest I would like to think she would be quite amused by it all really.

35.1 Marjorie Robinson
©Come Step Back in Time My late grandmother on Hythe beach, Kent in the 1930s.

During her time working at the Mayfair salon, grandmother acquired quite a star-studded client list including: Pamela Mason, James Mason, Dame Anna Neagle, Margaret Lockwood, Sylvia Sims and the Head of United Artistes Pictures and his wife. The salon contained a series of discrete, individual cubicles, inside of which the glamorous and wealthy were primped and preened, whilst outside the chauffeur paraded up and down the pavement exercising the Pekingese. Clients would often bring their own perfumes stored in elaborately designed glass defusers. Once the hairstyle had been set my grandmother would spray the hair with these expensive French scents.

Some of the more high-profile clients did not wish to come to the salon, so a chauffeur driven car would be sent to pick my grandmother up and take her to the client’s house or apartment.  One story that my mother told me, is that on one of these home visits my grandmother had been asked to style a lady’s hair and manicure her nails in readiness for a VIP party to be held at their house that evening. The party was to honour the lady’s birthday and her husband (who worked in the film industry) had the doors to all of the rooms in the house removed and replaced with gold-plated gates. This Kardashianesque display did not end there, the house had also been filled with a variety of ‘props’ including fountains and sculptures. The whole house was turned into a Hollywood film-set, very far-removed from a townhouse in central London. The lady told my grandmother that she envied her life, which surprised grandmother somewhat. The lady went on to explain that she could have anything she wanted but nothing really had a value because she didn’t feel that she had earned the money to pay for it herself. The envy stemmed from the fact that my grandmother was independent and everything she brought she had to earn the money before she could purchase it. As they say, ‘all that glitters is not gold’.

Key Hair Trends Of The 1930s

  • Video clip from Olympia’s Health and Beauty Fair of 1938 shows complex pin-curl hair styling. CLICK HERE.  
  • Video clip from the International Hairdressing Exhibition in Paris, 1933. A deep ‘wave’ and pin-curl extravaganza. CLICK HERE.
  • Video clip showing a British hairdresser re-creating the fashionable ‘Mingle’ haircut from 1931, a mix of ‘waves’ and curls with hair accessories. CLICK HERE.

Hairstyles in the early 1930s contained influences carried over from the 1920s. For the ladies, ‘bobs’ and variations on the boyish ‘shingle’ were still popular. Long bobs with demi-waves were fashionable towards the middle of the decade influenced perhaps by Hollywood starlets.  Some of the newer trends included bold ‘waves’, flat pin-curls, perms and sets. Apparently, my grandmother was a particular fan of deep ‘waves’ and used a sugar and water solution on the hair to aid setting. She also liked braids pinned across the front of the head in such a manner so as to frame the face. Earlier this year, this ’30s trend came back again, minus the deep ‘waves’ of course.

41.1 Marjorie Robinson
©Come Step Back in Time

My mother remembers my grandmother styling ‘waves’ well into the1950s. However, by this time she was using heated electric tongs to create the look. In those days thermostat controls on electrical hair appliances were pretty temperamental and in order to avoid singeing the hair, she would hold the flex and swing the tongs backwards and forwards to help them to cool before beginning styling.

1930s fashion for curls pinned on one side.
1930s fashion for curls pinned on one side.

Towards the end of the 1930s, curls were a key trend. Whether worn loose or tight they were often piled-up on the top of the head or to one side and accompanied with a slight, sweeping fringe. By the outbreak of World War II in 1939, curls featured less on the top of the head and more often at the ends of hair, which was now worn longer. Many women who entered war work cut their hair short or covered it using a variety of practical headwear, particularly scarves.

41.2 Marjorie Robinson
©Come Step Back in Time

1930s Make-up & Beauty Influences

During the 1920s, beauty regimens and application of make-up had been mostly the preserve of starlets, theatricals, bright young things and wealthy aristocrats who were fortunate enough to have a personal maid assist them with its preparation and application. The 1920s is the decade when suntanned skin became acceptable and fashionable. Achieving a tan was now much easier, thanks to the rise in popularity of outdoor pursuits such as sunbathing, PT, swimming, cycling and tennis.

In 1930, Mary Bagot Stack (1885-1935) created the Women’s League of Health and Beauty which followed on from the success of the London-based Bagot Stack Health School, which she had opened in 1925. The Women’s League of Health and Beauty (now known as the Fitness League) was very popular and enabled women to exercise, en-mass, in public places wearing their gym clothes. All without breaking any of the social codes and conventions imposed upon women at that time. I found this short clip of the WLHB exercising in a park in 1937. CLICK HERE.

The film industry, particularly in America, played a significant role in popularising make-up and beauty products in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. Prior to the introduction of Eastman Kodak’s panchromatic film stock in 1926, black and white films were made with blue-sensitive film. This type of film stock was sensitive to the blue-violet end of the visible spectrum and insensitive  to the yellow-red end. The consequences for the actress with blonde hair, blue eyes and painted red lips would be that she appeared on-screen with very light hair, white eyes and black lips. Thick, ghostly pale, pan stick or greasepaint would be applied to smooth-out skin imperfections and on top of that plenty of blending powder, finished-off with shading to accentuate eye sockets, jawbones and prominent facial features. Without such make-up techniques the actor or actress would be completely washed-out on-screen due to the harsh lighting and blue-sensitive film.

Following the introduction of sound, studio lighting changed. In 1927, arc lamps were replaced with tungsten lamps, make-up styles had to change once more to accommodate this new lighting.  Film stock became increasingly more sophisticated, resulting in higher definition of facial features and the revealing of a wider range of skin tones in the finished print. In 1931, Eastman Kodak introduced their Super-Sensitive Cine Panchromatic stock which was sensitive to the full colour spectrum. The use of greasepaint was no longer required and actors were encouraged not to wear any make-up unless they were playing a character role. This did not go down well at the time.

However, leading make-up artists of the day such as Percival Westmore (1904-1970) who was Head of the Warner Brothers Make-up Department and the team at Max Factor embraced the changes. These artistic Titans spotted a gap in the market for a range of everyday beauty and make-up products suitable for both starlet and shopgirl. The House of Westmore were the first to successfully launch their own beauty product range which soon gained popularity with women on both sides of the Atlantic.

The 1930s is where you begin to see early examples of celebrity endorsement of beauty and make-up products. Bette Davis, Merle Oberon and Olivia de Havilland were often to be found in magazine advertisements promoting the Westmore brand. The beauty industry really took-off in America and Britain in the 1930s and the influence of cinema in creating this thriving market should not be underestimated.

Advertisement for Coty beauty products from 1935.
Advertisement for Coty beauty products from 1935.

Rose Laird – An American Beauty Pioneer

The product range my grandmother used in her London salon was by American beauty pioneer Rose Laird.  Rose’s story is a fascinating one and a great example of reaching for and succeeding at achieving the American dream. Rose was born c.1877 in Philadelphia to Glover Glaser, a chemist. After leaving school, she enrolled as a student nurse, specialising in diseases of the skin, at the skin clinic of Jefferson Hospital. Following her marriage to F. Raymond Laird, an inventor, the couple enjoyed both financial success and significant hardship.

Rose wanted to become a dermatologist but this was at a time when female medical professionals were as rare as hen’s teeth. Realising that this was not an option, she brought a one-way ticket to New York and with only $26 in her pocket she embarked upon her dream of setting-up her own cosmetics company.  Upon arrival, she lodged in a cheap hotel and searched the city for a one-room office which she eventually found at West 31st Street. Her new business premises only had hot and cold water and a wash bowl and was certainly not in a suitable state to begin trading in facials and shampoos. She managed to source a second-hand barber’s chair and worked hard to make the small room look respectable and hygienic.

Rose’s first client was the wife of a physician friend of her father.  Her aim was to give massages and shampoos along scientific principles that would hopefully freshen skin and bring radiance to the hair. Her first consultation was a great success and recommendations came quickly, ensuring that she raised enough funds to pay the first month’s rent on her new premises. Further clients in her early days included financier Thomas Fortune Ryan (1851-1928) and his wife who then in turn recommended Rose to their circle of friends which included the author Mark Twain (1835-1910), financier H. H. Rogers (1840-1909) and politician and composer Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941). The business was an instant success and Rose’s client base widened to include, theatricals, opera singers and the higher echelons of New York society.  Alongside her treatments, Rose sold jars of creams and bottles of lotions which she had mixed herself based upon formulas passed down by her father.

It wasn’t long before she outgrew her one-room premises and moved into a purpose-built beauty and hair salon elsewhere in the city. The business continued to expand and she opened a salon in London. Whether this salon was the same one that my late grandmother managed in the 1930s, we cannot be sure but it is a strong possibility. My mother tells me that Rose Laird was her mother’s product of choice throughout her life and she did not like using other brands. Rose Laird said of cosmetics and beauty products:

Cosmetics are mere aids to beauty, which results from proper care of diet and of the circulation and skin; from scalp to toenails. There is nothing more important to man or woman than a good appearance. It creates self-confidence and self-respect, removes inferiority complexes, makes women good wives, mothers, sweethearts and socially productive human beings.

Beauty Tips From The Popular Press Of The 1930s

Magazines and newspapers at the time were crammed full of tips and hints on re-creating a movie star’s hair or make-up as well as general advice, mostly to women, on how to ‘keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved’. There was also a fixation with diet, exercise and maintaining a slim figure. The fashions of the period were not very forgiving, only the sveltest of young ladies could carry-off the flounces, frills or satin bias cut dresses. Here are some of my favourite quotes:

  • ‘A Continental treatment which is being given in London is intended to take away tired lines and wrinkles, especially from beneath the eyes. Heavy eye pads, soaked in lotion, are put over the eyes, and while the “patient” rests, an orange light plays over her wrinkles. It has the effect of ironing out the tired lines and leaving her rested for the day.’;
  • ‘An Evening Cocktail – If you have remembered to bring your tube of liquefying cleansing cream, your handbag flask of eau-de-cologne or astringent, your rouge compact and powder, you can give yourself a facial “cocktail” in five minutes at the end of the day and emerge fresh and fragrant for the evening’s amusement.’;
  • ‘Have You A Film Face? – She has a pale skin of fine texture which needs the minimum of make-up. Her hair is auburn – not platinum blonde – and has wonderfully effective lights and shadows. Her eyes are dark and sparkling, set rather wide apart, and her brow is low and broad. White, perfectly even teeth are almost essential. But the shape of the mouth does not matter very much, provided it is not ultra wide, for new mouths can very easily be sketched in with lipsticks. A delicate nose, no matter whether retroussé or Roman, a clear profile, long neck and well-poised head complete my perfect film beauty.’;
  • ‘Curls in Wet Weather – If you will damp you hair with a little setting lotion, before doing it up in curlers at night, your curls should last.’;
  • ‘Lashes like Joan Crawford – Q: ‘I would do anything to make my eyelashes grow like Joan Crawford’s. What would you do in the circumstances?’ – A: ‘Rub a little castor oil into the roots of the lashes each night for three months.’;
  • Make-up advice – pale skin, wear natural powder, rose-pink rouge and light-red lipstick. Olive skin, wear brunette rouge and dark red lip salve.;
  • Advice from Mrs Beeton’s Everyday Cookery from 1936: ‘If the finger nails have become stained or discoloured in any way they should be soaked in a pint of warm water containing a dessertspoonful of lemon-juice. If the nails are very brittle, it is a good plan to dip them for a few minutes each day in lukewarm sweet oil’;
  • ‘Draggly ends left by a brushed-up hairstyle can be curled into little ringlets. This looks much prettier.’
    My late grandmother who was a hairdresser and beautician in the 1930s.
    Copyright, Come Step Back in Time. My late grandmother. This photograph was taken in the 1940s when Victory rolls were all the fashion in hair styling.



Social historian, based in the UK.

7 thoughts on “Women’s Hair & Beauty In The 1930s

  1. Hi,

    I would be interested to find out which Mayfair salon your grandmother ran – was it rare for a woman to be working as a hairdresser in Mayfair at this time?


    1. Hi Kim,

      Apologies for the delay in getting back to you. Unfortunately, we don’t know the name, a couple have been suggested to me but we have no firm evidence as to which one, if either, were managed by my grandmother. My grandmother passed away in the 1970s so we are just relying on my own research efforts as well as information supplied by my mother and my elderly great aunt. If we do ever find name of the salon I will be sure to let you know. Kind regards. Emma:)


  2. Hi..I found your article fascinating. My mother, born in 1917 was articled for three years to a Mayfair hairdresser. At the same time a young man, Raymond , and his sister Marguerite were also working there. Raymond set up on his own, he later became “mr.teasy weazy” and my mother worked for him in his Mayfair salon until 1939 whe she got married to my father, who didn’t want her to work anymore.
    My mother died three years ago at the age of 94 and often talked about that time to me and my daughters. I still have her first pair of her scissors.
    Carole Meghriche.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Carole, thank-you so much for your lovely and fascinating comment. What an incredible story. I wonder whether your mother and my grandmother ever knew one another? Be wonderful if they did. I haven’t been able to find the name of the salon grandma worked at and sadly she died in the early 1970s when I was a toddler. I thank-you so much for getting in touch with your story. I have just relayed it to my mother who was very touched by your comments. It really is a small world sometimes. Many kind regards. Emma.


    2. Hi Carole. I’m truly fascinated to read your comment as I’m currently researching my late grandfather’s life, who also worked for Raymond Bessone. While I know much about my grandfather’s life as a hairdresser from 1954 onwards, I’m trying to fill in some blanks before that and I wondered if you’d possibly help. From what you’ve said, you may well hold a piece or two of my research jigsaw! My grandfather was born in 1914 in Kensington and was listed as a hairdresser on his marriage certificate of 1938. I have a few photos that I need help identifying, so perhaps you’ll be able to help?


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