Never a Bad Hair Day: Memorable Movie Hairstyles, ‘dos, and Cuts

en-ickfordLast week, I was reminded of Louise Brooks when someone on Facebook noted that it was her birthday. As a film historian, I should have immediately recalled her best films—Pandora’s Box, A Girl in Every Port, Diary of a Lost Girl. Instead, my first thought was:  “Great hair.”

A good haircut can be more than mere fashion or part of a glamorous appearance. It can also connote something about a character’s persona, and in some cases, tap into a larger social significance. While some male film stars have sported distinctive-looking styles (Elvis’s ducktail, Yul Brynner’s bald pate, Johnny Depp’s dreadlocks), hair is more obviously part of the identities of female characters and stars. For example, I have seen films in which a female character’s hair is shorn, shaved, or chopped off in order to extinguish or obliterate her individuality or sense of self. When I was a little girl, I watched the WWII drama 5 Branded Women, directed by Martin Ritt. The story follows five women who are accused of sleeping with the Nazis. As part of their punishment, a group of partisan men chop off their hair, obliterating their sense of femaleness and scarring them as outcasts. The film scared me, because I found the act so brutal—like destroying someone’s personal identity as a way to control or punish them.

Brooks's cut was called the Shingle Bob, meaning it was shorter in the back.


While reflecting on novel and influential hair styles in the movies, I dismissed those hair do’s that are used for comic effect or to ridicule a character, such as Glenn Close’s doppelganger ‘do in the live-action 101 Dalmatians in which one side of her hair is white and the other black. Nor, did I consider hair-dos designed to deliberately de-glamourize a character, as in Demi Moore’s shocking buzz cut in G.I. Jane.  With that in mind, here are my candidates for most memorable movie ‘do’s. Feel free to add your own choices.

Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box.  The short Bob that Brooks sports in Pandora’s Box and other films was not created for her, but her sexually liberated screen characters fit the connotation of this controversial haircut. The Bob’s popularity is often attributed to ballroom dancer Irene Castle, who debuted the style in 1915. Apparently, Irene adopted the Castle Bob simply because it was convenient, but the cut became associated with the new liberating social values that followed in the wake of women winning the right to vote in 1920. The cut was a drastic departure from the long, feminine locks made popular by Dana Gibson and M. Marcel Grateau, and it appealed to bold women and flappers, who also wore long beads, short skirts, and rolled stockings. On May 1, 1920, the Saturday Evening Post published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” in which a sweet young thing is transformed into a smooth-talking vamp after she cuts her hair. The story seemed to capture the dangers posed to women who dared cut their hair, and various organizations voiced their opposition to the haircut. Clergy warned their parishioners that a bobbed-hair woman is the same as a loose woman.  Men reportedly divorced their wives because of their bobbed hair.  And, a prominent department store fired any employee who wore her hair bobbed.

Fonda rocks the Shag in KLUTE.


Mary Pickford in Pollyanna. Brooks’s Bob can be taken as a reaction to the long curls of the previous era as represented by Mary Pickford. Known as America’s Sweetheart, Pickford became a star playing adolescent girls with boundless energy and an indefatigable spirit. She excelled as a physical actor, who tussled, tumbled, climbed, fell, and moved with a natural ease and grace. In addition to being full of life, her characters were often crusaders or defenders of the oppressed.  Her blonde hair, which fell in long curls over her shoulders and down her back, became a signifier of her youth, innocence, and an earlier time and place when life had been simpler.  Pickford’s hairstyle had been popular during the Victorian Era when curly hair was thought to indicate a sweet disposition. After her mother died in 1928, and in an effort to age into more mature roles, Pickford cut her hair into a Bob, which made the front page of The New York Times. The public did not respond well to the new Pickford, who was introduced in the film Coquette. She retired from acting in 1933.

Jane Fonda in Klute. My favorite hairstyle of all time is the Shag sported by Jane Fonda in Klute. A shag is a cut that has been layered to various lengths. The version that was popular when Klute was released was created by barber Paul McGregor who intended it as a unisex cut. The layers were feathered at the top and sides so that the crown looked full while the hair at the sides was fringed. Fonda plays call girl Bree Daniels in Klute, who seems to be liberated by her choice of occupation, which gives her financial and emotional control. Her short hair, which runs counter to the long or overdone ‘do’s of typical calls girls, fits her aura of independence.

Mia Farrow starts a trend with the help of Vidal Sassoon.


Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.  Rosemary is a timid little housewife in Rosemary’s Baby until her husband sells his soul for success at his wife’s expense. After conceiving a child, Rosemary grows suspicious of her husband’s actions and her neighbors’ interest in her pregnancy. She is weary of their constant interference, and she asserts herself by changing her hairstyle from a cute little pageboy to a more severe cut created by young Vidal Sassoon. Director Roman Polanski paid Sassoon $5,000 to cut Farrow’s long hair in front of reporters to generate publicity for the film. The characters in the film are shocked at her new hairstyle, prompting Rosemary to declare, “It’s Vidal Sassoon!” It’s very in.” Farrow’s very short but very hip ‘do created a sensation.

More blonde than blonde: Harlow in RED DUST.


Jean Harlow in Red Dust. Adhering to a Victorian-era trope, Hollywood writers and producers had generally cast dark-haired women to play the parts of vamps and vixens, but Jean Harlow altered that convention. The original Blonde Bombshell, Harlow was not always platinum in her films. But, she initially attracted her fan base with her platinum blonde hair. Legend has it that peroxide sales skyrocketed in America after Harlow burst onto the scene, though it was very easy for women to botch efforts to match her ultra-platinum color at home. Harlow’s star image was perfectly captured in the scene in Red Dust in which her character looks out a window during a typhoon, with her silver-white hair lightly blowing in the wind.

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  In 2011, hairdressers in Britain voted Audrey Hepburn’s up-‘do in Breakfast at Tiffany’s the most influential hairstyle of all time, though I don’t ever recall seeing women wearing this hairdo on a regular basis. However, combined with a little black dress and cigarette holder, it continues to be part of a popular costume at Halloween. Swept into a twist in the back, with a teased-up bouffant on the top, this style echoes the kind of hip sophistication that modern girl Holly Golightly signified. My favorite part of the style, which is most often ignored by those emulating it, is the skunking of the hair—that is, the streaks of blonde that highlight the overall dark color.



Temple and Her 56 Sausage Curls


Shirley Temple in Her 1930s Films. Called sausage curls, the tightly wound curls that Shirley Temple sported in her iconic musicals for Twentieth Century Fox were an essential part of her star image. Temple’s mother personally set her daughter’s hair so that the curls would always number 56.  Apparently, she developed the style because Shirley’s hair had a natural tendency to frizz. The curls accentuated Shirley’s boundless energy and optimism because they bounced and moved whenever she danced.

Peek-a-boo with Veronica Lake


Veronica Lake in Her Early 1940s Films. In the days of the Production Code when stars could be sultry but never sexual, hair and legs were often signifiers to subtly suggest that a female star had sex appeal. An example was Lake’s Peek-a-boo hairstyle in which her long blonde hair cascaded over the right side of her face. The style was not only flirtatious but it added an aura of mystery, which suited her characters in such film noirs as The Blue Dahlia, This Gun for Hire, and The Glass Key. During WWII, as part of the war effort, Lake changed her hairstyle. Managers of defense factories feared that Lake’s fans who adopted similar hairstyles would get their locks caught in machinery.

Kim Novak in Vertigo.  As Madeleine, the classy wife of a successful man, Novak wore her very blonde hair in a French twist, or chignon. The style was popular in the 1950s, an era when mature women deliberately cultivated European glamor and sophistication in their hair and clothing. In a chignon, the hair is pulled up into a ponytail, coiled close to the head, then secured with hair pins. During the 1950s, women wore the coil at the nape of the neck, like Madeleine does in Vertigo. The coil is akin to a spiral, which is a symbol that Hitchcock often borrowed from German Expressionists. The spiral symbolizes disorder or chaos.



Pam Grier as Foxy Brown


Pam Grier in Foxy Brown.  The Afro hairstyle stemmed from the cultural awareness that was generated in the wake of the civil rights movement. The Afro was a unisex, natural style worn by African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead of copying the long, straight hairstyles of the white mainstream, African Americans embraced their natural hair texture as a powerful statement of pride. Pam Grier, who played assertive female characters in Blaxploitation films, adopted a ‘fro in Foxy Brown, making a socio-political statement in the process.

25 Responses Never a Bad Hair Day: Memorable Movie Hairstyles, ‘dos, and Cuts
Posted By LD : November 18, 2013 12:17 pm

Although she worked mainly in television, Farrah Fawcett’s hair was what most women aspired to have during the 70′s.

Posted By ‘My favorite hairstyle of all time is the Shag sported by Jane Fonda in Klute’ : November 18, 2013 2:04 pm

[…] wrote about Jane Fonda’s hair in Klute at my old blog, saying the same thing. This article leaves out Bruce Lee’s male version of the same style, but is still a good overview of […]

Posted By Jenni : November 18, 2013 2:31 pm

A fun and interesting post, Susan. I immediately thought of Veronica Lake’s peek-a-boo hairstyle as I began to read your post. There’s a cute scene in The Major and the Minor when Ginger Rogers has to attend a dance at a military academy. She walks in and the girls from an all girls private school, who have been invited to the dance, are all sporting the Veronica Lake look, and all of them turn their heads and look at Ginger at the same time, sort of like a Busby Berkley choreographed head-turn. :)

Posted By Susan Doll : November 18, 2013 4:08 pm

Jenni: I remember that scene in THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR. Very cute.

LD: I thought about Fawcett but left her out, because, like you say, she was predominantly a television star, especially during her big-hair era.

Posted By Doug : November 18, 2013 5:34 pm

Shorthand for flashbacks-in films when a lady is ‘flashing back’ to her early adult days, she usually sports longer hair/braids to highlight how she has changed.
Susan, if you’d like to see a good Louise Brooks ‘Castle Bob’ being done currently, look for an excellent Australian TV production, “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”. Phryne Fisher in 1927 (or so) Australia is still wearing the bob with great flair. A very good show.
Can you think of any film where a Native American ‘squaw’ did NOT have braids? The hair is part of the identity, whether it is politically correct or not.
I must admit that as a guy, I’ve never noticed hairstyles as much as the faces that they frame.

Posted By Ken : November 18, 2013 5:53 pm

How about Bo Derek’s cornrows in the movie 10? I seem to recall that created a wave of people getting that style when the movie came out.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : November 18, 2013 5:53 pm

Great post! I also was traumatized by “5 Branded Women” way back when, same reason!

It’s also interesting in movies about nuns when they either get their hair cut or take off their habit veil to reveal their pixey cuts.

Also, which older women’s prison movie (the movie is older, not th women in the prison) the inmate gets her head shaved — maybe “Caged”? Always traumatic!

I seem to be obsessed with the losing of the hair, not the cute styles!

I agree about Louise Brooks — probably the most iconic slick hairdo around!

Posted By Carol E. : November 18, 2013 6:40 pm

Back in the ’60s a lot of women TRIED to wear the Breakfast at Tiffany’s style, but it was hard to pull off without a great head of hair. They sold rats you could use to roll your hair around–something like a bottle brush with no handle. We spent hours and hours on our hair in those bad old days.

Posted By FRANK SACK : November 18, 2013 7:07 pm


Posted By normadesmond : November 18, 2013 8:39 pm

kim’s “do” is more of a
french twist than a chignon.
a chignon is usually a bun
or gathering, lower on the head,
closer to the neck.

Posted By MA : November 18, 2013 11:12 pm

” . . . F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” in which a sweet young thing is transformed into a smooth-talking vamp after she cuts her hair.”

Actually, she’s a smooth-talking vamp before she cuts her hair–because she’s been tutored in social graces by her high-glam cousin. She’s more or less bullied into getting her hair bobbed because Marjorie, her cousin, doesn’t like how the men(one in particular) who used to swarm around her are now quite taken with Cousin Bernice. It certainly is an iconic “hair” moment, though, and was made into a very fine short film in the 70s with Shelley Duvall as Bernice.

Posted By Qalice : November 18, 2013 11:24 pm

Call out to Carol E — they use rats and all kinds of tricks in Hollywood, too. This post was really fun, and I love that you book-ended it with two of the most political hairstyles of the 20th century — the bob and the ‘fro!

Posted By Susan Doll : November 19, 2013 12:00 am

MA: I have not read “Bernice” so I was going by a description of it. It does sound like it fits the idea of the Bob, though.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 19, 2013 12:01 am

Ken: I had Bo Derek on the list momentarily but I HATED that hair do, so I deleted it.

Posted By Never a Bad Hair Day: Memorable Movie Hairstyles, ‘dos, and Cuts | New Castle County Delaware : November 19, 2013 12:16 am

[…] New Castle County Delaware Headlines […]

Posted By Maryann : November 19, 2013 1:02 am

One of my favorite was Shirley MacLaine’s pixie cut in The Apartment

Posted By Vincent : November 19, 2013 1:46 am

If you go back to the 1920s, most people then would have associated the page-boy ‘do or “Dutch bob” with Colleen Moore, not Louise Brooks, as Colleen was a far bigger star at the time. Brooks was a minor star to most Americans, and her stateside appeal was largely to the late ’20s equivalent of the art-house crowd. Jeez, you’d think folks would be aware of this by now.

Posted By Edward : November 19, 2013 2:03 am

How could you ignore Diane Keaton in Manhattan?

She made broken over permed hair a fashion statement copied by many. Annie Hall redefined the urban hipster.

Posted By swac44 : November 19, 2013 11:38 am

When I was a kid, the most influential hairdo around seemed to belong not to a movie star, but to figure skater Dorothy Hamill. Heck, even my sister had that haircut, which I guess was a blow-dried variation on a pageboy cut.

These days my tonsorial inspiration seems to be Grizzly Adams. Oh well, winter is coming…

Posted By Susan Doll : November 19, 2013 3:08 pm

Vincent: Having lived in Chicago for a long time, I am very aware of Colleen Moore, who donated her famous dollhouse to one of the museums there. If you read my post, you will note that I said nothing about Brooks’s popularity at the time, nor did I say she was responsible for the popularity of the Bob. I included her because it was recently her birthday, and she was the inspiration for the topic. And, in retrospect, her star image and reputation are better remembered than Moore’s.

Posted By swac44 : November 19, 2013 3:16 pm

And Brooksie certainly caused a sensation overseas, her influence beyond Hollywood shouldn’t be diminished. Although I adore Colleen Moore as well, I’ve only seen a handful of her films, but she’s a delight in them, and I was amused to see her later interviews in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood: The Pioneers where she was still sporting that bob! Or maybe it was a wig, who knows?

Posted By John Mundt, Esq. : November 20, 2013 5:26 am

If you are listing “memorable,” versus strictly “influential,” hair, I’d have to suggest Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia double-bun do. Talk about a perennial Halloween hairstyle!

Posted By Susan Doll : November 20, 2013 6:42 am

John Mundt: I once saw an old serial from the Golden Age. I can’t remember which one it was. I don’t think it was FLASH GORDON, but it was one of those mystery-spy serials. Anyway, one of the female characters (a secondary character) had the Princess Leia double-bun hair-do. I was bowled over. I always thought I would remember the serial because of this, but over the years, it has slipped my mind.

Posted By robbushblog : November 21, 2013 3:24 pm

My favorite probably is that Veronica Lake peekaboo style. It was sexy. And notice that her career was never the same after she changed that style. That may have been due to alcoholism too, but she didn’t do much after she changed her hair.

I also hate the Bo Derek cornrows. I love everything else about her, but I hate that look. I also hate that Jane Fonda Klute look. It’s really awful.

Posted By Laura Aram : November 27, 2013 8:51 pm

Clara Bow was another influential 20s trendsetter in the hair department, whether she wore her short, bobbed red hair curly or straight. It was spunky and fun, just like her on screen persona.

In addition, she wore shiny red lipstick to match. The bee stung lips were part of the “It Girl’s” appeal.

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