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Retro Hair (and no, I don't mean the 1980s) and You

In the spring of 2013, I came across a dilemma when school groups were visiting the Museum. Our staff would often dress in costume, sometimes as an Immigration Officer or Red Cross Nurse, but unfortunately, the costumes were mostly one size fits all. Being the Education Coordinator, I deliver workshops and am sometimes in the exhibition helping with groups in different ways; I didn't want to miss out on the costumed fun!

As I tried to figure out a way that I could wear a costume, I stumbled across some pictures from when I was a teenager and all the different hairstyles I had had. That's when the idea struck to start doing my hair in retro styles! Clothes and makeup were a whole other story, as luckily many articles of my clothing already had a retro feel to them.

When groups would visit, especially if those groups were dressed in costume, I would do my hair in a retro hairstyle and wear an era-appropriate dress (the style depending on the decade I wanted to capture, of course) and tag along with the group.

It wasn't too long after I started doing this that I was approached by staff at the Museum to show them how to do the styles as well, so I ran a small workshop for staff one morning in late spring.

A group of ladies wearing dresses and make-up show their old-fashioned hair styles.

Afterwards, it was brought to my attention that the public might like to participate in a similar workshop for our Discover Culture program. So in November of 2013, right around Remembrance Day I presented a workshop for the public on an iconic 1940s look, Victory Rolls, in honour of the war brides who came to Canada to join their Canadian soldier husbands.

I can say without a doubt, that the response we received to that particular Discover Culture was almost overwhelming. I had no idea that it would garner the attention that it did from the public and even the media (I'm still a little shocked about being on the front page of The Chronicle Herald, and it was months ago!)

I write this post today because I still get asked about how I do my hair, and for the most part, people think it's difficult to style. Really, it's not; like anything, it just takes some practice! Before we get into how you can do your own retro hairstyle, I want to answer the question, why did I teach only Victory Rolls?

Well first of all, I must apologize to the gentlemen of the world. Unfortunately, to style your hair in a retro style it must be cut a certain way. If you hair is not cut in that particular fashion, the best I can do is to tell you to slather it with pomade or gel and then comb and part it on the side.

Back to Victory Rolls, I chose the rolls because they are a recognizable look of the 1940s. The look is so connected with that time period that if you wear your hair in that style, people know you are emulating the 1940s. Did all women wear their hair this way? No. When people think of today's looks, they will often think of long, wavy hair or maybe one side of the head shaved. Does everyone wear their hair this way? Of course not.

One aspect that hairstyles in the 1940s had in common was curls. If you hair wasn't naturally curly, you would get a perm to help hold your hairstyles or you would set your hair in rollers, rags or pin curls to get the waves and curls needed.

So again, what's so special about Victory Rolls?

Well, during the Second World War, many women in North America were taking over jobs normally held by men. While this is wonderful, what should be remembered is that then, just like now, Hollywood had a large effect on how people, especially young women, wanted to look. One of the big actresses of the time was Veronica Lake. Ms. Lake had long blonde hair that waved over one eye. Very glamourous, very femme fatale! Women wanted to look like Ms. Lake but were working with machinery. If their hair got caught, it could be a very dangerous situation. Women wanted to be beautiful while working but it was unsafe to have long hair in their faces, obstructing their view. Veronica Lake was approached to make a short film to encourage ladies to wear their hair up. Ms. Lake's hair was styled with rolls that created a “V” shape at the back of her head. With a famous celebrity wearing this hairstyle, working women soon followed and rolled their hair.

The story behind the name, however, has many origins. Some state Victory Rolls are named for the flight manoeuvres of fighter planes, some say they are named for the “V” shape created (at the back of the head if all the hair is rolled, but at the front of the head if only the front is rolled). It may also be due to patriotism.

One thing is for certain, Victory Rolls are popular and can be seen everywhere from street styles to celebrities, even today!

But how does one style their hair in Victory Rolls? Well that part is easy and I've provided a few steps with illustration here, and a video clip at the bottom of this blog post. Just a warning, in the video, I tease my hair for some of my rolls. I advocate teasing the hair when it's done properly. Many believe teasing the hair means creating a knotty mess, but when done properly, it can be easily combed back to normal. The written tutorial below uses hair rats; they are much easier for beginners and avoid teasing the hair all together.

What you will need:

  • hair brush
  • rat tail comb
  • barrettes or hair clips
  • bobby pins
  • hairspray (if needed)
  • curlers or curling iron (if needed)
  • hair rat (not an actual rat; if you can find a mesh bun donut, get one and cut it into 3 pieces)

Step 1.a

Curl your hair. This is optional, but you might find it easier to roll your hair after having curled it. You can use a curling iron, or you can set your hair in curlers. I usually do a standard set, rolling hair towards the back of my head on top, and rolling my hair downwards, to curl under, everywhere else. For rolls, the direction of the curl isn't as important as it would be for a different style.

A face of a lady with curlers in her hair, illustration.

Step 1.b

Brush your hair!

Step 2.

Using a rat tail comb, section your hair into 3 parts. Because you are starting out, I would suggest parting your hair in the middle and then making a section on either side of that part, from behind your ear to your face. The last part is the back. In the video clip, I do a side part; I often part my hair on the side. There is no strict rule on parting, but as mentioned, if you are just a beginner, part in the middle. If you have bangs, keep them separate from the sections of hair (you won't be rolling them).

A sketch of a woman with her hair in three sections.

Step 3.

Take one section of hair and hold it away from your head at about a 45 degree angle; take your hair rat and roll your hair towards your head with the hair rat, as if you were using a roller instead.

A sketch showing another step of the hairstyle process.

Step 4.

Secure with one bobby pin at the back of the roll and one bobby pin at the front. Don't worry if it feels a little loose; right now the pins are there just to hold the roll. You can go back later and tighten it up or move the roll position.

Put a bobby pin back of the roll and one pin at the front.

Step 5.

Repeat steps 3 and 4 on the opposite side. Fix your rolls and add more pins; pull on the hair gently to cover the hair rat. Spray with hairspray if needed.

Step 6.

If you have any flowers or bows, you can use them to cover any flaws in your rolls, or just for decoration!

A face of a lady with a red flower in her hair, illustration.

For now, it's easiest to leave the back down; if you have really long hair, you can pull that remaining hair into a ponytail and curl the ends, or you could put it in a bun on the back of your head.

There are many variations of Victory Rolls out there, and there is no “correct” way to make them (so don't be intimidated by the many tutorials out there!).

Over time, you might be able to accomplish much more intricate styles, involving finger waves, rolls, spit curls and much more, but it all rests on the three P's: Patience, Practice and Planning.

As with any new skill, practice, practice, practice! Trying something new takes time, so be patient and plan how much time you will need to practice this hairstyle. Planning is a must, and in no time you will be a pro at making rolls.

I hope to see more retro hairstyles around the city (and across Canada) soon!