Vintage Hair Part 2 – Curls

You can’t do vintage or rockabilly hair without curls. In the 1940s and 50s straight hair just wasn’t done.


The straightest hair from the period can be seen on Veronica Lake, who had very fine hard to curl hair, so if this is you, don’t worry about it. If your hair is the same, or you prefer a sleeker look, this style is definitely something to look into. Even if your curls fall quickly, going through the process anyway is one of the best ways to get volume, which in this case I’m guessing is something you want. I feel you, because I have hair like this, and I’ve always hated it. Since I’ve started to curl it, even after the curls fall I no longer look like my hair has been slicked down to my head. This is fantastic.
Curls aren’t too terribly difficult, but they do take some practice. I’ve been learning quickly that they’re a bit more complicated than they first appear; I’ll do my best to explain some of the little intricacies involved. It doesn’t take too much practice to get them looking good; already after only a couple weeks of practice I was getting compliments from hairstylists of all people. I’m pretty incompetent at hair, so if I can do it I’m sure you can too.
First, the type of set. A hot set, such as one using a curling iron or hot rollers can be done, but a cold/wet set, that is putting damp hair into curls to dry over time, usually while you sleep, is most definitely best. Of course going to bed with curlers in your hair isn’t terribly sexy, so if you feel bad curling up next to your lover like this, tying a lovely scarf around your head Rosie the Riveter style will help. A satin one especially will reduce friction so you come out of it with a smoother result. It can take a while to do a set when you’re still figuring it out, but again, practice will improve this.
The oldest way of setting curls is with rags, and I’ve been a big fan of this method for a long time. You use strips of cloth from an old t-shirt or something, but you can also use long dress socks as I’ve been known to do ever since the cats stole my rags. For some reason they don’t seem to like socks quite as much, so I got to keep them. I’ve even heard about women from the 40s using strips from brown paper bags when the rags were used up for the time being, so really you can use anything of which you can tie the ends together. Using any of these is just like using curlers. You roll a piece of your hair around it, and tie the ends together.
I don’t really need to explain to you how to use a curler, do I? Good, because I’m skipping that part.


One very important part of curling hair that often gets overlooked is the use of end papers. When you start rolling up a curl, the tips end up getting pushed into the rest of the hair, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, and it creates what are known as “hook ends”, which are nasty looking. Using end papers holds the ends of your hair in place, so this doesn’t happen. You can go out and buy these, but squares of toilet paper work just as well.

The picture above is of two of my own curls. The one on the left was done using a square of toilet paper on the end, and the one on the right wasn’t. As you can see there’s a HUGE difference. Fold the paper in half and put the hair you want to curl inside along the fold, and then slide the paper down so that all the ends are inside of it. If all the ends won’t fit, simply use two pieces of toilet paper together instead of one. Roll it up around a rag or curler, and it’s that easy.


Pin curls are easy to explain, but hard to do. They take a lot of dexterity, but once you master it they’re great for perfect little sausage curls and are much easier to sleep on than curlers. Keep in mind you can’t do this on very long hair, because the pin curls will be too thick to pin. I would suggest shoulder length hair or shorter for this, depending on how thick your hair is. All you have to do is wrap your hair around your finger, from root to tip, slide the hair off your finger, and pin either one side or the whole thing flat against your head. You’re supposed to use pin curl clips to avoid denting, but bobby pins work well too. Something to remember that I learned the hard way: you need to be careful not to twist the hair as you wrap it around your finger. It might look fine when you take it out of the pin, but once you brush it out it gets incredibly frizzy and you could end up with an afro. Not exactly what we’re going for here.


The direction of the curls is important too, and you can actually find diagrams of what direction to curl your hair for different results. Here’s one just below, I hope it’s not too small to read. I’m not at the stage of knowing a whole lot about this, but I can tell you that the hair around your face should be curled towards your face. Combing the top back away from your face later will create that “lift” that you see in all the old pictures. The rest of your hair can then be curled away from your face, or alternate directions. It’s good to experiment with this.


So you have the layered hair, you’ve mastered the curls; next we’ll learn the final part, styling!
And now I want to show you this beautiful girl’s Flickr page, because first of all the images are very helpful, and secondly I totally have a crush on her hair.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bouncingbettie/2400776352/in/set-72157605291798801/

And since writing this I’ve delved into it further. For more detailed instructions on this check out Basic 40s And 50s Curl Sets

Any questions about making curls? Leave me a comment!

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8 comments on “Vintage Hair Part 2 – Curls

  1. yahirwao says:

    How do u exactly set your hair with the rag rollers???

    I’m thriled with your 40’s Vernica lake hairstyle…. love the result a lot with the nds just curled and pin curls kinda annoy now that my hair is almost waish lenght…. Thanks 🙂

    • You roll your hair around strips of rags like a curler and then tie the ends together. Like anything else I really recommend using end papers – I couldn’t live without them! Does this video help? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3e8kSWN4TA&feature=related

      And thanks for the compliment! Pin curls are definitely hard on longer hair, I bet they would be downright impossible on waist-length hair. I have enough trouble with mine as it is! Tight rag curls are a great alternative though, if the little sausage curls from the Victorian era are any indication 🙂

  2. ified2 says:

    Thanks for you help and inspiration! Is rag styling the only option for brastrap-lenth hair? and how to use t.p. on a wet set? and finally, what product to use as a setting lotion?

    • No, I just find it helpful when you either don’t have curlers or want something more comfortable to sleep in. My own hair is below bra strap length at this point and I have plenty of success with hot rollers and pillow rollers alike. For paper towels, I just tore 4 strips per sheet width wise and used them the same way as rags, though you have to be a bit gentle not to tear it. And the best setting lotion that I know of is Lottabody. It’s great stuff 🙂
      I hope that was coherent, it is new years eve afterall 😉

  3. dapperdolly says:

    This is a fantastic post, you’ve explained it all so well! I also appreciate the pictures for illustration purposes. I have curly hair, but it changes depending on length when it’s shorter it’s in ringlets, when it’s longer it’s in big curls or has a toussled look but it’s always good to know just in case I want to go for a different style regardless of length. I’ve heard of the rags method and would probably use a method like that.

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