During the first years of the twentieth century, women continued to wear their hair and hats much as they did in the previous century, but after about 1908 styles began to change and the first of the styles that would become so popular during the 1920s and 1930s appeared. In terms of hair and hats, then, this period was an age of transition.
Hair historian Richard Corson claims in Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years that "the first half of the twentieth century was, perhaps, the least colourful period in history for men's hair styles." Men wore their hair short as a rule, and the widespread use of pomades, or oily hair dressings, tamed even the most naturally curly hair into standard styles, parted on the side or in the middle. It became the custom in the twentieth century for men to visit barbershops regularly to receive a haircut and a shave. Barbershops were a common feature of American towns, but they were also very popular in France, where men could get their hair cut very cheaply. Beards and mustaches went out of style in this period and were generally worn only by older men. The mark of the modern man was to be clean-shaven. Though their hairstyles may have been bland, men brought real variety to their wardrobe by choosing from amongst a wide variety of hats, from derbies to fedoras and panamas to top hats.
At the beginning of the twentieth century women wore their hair much as they did in the previous century: very long, then braided and piled into elaborate hairdos that were topped with richly decorated hats. The key to women's hairstyles was size, with hair reaching both high and wide. To achieve the coveted size women draped their hair over pads or wire frameworks, or they used false hairpieces called rats. Some women spent hours working their hair into the desired styles. Hairstyles did grow smaller and less elaborate after 1910, and entertainer Irene Castle (1893–1969) introduced the first short hairstyle for women in 1913, the precursor to the bobbed styles of the 1920s.
Modern hair care products had still not been invented, so most women cared for their hair with homemade shampoos and treatments. A beauty manual published in 1901, for example, recommended washing the hair once every two weeks with a shampoo made from eggs and water. Women used petroleum jelly, castor oil, and other sticky substances to soften their hair and hold it in place. The introduction of the permanent wave process in 1906 allowed women to curl their hair, though the process was costly and time consuming. The first hair dryer was introduced about the same time, though it wasn't perfected until the 1920s.
Hats were an essential part of every woman's wardrobe, and the size and variety of hats available during this period are nothing less than astonishing. Hats were big in the first years of the century and, contrary to the simplifying trend in women's dress that occurred after 1908, they grew bigger and more ornate over time. From the Gainsborough chapeau to the Merry Widow hat, women's headwear during this period represented the pinnacle of the headdresser's art.
Castle, Irene. Castles in the Air. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
Corson, Richard. Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. London, England: Peter Owen, 2001.
Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Revised by Alice Mackrell. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Trasko, Mary. Daring Do's: A History of Extraordinary Hair. New York: Flammarion, 1994.