Analyzing vintage hair to design your own look with the 1940s movie The Big Sleep

For a great study of hair design elements that make a beautiful vintage 1940s hairstyle, let’s analyze the movie The Big Sleep from 1946. It is full of so many inspiring hairstyles. The looks of the women that are both leads and extras in movies of the 1940s are the best resource for design inspiration.

When I watch movies for design inspiration, I pay attention to scenes where the main characters walk through a restaurant, a bar, or any other crowd in a movie and I’ll see all kinds of lovely hairstyles to emulate in my designs. Today, we are going to use some of the hidden gems of The Big Sleep to evaluate design elements of a 1940s vintage hairstyle.

The important elements of hairstyle design are:

  • Silhouette – the visible shape of the style
  • Texture – the feel, appearance, or consistency of the hair surface
  • Movement/Direction – where the hairstyle is going, direction it is taking your eyes
  • Focal Point – the center point of interest

You might also like: Techniques for Shaping and Forming Vintage Hairstyles

Vivian’s Hairstyle (Played by actress Lauren Bacall)

Lauren Bacall’s hairstyle is iconic to say the least. It changed a little here and there over the years in length, but the basic design, silhouette, and texture remained this lovely, simple 1940s wave pattern.

I have gotten many questions on how she did her hair. Her sophisticated look is such a coveted hairstyle for a 1940s look.

Young Lauren Bacall in the movie the Big Sleep 1946

By breaking her hair down to the elements, you can see it really comes down to the movement/direction of her hairstyle. The simplicity of the hairstyle is what makes it so perfect. The texture, the waves, frame her face and it actually makes her face the focal point in this instance along with the waves themselves being a focal point.

Young Lauren Bacall in the movie the Big Sleep 1946

Her curl setting pattern is a simple curl pattern and you can get my version of it (that I call the Nora, if you are signed up for the newsletter. What made Lauren Bacall’s hair look so specific was the haircut and her hair thickness.

These pages from a 1940s hair booklet describe her haircut so well. It is very similar to the haircut January Jones had as the character Betty while she filmed the first few seasons of Mad Men. Lauren Bacall’s hair was a medium weight bordering on thick. The pages describe her cut as a blunt bob cut.

Lauren Bacall 1940s haircut hairstyle and curl setting pattern

Design elements of other characters in The Big Sleep:

Let’s analyze the other characters’ hairstyle design elements in the movie. There are quite a few female characters in the movie which actually makes it pretty progressive for the time. Plenty of movies at the time had a mostly male cast.

Carmen’s Hairstyle (Played by actress Martha Vickers)

Carmen’s hairstyle is simple, but impactful… The focal point and direction/movement of the peek-a-boo bang draws your eye down to the texture of the fluffy curls. It is similar to Lauren Bacall’s, but more youthful. (And yes that is intentional) Vickers plays Bacall’s younger sister.

Actress Martha Vickers in 1946 The Big Sleep

Waitress’ Hairstyle (Played by actress Tanis Chandler)

Analyzing the waitress’ hairstyle, note the direction/movement above the forehead that takes a quick turn forward and spins into a dry pin curl. The silhouette is perfectly balanced around her heart shaped face with a little extra width around her chin.

Actress Tanis Chandler in 1946 The Big Sleep

Agnes’s Hairstyle (Played by actress Sonia Darrin)

The direction/movement of the character of Agnes’s hairstyle and the focal point of the wave that crests into a pile of curls also forms the silhouette that aligns with the silhouette of her chin and cheekbones. This is a perfect example of a 1940s hairstyle that follows the bone structure conforming with the face shape.

Actress Sonia Darrin in 1946 The Big Sleep

Shop Proprietess’ Hairstyle (Played by actress Dorothy Malone)

Dorothy Malone plays the Shop Proprietess who has just the right amount of sass. There’s a lot to unpack about her 1940s hairstyle design, starting with the lovely direction/movement of her hairstyle. The top and sides wave back beautifully from her face. She has a mix of straight, waves, and curl textures in her hairstyle that harmonize so well. The hairstyle is tied back with a hair comb, much like the Grip-Tuth hair combs.

Actress Dorothy Malone in 1946 The Big Sleep

Analyze vintage hair you see in a movie scene

So now I ask you to analyze the vintage hair you see in a movie scene. The women below appear in a scene of The Big Sleep in which the character of Vivian is performing a song and these actors make up the audience.

It is your turn to analyze the silhouette, texture, focal point, and movement/direction of the vintage hairstyles below. Pick them apart into sections and think about what it is that makes each of these hairstyles unique and beautiful.

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  1. I love checking out the extras and what not in these old movies. I usually end up missing the whole plot of the movie by staring at the hair, make up and costumes. lol

  2. ‘Stage Door’ is a special favorite of mine. You even get to see their hair in the ‘set’! Ginger Rogers inspired me to try rag rollers, in that movie. 🙂

  3. I was so excited to see this post that I just had to comment! I love The Big Sleep and am slightly obsessed with Agnes’ (the lady with the incredible updo) hairstyle. All of the women in that movie have amazing hair! Glad to know I’m not the only one who thinks so. 🙂

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Welcome to the Bobby Pin Blog! I am Lauren Rennells and as a hairstylist, makeup artist, writer, and generally artistic over-achiever, the Bobby Pin Blog is my outlet for thoughts and research about vintage hair and makeup trends and how to recreate them today. Thank you for stopping by!

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