Classic Horror Movie Hairstylist Carmen Dirigo and Her Craft

In celebration of spooky season, let’s talk about the horror movie hairstylist. Carmen Dirigo was hairstyling department head at Universal Studios where many of the Universal Monster movies were made. She grew up in the business and, behind her mom, she was a trailblazer in the industry.

Classic Horror Movies

Being a person that is into “old stuff”, as some of my family members put it, classic horror movies are at the top of my list. Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Blob, and Hammer Film’s Brides of Dracula have all been on our watch list this Halloween season.

Talking about horror movies will put different images into the heads of different people. There are so many different subgenres and one person, when you mention horror, will think of something like The Amityville Horror and someone else will think of the Saw series. The type of horror movie you can stomach depends on a lot.

The special effects team gets most of the glory in a horror movie, but this is a blog about hair, so we are going to celebrate the horror movie hairstylist.

horror movie hairstylist carmen dirigo and jack pierce horror movie makeup artist
Carmen Dirigo working with famous monster makeup artist Jack Pierce

In 1945, Carmen Dirigo, was hired as the new hairstyling department head at Universal Studios. She worked closely with talented special effects makeup artists including classic monster make-up expert Jack Pierce, designing and styling wigs for movies like House of Dracula and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Dirigo’s Hairstylist Family Legacy

Carmen Dirigo’s grandmother was a hairstylist and had a beauty shop in New York. She taught her daughter (Lilley, Carmen’s mother) the trade and Lilley passed the craft on to Carmen. Lilley moved her family to Southern California in the 1920s and opened a salon.

At that time, at Carmen’s urging, Lilley also made her attempt at getting into the movie business.

Lilley Dirigo mother to carmen dirigo movie hairstylist
Carmen’s mother Lilley Dirigo styling (possibly) a young Mary Brian.

“I kept after her, but she was very shy,” Carmen recalled about her mother. “One day, she [Lilley] went and made an appointment at Universal with Carl Laemmle and she sold him on the idea of having a hairstylist established on the lot. She told him that she once saw a picture where the actress is out in the rain, and when she comes in, her hair is all dry. She told him that he could have someone established on each picture to read the script and follow the story and do it accordingly. He thought that was brilliant, and that’s how it all started.”

Can I just jump in and say how much I admire this woman that she had the gumption to go to a Hollywood studio executive and say, essentially, “You are doing it wrong. Let me fix this problem.”

Carmen Enters the Movie Industry

By 1933, after taking a state test to get her cosmetology license, Carmen followed her mother and entered the hairstyling field, first working at United Artists. After four years, she moved to Paramount where she first worked with stars like Joan Fontaine and Fredric March. Eight years later, she came to Universal as head of hairstyling, where her mother had broken ground.

classic movie hairstylist carmen dirigo styling hair on actress

Dirigo’s 1940s Hairstyle Philosophy

One Universal press release from 1946 gives us a glimpse into her hair philosophy. The release stated: “She is a firm believer in frequent hair style changes and in the choice of simple styles for business and sportswear. Elaborate hairstyles should be created only for evening and formal occasions, she recommends.”

I wish I could see this original press release to see what else Dirigo said about her hair philosophy and her experience working in the movie industry.

classic movie hairstylist carmen dirigo styling actresses
Carmen Dirigo styling various movie stars

She styled hair on a long list of movie stars during her career including Joan Bennett, Yvonne De Carlo, Joan Fontaine and her sister, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Blyth, Elena Verdugo, and many others.

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, 1948

She gets the most attention for her work on Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid in 1948. In this movie, Ann Blyth plays the mermaid and she had underwater scenes to be filmed.

Dirigo was given the task of figuring out how to make Blyth’s hair look the same both on dry land and underwater!

Ann Blyth in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid
Ann Blyth mermaid on dry land

“The producer wanted her hair to look as beautiful underwater as out of the water,” Carmen recalled in one of many interviews she did with Scott Essman after she retired.

“I had to get together with a chemist to figure out what we could use that would be pliable in the water. For days, before the picture started, I would be in my department with a fishbowl, and I’d have a hunk of hair which I waved first and sprayed with this chemical. I’d plunk it in the water and swish it around and see if it held the curl. When it did, I knew that it was okay.”

Ann Blyth in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid
Ann Blyth mermaid underwater

Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948

Also filming in 1948 on the Universal Studios lot at the time Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid was in production, was Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Dirigo also worked on hair and wigs for this movie.

Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the werewolf and Dracula publicity photo

In this film, Abbot and Costello encounter Count Dracula played by Bela Lugosi, Frankenstein’s monster played by Glenn Strange, and the Wolf Man played by Lon Chaney Jr.

As a little PR stunt, Universal set up this cute photograph of Glenn Strange in his Frankenstein costume and Ann Blyth in her mermaid costume out on the back lot.

Glenn Strange as Frankenstein and the Mermaid, actress Ann Blyth
Glenn Strange in his Frankenstein costume and Ann Blyth in her mermaid costume

House of Dracula, 1945

Also part of Dirigo’s hairstyling movie credits is House of Dracula from 1945.

Turner Classic Movies describes the House of Dracula, made in 1945, this way. “A mad scientist’s experiments attract Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein monster.”

Basically, Dracula and Wolf Man are tired of their tortured existence and approach Dr. Franz Edelman to cure them of their afflictions. Unfortunately for Edelman, which translates to “fine” man, he accidentally afflicts himself to become another creature of the night.

The Vampire, 1957

The Vampire from 1957 is also a Dirigo movie. In this movie, a San Francisco doctor inadvertently ingests pills laced with the blood of vampire bats This leads him to take on vampiric qualities.

Carmen Dirigo helped sculpt what defined 1940s hair beauty. She worked on over 100 films and television series between the years of 1935-1972 when she retired. She died June 25, 2007.

Hairstylists in the movie industry have such great influence on our own day-to-day hair goals. How many times have you watched a movie and thought, “How do I style my hair like that character?” If only we had a time machine to travel back in time and beg a movie hairstylist to let us sit and watch them style that hairstyle!


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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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