There’s more to the Forties than victory rolls…

1940s, 1960s, 1970s, Ann Savage, forties fashion, Lauren Bacall, veronica lake

Not victory rolls. She has simply pinned loose curls on the top of her head. The effect is pretty, soft, natural and unforced. Woman’s Illustrated, August 1946.

A personal bugbear of mine, aside from the prevalence of cupcakes and ‘upcycling’ in allegedly ‘vintage’ contexts, is the dominance of the victory roll as a vintage look. I may make myself unpopular here, but frankly it is akin to assuming women in the Sixties only ever wore their hair in beehives – or that everyone was bothering with a Marcel wave in the Twenties. It is lovely to make an effort with your hair, and it is lovely to wear Forties clothes. Or, more likely in my case, Seventies clothes in a Forties style. But why on earth would you want to limit yourself to victory rolls, and why on earth would you want to look like every other allegedly ‘vintage’ woman walking around?

If you search ‘victory roll tutorial’ on Youtube, you get about 855 results (and counting…). That’s 855 people who think they have something new to teach you about doing a very specific style. So say 20 people follow each tutorial to the letter and frequently wear their hair that way, that makes over 17,000 people all desperately trying to create a hairstyle to look ‘unique’. Ok, so the maths is arbitary, but what it demonstrates is how very unoriginal it all is.

Lauren Bacall. No victory roll.

I realise that I am not the target audience for such things generally (in fact my hair is frequently set in what look like victory rolls purely so that I can unclip them in the morning and brush out for a loose-but-frankly-enormous hairstyle which can then be styled to suit any era I choose) – but I do wish that the perceived ‘vintage look’ wasn’t so rooted in a cartoon-like version of the Forties. Not everyone rolled their hair, not everyone wore red lipstick, not everyone bothered drawing a seam up the back of their legs. Most people were too busy/stressed/modest or even independently-minded enough to worry about such things.

I respect people for adopting an unusual look, whether it be vintage or any other subculture, and I respect anyone who makes an effort with their hair. But I have never, and will never, understand the way vintage has turned into a kind of uniform. I know I personally approach it as a way of creating my own style without anyone else’s rules in my head, and also because I have a stupidly stubborn (and geeky) interest in certain eras other people consider ludicrous. But while I sit, engrossed in magazines, films, music of the time, I don’t ever feel like I need to copy any of it slavishly to justify my own vintage-ness. If that is even something I want to define myself by. It is about self-expression, but an unfortunate number of people are expressing their conformity in my opinion. The moment I see a cast member from Made in Chelsea wearing a floppy felt Seventies-style hat, is the moment I put my own original hat to the back of my wardrobe.

On that note, I am still mulching down my feelings and opinions on Grayson Perry’s series about taste, which was a fascinating insight into what he deemed to be the very ‘middle class’ need to express non-conformity. But expressing in a way which is validated by everyone else’s admiration and acceptance of your ‘individualist’ choices. More musings on that at a later date.

Veronica Lake. No victory roll.

When I was a teenager, my mother laughed at me for wanting to wear black jumpers, long dip-dyed skirts and smudged kohl eyeliner. I said I wanted to look ‘different’, and she said ‘don’t you see that you look the same as every other teenager in their black clothes and smudged eyeliner?’. I didn’t, but I do now.

I look forward to the day when the victory rolls have been unpinned, the tea dresses cast off, the lipstick has become more muted and the general mood has moved on to something new. Personally, I haven’t ‘done’ Forties for a few years now, although I used to enjoy dabbling when the mood took me there. I even detect a certain amount of frustration and boredom from the people I know who do live and love the Forties look.

Ann Savage. No victory roll.

In part, I believe the burlesque scene is to blame. (I still cannot understand why nobody is doing jiggly Carry On-style Seventies burlesque in nylon ruffles and glossy pastel make-up – you’d make quite a name for yourself!). Although I would say this is through no fault of their own. Any business which is about the seduction of men (and women) in ten-minute bursts is naturally going to seem larger-than-life and somewhat cartoon-like. But is that what most people are actually aspiring to? Or are they using it as a shorthand? Like black and white Mondrian-esque dresses for ‘mod’, or cheap beaded shifts for ‘flapper’. And are they dressing this way because they are actually passionate about the era (easy enough to claim) or because they want to fit in with a scene?

Somehow the commercialisation of vintage is represented, to me, by the victory roll. Although it is by no means the only example.

I am trying not to judge people, I just want to understand why it is happening since the knock-on effect is a lack of understanding about vintage. I have actually lost count of the number of times someone has asked me if I ‘make’ the vintage I sell. So far I have managed to retain a sense of humour about it, but occasionally feel like I should rename my website Secondhand-a-Peel and officially reject the word vintage.

My approach is always to look at original pictures of normal women of the time – “primary sources” was always the mantra in history lessons – which is why My Dad’s Photos is such an immensely valuable resource for any Seventies-fiend. So I have included a few photographs from my own family’s photograph albums. These people worked for the Civil Service and were stationed up in Buxton during the war. I don’t know who half of them are, they were friends of my grandparents, but look how lovely they are. Some have rolls, some just have a nice set, some are just clipped off the face; variety is the spice of life.

The first photo is of my grandmother, and she is sporting a reverse roll! Go Nana, being all subversive there… I just wish she was still around so I could ask her what she made of it all.

Please do not reproduce these pictures without permission. Thank you.

Gratuitous photograph of the photographer of many of these photos, my Grandad. He was quite the dish…

Please do not reproduce these pictures without permission. Thank you.

36 thoughts on “There’s more to the Forties than victory rolls…

  1. Well said. I was asking my mother, a child of 40’s and 50’s America, about Victory rolls – she’d never heard of the term. It’s interesting how we love to create rules and restrictions to live and dress by. Like you, I love the past as a source of inspiration, but to follow it slavishly seems to miss the point. There is also a tendency to view it all through rose tinted specs. Again, my mum finds my interest in old fashioned hair setting a bit ridiculous; to her, its just a reminder of a time when there were no time saving products, and womens fashions were overly fussy ( she’s a fan of the 60’s)

    1. Precisely. My grandmother never said anything negative about my long, unstyled hair when she was still around. Never an ‘ooh, you should put your hair up nicely’ or anything. Women couldn’t wait to throw off the shackles of pre-feminist restrictions. I’ve always thought that they’d jump at the chance to wear tights, rather than stockings, if you took a delivery of them in your time machine. Yes, I have daydreams about time machines…

      I enjoy doing nice things with my hair now I know how, but I’m glad it isn’t ‘expected’ of me in modern society. I resent the idea that it might be expected of someone who dresses in a ‘vintage’ style.

      The past is like a postcard, nice to look at and dream… but you probably wouldn’t actually want to move there permanently.

  2. Great post! As a 40/50s enthusiast I agree not everyone looked like Dita Von Teese! I do think dressing externally to represent an inner values set epitomised in these decades in particular is more than just a bandwagon trend. As someone who adores the flat & easier version if the victory roll I say ‘hear hear’ to much of your sentiment. I for one applaud the make do & mend requirements of this era as opposed to our current fast fashion throw away mentality and also applaud the glamorous housewife; that’s my reasoning for dressing in the styles of the 40s and 50s anyway. xXx

  3. I’m sure I read somewhere years ago that Veronica Lake’s hairstyle, which was copied by many women in the 1940’s, was banned in certain workplaces especially during war years as you could get it trapped in the factory machines.

    1. Indeed. I’m sure the reason it became so popular was because it was relatively simple to achieve and maintain, assuming you weren’t leaning over a machine. (Relatively in comparison to most hairstyles of the period, I will admit. Not everyone has the hair or lifestyle for it!)

      But a simple hairstyle does not an interesting Youtube tutorial make. Nor does it make a ‘statement’ of your utterly individualist vintage lifestyle. Hence, wacky victory roll ubiquity.


    2. You are indeed correct, Ms Lake was asked if she would cut her hair for the war effort as women were emulating her look and hair was indeed causing many workplace accidents. Veronica however, declined the offer but helped instead with an advertising campaign to encourage ladies to wear the appropraite protection which was usually provided by the employer.

  4. Couldn’t agree more. As I think I’ve said before, pin-up victory rolls represent what an average woman was doing as much as Katy Perry and Lana Del Ray represent your average 2012 gal. They’re ‘showbiz’. Lovely, but studio hairstyles for pin up shoots, movies and catalogues, not everyday wear. I’ve been torn down for saying this in the past, but like you I base it on actual family photos. Most women went for much simpler styles based round a set- they worked, had kids and wore ‘slacks’ often (I know this based on speaking to MANY elderly people). I find the whole ‘women made more of an effort’ obsession a bit grinding- for example, most of my older relatives find/found the amount of make up women wear now astounding! The whole eyeliner-and-red-lips was nonsense- most ‘nice’ London-Irish gals wore pink (to make the boys wink)- red was very daring indeed, as was eyeliner.

      1. ๐Ÿ™‚ …just to add, my great aunt DID wear the full make up, but more of a Lucille Ball curly top than rolls. She was a bit of a rebel by all accounts! But the others of her generation seemed happy with a bit of powder and a dark rose lippy!

  5. The ‘uniform’ thing is odd, and it does owe more towards a cartoony pinup idea of vintage than the real thing. I don’t mind it, and personally prefer seeing 40s pastiche uniform to sportswear. The only time I get annoyed is when people expect me to look that way, or think you can’t be into vintage without taking on that sort of look. (Or, indeed, any sort of look: in my opinion, a person who restores and runs vintage cars while wearing jeans and a jumper is every bit as into vintage as someone who listens to modern music and drives a Ford Ka while wearing a tea dress and victory rolls.

    I guess I’m happy for the masses to have their vintage, as long as they don’t start dictating mine to me…

    1. I think what frustrates me is that it *becomes* as cheap as a towelling tracksuit when it is ripped-off by the mass-market and worn in the same way, by many people. So I start to see the look as I do someone walking around in Ugg boots/crocs/Juicy Couture. Familiarity breeds contempt (which I realise is nobody’s problem but my own).

      But yes. As long as they don’t dictate to me, or copy me, then each to their own. I was just moved to put fingers to keyboard after witnessing the most spectacular avalanche of victory rolls in photographs from a ‘vintage’ event.

    2. Depends on sportswear. If we\โ€™re talking American sportswear, in the sense that it\โ€™s relaxed, versatile separates (like cardigans and blouses and slacks and front-fastening frocks) and easy-wear pieces like Claire McCardell made her name for, then I disagree. (The Sportswear (fashion) article on Wiki\โ€™s not too terribleโ€ฆ) But if you\โ€™re talking activewear, as in trackies and sweatshirtsโ€ฆ urk, yes, I agree.

  6. I actually disagree, mainly with this part: “that makes over 17,000 people all desperately trying to create a hairstyle to look โ€˜uniqueโ€™. Ok, so the maths is arbitary, but what it demonstrates is how very unoriginal it all is.”

    Why presume that people wear something, or look a certain way, to look unique? And why does it matter if something is unoriginal? It isn’t a competition to look the most vintage, or the most original. If it is…..who is judging?

    I love wearing victory rolls. Not because I was to fit a vintage bubble, or because I’m desperate to look unique (although actually I rarely see anyone on my bus with them), and not because I need anybodies approval. My hair isn’t a political statement about how unique, or authentically vintage I can look. It’s hair. Just hair.

    Just thought I’d throw in an opposing view! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. I think you might be unusual in not trying to be unique; it does seem to be the most common reason I see given for people wearing vintage (either authentic vintage clothes or this current bizarre meaning of the word* which seems to be just about creating a ‘look’).

      Of course people can do whatever the hell they want to do with their hair, I think I was just frustrated that people who are claiming they are ‘vintage’ are so stuck in the victory roll rut. My point is that there are many other authentic Forties looks to try, and why would anyone want to limit themselves to something which has become a cliche, even a bit of a pastiche, through over-exposure?

      I’m genuinely interested to know why you love wearing victory rolls, if it’s not for any of those reasons. No sarcasm, I’m honestly just curious.

      Thank you for your comment and for giving me extra food for thought!

      *Back when I was a teenager, something ‘in the style of’ was known as retro. I don’t understand where or when this became swapped with vintage… seems a much better word to me.

      1. I don’t think they have become a cliche. I don’t spend my time surrounded by people who wear anything unusual, and I so rarely see victory rolls in the street. I really just don’t over think what other people wear. It doesn’t frustrate me if people wear rolls, or sets or anything…..I honestly just like the look of victory rolls on me.

        I find them quick, cute and a tad quirky if anything. I like wearing my hair up too, and rolls make this more interesting.

        I’m not sure why it seems to annoy people what a few other people do? Are we really walking around seeing millions of girls in vintage hair dos?

        I’m not limiting myself by wearing rolls……I’ve extended myself from the world’s normal pony tail or straight down. I don’t need to try every style ever…..? Am I being scored for most varied hair style?

        It just baffles me how many people can get their feathers ruffled by what other people are doing…? Whether it has become a cliche or not?

        1. As I said, obviously people can do whatever the hell they want to do. I’m not trying to dictate. I’m just questioning why a certain look has become ‘the vintage look’, both to people within and without the ‘scene’ (and suggesting that people might enjoy looking at alternatives). Hence my experiences where people have asked if I ‘make’ my vintage. A cartoonish perception (or distillation, more accurately), complete with repro clothing, has come to represent ‘vintage’ to a lot of people, and THAT is what I object to. As I said, what’s wrong with the word retro?

          The victory roll ubiquity is just one aspect I chose to analyse. I don’t see *millions* of people walking around in victory rolls but, as someone who splits their time between London and Brighton, yes I do see it an AWFUL lot ๐Ÿ˜‰

          I blame Wayne Hemingway. I don’t know why, I just choose to blame him. Vintage is not a ‘concept’, a ‘scene’ or a ‘brand’, it’s just second-hand (or first-hand if you’ve held onto them since they were made) clothes/wine/cars of a high quality and of their period – a fact which people have long forgotten.

      2. I think it was when vintage snobs decided 60s-70s no longer ‘deserved’ to be called vintage and started calling it ‘retro’. Hem-hem gets off soapbox.

        1. Pah! I’m so glad to find a fellow Seventies lover in you Miss Perdita.

          Ossie Clark and Biba are considered vintage by those same snobs when they HAVE them to sell. It’s just daft. I’m happy to consider quality pieces from the 1990s to be vintage, so long as they are ‘of their time’ and high quality. I remember the sneering re. the Seventies when I was a teenager, and I bet those people are now wishing they’d bought all the Ossie frocks they could find.

      3. Thought I’d jump in here, because I too wear victory rolls, but am not really trying to be unique or vintage. It’s just that a large amount of volume sweeping away from my face looks good, so I do victory rolls, beehives, and sweeping updos and half updos. It gives the added benefit of keeping my hair out of my face. I actually make an effort not to look to costume-y or “vintage/retro/whatever word we are using” by styling it with modern clothing and accessories. I’ve never been able to fit into vintage clothes anyways! Far too tall. Anyways, just wanted to add my two cents!

  7. Oh, well said. As a fan of dressing “individually” for more years than I care to remember, I think I have now read maybe one too many posts on “how I feel more of a real woman in corsets, suspenders and red lipstick with my hair done nicely” when all I can think of is how tights were welcomed with open arms, cool flat shoes and less chilly thighs… And shiny, swingy bobs were the dawn of a new and bright age. Throw away the setting lotion! (slightly tongue in cheek, honest, each to their own…) Gorgeous family photos by the way.

  8. Very interesting post! I always thought that the victory roll has become the 40s hairstyle uniform because it is one of the easiest styles to do. Reverse rolls, pompadours, cowlicks etc etc requires much more know-how and traning than a one-each-side victory roll look. I’m no good with 40s hair (and it’s not my main “era”) but when I do go to 40s events I mainly do the even easier curl & twist (like a fake ring roll type thing going round part of the head). I absolutely agree with your point about people would have ben trying to be individuals (like today) rather than all just conforming to one look like clones – if you ever get the chance to see the film “Traitor Spy” ( there is an amazing club scene set in a soho dive (filmed either in very late 30s or in 1940) where the variety of styles on display is simply dazzling – everything from glam girls, androgynous girls, sporty girls to an absolute Bettie Page lookalike (somewhat before her time!). Wish BFI would release it on DVD so I could jot down some 40s style inspiration.

  9. This is a really good post! I wear my hair in victory rolls frequently. Like, a LOT. When I had long hair (til I got it cut a few weeks ago) I’d have it in smallish rolls and a low ponytail; now I wear the front in rolls and the back loose, with its natural wave (looking, in fact, not completely unlike your grandma’s hair in the photo above!) – not to try and be ‘different’, but just because I like the look, it’s suitably vintagey for my taste, and I think it suits me. And because it’s the easiest vintage hairstyle – much easier (for me) than doing a full roller or pincurl set, which I’ve never yet managed to get right.

    I confess it sort of annoys me to see a million other people at vintage events with perfectly shiny, bodacious, hairdresser-done victory rolls, just because they make my self-done, frizzy little rolls look a bit rubbish in comparison. It’s just like seeing someone who doesn’t “get” (very strong quotation marks there) vintage wearing an amazing ยฃ150 novelty print rayon tea dress which I feel I ought to own instead of them.

    And I’m totally with Wendy that all the talk of feeling “more feminine” or “complete” in seamed stockings and suspenders is v annoying. I mean, I love the look of seamed stockings and all, but I certainly don’t go in for it for everyday (I hate wearing tights too – I go bare legged for most of the year).

    xx Charlotte
    Tuppence Ha’penny Vintage

    1. I much prefer your approach and, looking at your blog, you do a beautiful job of an authentic Forties look. I like to see a style which has evolved naturally (whether it is largely period or just a mixing up of different influences) rather than one which has been copied rather too slickly from a single-note source. I have that opinion whether it’s someone slavishly copying their look from Grazia, Vogue OR Vintage Life. I think it’s easy to tell which is which.

      And as for ยฃ150 novelty print tea dresses, read ‘Ossie Clark’ dress and I am completely understanding of your frustration! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. I must say that I agree. I have neither the time, patience or inclination to set or style my hair in complicated fashions, and have always felt mildly estranged when walking into so-called vintage establishments or events with my straight hair. It’s all just another form of social exclusion. And of course, the contemporary take on styles of past decades is definitely the glamorous side. You mention the 1970s an awful lot: my family photos of the decade are absolutely horrendous, a FAR cry from the stylish settings of Almodovar’s 70s film interiors, for instance!

  11. Here, here! I wear rolls in my hair โ€“ but very rarely victory\โ€™s โ€“ purely because I can never get them equal and they end up looking like Mickey Mouse ears. Nice. I love the relative simplicity of just curling and brushing out for everyday. I might put in a reverse roll, but this is usually to cover something up. Like a nice straight strand. Sigh.

    I take constant personal style inspiration from every day photos of people from the era โ€“ and I adore the photo of the lady sitting against the tree

    Grand post. I don\โ€™t follow you โ€“ and I cannot for the LIFE of my understand why. I shall be now *slaps wrists*

  12. Hear hear! I wore victory rolls for a brief time when I first started dabbling in the forties image as it was the most accessible hair style to learn about. These days, I see so many girls with them, I find them quite irritating – instead, I simply set my hair in rollers and create a shape that I’m happy with – even pictures of my Grandma shows her hair set, rather than rolls (even pictures of my Great Auntie Hazel show her with styled ringlets rather than rolls). I wear 40s slacks nearly every day – people seem to think that women lived in tea dresses all year round. The thing that bugs me most is seeing someone have victory rolls for a wedding, whilst wearing a VoH reproduction dress, almost like a costume.

    I think for the people who truly admire the forties and the style of the time, it’s definitely about more than how big or perfect your victory rolls are. There’s SO much choice when it comes to forties hairstyles and clothes – it’s just a shame people stick to such a minute detail rather than research the ‘bigger picture’.

  13. Hiya… I actually stumbled across your blog during a google search for a relative of mine. She was a model in the 40’s and I was hoping I could find pictures of her, but of course, I’m not having good luck. Do you happen to know who is on the cover of that Women’s Illustrated? Is she an actress or a model?

      1. Thanks so much, but actually, I found some of my grandma’s old scrapbooks of her sister. Yesterday in fact. Turns out she wasn’t discovered as a model until right around the time of the cover you posted, so it’s definately not her. ๐Ÿ™‚ Anyway, thanks for your reply.

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