1920’s Mens Hairstyles and Products History

syacuse university students

The Forestry Student Council of Syracuse University 1925 sporting the typical slicked back styles of 1920s mens haircuts.

1920s brilliantine

Vintage Bottle of Brilliantine

In the 1920’s men were almost always wearing a hat. While the trend faded with the young collegiate men, the hairstyle for both hatted and unhatted men were the same. The look was for flat, slicked, shiny, medium length hair. The helmet like appearance of mens hair produced a few nick names for the style such as “Patent Leather” hair or “helmet head.” What we might call “hat hair” today would have been the style to wear throughout all of the 1920’s. Only minor changes occurred in men’s hairstyle during the decade.

Tommy in Boardwalk Empire Sporting Long Slicked Back Hair

Tommy in Boardwalk Empire Sporting Long Slicked Back Hair

Men’s hairstyles first had to reach the right length. In order to have enough hair to slick back, hair length needed to be about five to seven inches or enough to reach back over the crown of the head but not too long as to stick out past the crown. If the man was parting his hair on the sides the lengths were a bit shorter. Regular trips to the men’s barber shop (which by now is running a muck with women bobbing their hair)  were necessary to keep the length in check, the sideburns high, and the back of the neck clean. A barber also gave men a hot towel facial and fresh shave.

1920s mens hair

Rudolph Valentino- Flat Slicked Hair

To get the slick look, a product called Brilliantine was used. It was oil based giving off a slimy residue to anything it touched. Homemakers knit lace doilies to cover the backs of high back chairs and couches to protect the furniture from men’s greasy heads. These household protectors continued to be popular into the 1940s and 1950s when sticky wax pomades replaced the light oil brilliantine.  The 1920s version was not meant to hold a shape so much as smooth and flatten. Poor men would sometime used cheaper petroleum jelly instead of the luxurious brilliantine. It did the job although it was a mess to clean up.

1920s mens hairstyles

Actor Ramon Navara Center Parted and Shiny Hair

Once thoroughly oiled, a man would then part is hair in one of three popular ways. First was just all straight back- tops were combed over the crown and sides were combed down the head and angled to the back of the crown.  The second option was parted directly in the center or slightly off center- whichever parting was most handsome. The third option was a deeper part on one side. It was common during the teens and less common going into the 20s but sometimes a necessary style for men with thinning hair- aka the comb over. It was also more flattering on a round mans face.

1920s mens curly hairstyles

Actor Ralph Forbes with a full head of wavy curls that were sometimes ironed straight for the movies.

Having straight hair made it easier to achieve the ideal 1920s style. Men with curvy or wavy hair had the choices of straightening the hair with hot irons (usually only used in the movie industry) or with lots and lots of heavy oil. Most curly haired men let their curls bounce free with only a light layer of brilliantine to smooth back fly always and provide soft shape. A hat did a pretty good job of laying curly hair flat.

1920s older men hairstyle

Mature Man with Thinning Hair

The opposite problem of thick curly hair was the man with thinning or no hair. What little was left was still combed back with a light layer of brilliantine to add shine. If a man was bald, he could either get a toupee or just wear a hat. Lack of hair on an older gentlemen was not a shunned thing. It was a sign of age, wisdom, and respect.

Little changed from 1920-1929. The most notable difference is the reduced use of Brilliantine. Men still used it but in less quantities. A fuller, even finger waved, set of hair with a light splash of brilliantine matched those of the ladies who finger waved their hair into works of art.

Facial Hair- Thanks to the invention of the new safety razor by Gillette men were enjoying shaving again. Except for the ultra thin mustache sported by heartthrob movie star Rudolph Valentino, men were not wearing any facial hair in the 1920s. To wear any facial hair was a sign that you were hiding something such as old scars from a small pox outbreak. 1920’s society was obsessed with sanitary conditions and good health. To hide under hair was to appear un-sanitary.

More 1920s Mens Hairstyles

Hair-styling Tips for Today’s Men

1920s mens hair products

1920s Mens Hair Tonic

My husband has thick curly hair that is a bit too short to fit the ideal 1920s mold yet we make do with what we have and the result is pretty good. Here are some tips on products and styling we have learned:

1. Before applying any kind of holding product, wet your hair down. Gently swipe, not rub, off excess water from forehead, over the crown to back of the head. For thick hair let it dry 5 minutes so that it is damp not sopping wet. For thin hair don’t wait-apply product right away.

2. Hair products- There are so many men’s and women’s hair products out there I am not even going to list them all. I  like Pantine Pro-V “Ice Shine” shampoo and conditioner. It really does leave you hair shiny which means you will need less oil based product.

1920s Brilliantine ad

Three Flowers Brilliantine Ad (Still made today)

As for holding products- you can use them but you don’t need to. Use an oil based serum such as Three Flowers Brilliantine Liquid. The look will be more authentic if you do but it’s a mess! Skip the expensive stuff and just use Coconut Oil  to grease and shine. Olive Oil works too but has more odor than coconut. If you need more hold, regular old Vaseline petroleum jelly works well without the smell of dripping oil. You can also use a gel or wax based shine pomade such as Axe Shine Pomade (this is what my husband uses.) Comb it into the shape your hair will look best in. For extra smooth flat hair use a soft brush instead of a comb for the last few swipes. Comb lines were not favorable in the 20’s.

3. Finish – If you are going to oil your hair with anything I recommend you plan NOT to wear a hat. Save your nice hat and just wash with Ice Shine shampoo or dust your hair with a shine spray such as Garnier Fructis Style Brilliantine Shine.

Note: While men’s hair products lines are expanding you may still have better luck shopping in the ladies hair section at your local drugstore.

Colon- Men’s cologne was not part of grooming in the 1920’s. It didn’t become common until the 50s and 60’s. Instead a few men decided to dab a bit of ladies perfume under their suit lapels. Subtle yet present. Men were just supposed to smell manly and that was it!

Do you have a hair-styling technique or product that works for you? Leave us your tips in the comments below.

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About Debbie Sessions

Debbie Sessions is passionate about wearing history through fashion. She and her husband, Oscar, have turned their hobby into a career by teaching others how to re-create vintage style with affordable new vintage inspired clothing and accessories. We connect shoppers to the best vintage inspired clothing, shoes and accessories and teach fashion history as it was worn by everyday people. Need more help? Contact us anytime.

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