How had I managed to reach the age of 40 without ever having bought a red lipstick? Despite my fascination for vintage jewellery and china, I’d never dared try to copy 1940s hair and makeup: I am, I confess, a grown-up tomboy more generally found turning a compost heap than fixing my hair.
And yet there I was, in a high-ceilinged room at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, attempting to tame my hair with a set of curling tongs and a pile of hairclips. Vintage hairstylist Sarah Dunn, of Sarah’s Doo-wop Dos, has been doing this for a decade, but she tells me that 1940s hair and makeup have never been more popular: maybe it’s a hankering for simpler times before the invention of botox and lip fillers.
Sarah’s Doowop Dos runs regular workshops at the home of the second world war codebreakers and it’s the perfect backdrop for immersing yourself into the vintage life – and learning more about the Wrens who operated the Bombe decryption devices.
It’s the Wrens who you must think of when taking on 40s styling: unlike us, Dunn explains, due to water and shampoo rationing wartime women often washed their hair once a fortnight at most, usually with soap flakes. So 1940s styling doesn’t require salon-perfect hair: the styles of the time kept hair tightly controlled and often covered: all manner of sins could be hidden under hats, turbans, snoods and other accessories, and tightly pinned curls were practical too. To recreate the texture of wartime hair, Dunn advised avoiding washing my hair before styling and spraying in some dry shampoo. Our first challenge was to perfect our makeup. During the war, makeup was hard to find, so brows and eyes were kept fairly natural, though lips were often painted a patriotic red. We began by doing a light touch-up with the eyebrow pencil to highlight groomed brows. A pale eyeshadow beneath brow arches and a darker line of eyeshadow spread along the crease of the lid and upwards emphasised the eyes.
Next was a thin streak of eyeliner, curving up slightly beyond the corner of the eye that helped to thicken the look of the lashes, followed by a coat of mascara. This took a couple of attempts to get right, and a steady hand: have some wipes ready to rub out your mistakes. Then it was onto the lips – Dunn advised using a nude or red lip-liner (the secret here is a steady hand and lots of practice) to trace around the lips, then filling in the whole of the lip surface with the liner before applying lipstick – the redder the better – on top. And the secret to it staying on all evening? Lipcote stings a bit when applied, but will keep lipstick in place for hours. The lipstick was also used as a blusher to add a dash of colour to our cheeks.
Hair, meanwhile, is anything but minimal. Curls are key: rollers, hot sticks or curling tongs can create the curls, while hairpins lock them in place (cross them over for extra staying power), followed by lashings of hairspray. Dunn first showed us a super-quick, simple vintage style where a stretchy, soft band made from a cross section of a pair of tights is placed crown-like over the hair. We then backcombed sections of hair, and looped them up and over the band, starting from the back, pinning them into place, creating a simple vintage updo that is easy to recreate at home, especially if you have a friend to help with the pinning.
Then we were ready for the more advanced techniques. The signature 40s hair look is the victory roll: it involves looping sections of hair into open-ended curls until they are pinned tight against the sides or top of the head. This was the hardest technique to master: I’d always thought backcombing was invented around the time Tina Turner first topped the charts, but it turns out to be vital for creating the volume and solidity to pull off a wartime hairdo.
Every time I was struggling, the answer was “more backcombing!” But Dunn warned us to be gentle: rather than raking back and forth, the secret was to hold a section of hair above the head and pull the comb along the half closest to the scalp, removing the comb carefully and beginning again; the aim was to create a thicker structure that would stand up when rolled. Pomade can also help to smooth hair and coax it into sleekness. No wonder women of the 40s were strong, after a couple of minutes with my arms above my head I was aching.
When I Instagrammed my new look, one friend commented: “That looks nothing like you!” Backhanded compliment it may have been but she did have a point – I’m not sure if it was the bright red lippy (back then, it really must have felt like “warpaint”) or the fake flower in my hair but the whole experience left me feeling glamorous and confident enough to keep the look going for the rest of the day. Thankfully the victory rolls turned out to be surprisingly durable, surviving an afternoon trip to the shops and an evening out at a fairly lively gig: if I’d stuck a hairnet on and slept on it, they’d probably still be looking good now.
Sarah’s Doowop Dos vintage hair and makeup workshop at Bletchley Park, Saturday, 5 December. Full day (9.30am-4pm), £70 bletchleypark.org.uk and sarahsdoowopdos.wordpress.com