The Marcel wave that was fashionable in the 1920s and 30s

Marcel Waves

The Marcel wave was a type of curling or setting hair that produced tight waves close to the head. It was particularly popular in the 1920s and 30s. My mother always referred to the style as Marcel waving, never finger waving which I believe is a more modern term or perhaps a term for less immaculate-looking close waves made at home. This page shows the appearance of professional Marcel waving, and how a less immaculate form of it and finger waving could be achieved at home.


By the webmaster based on discussions with older people and research in museums

True Marcel waving was always done professionally. For my mother-in-law it was part of her 21st birthday present, 21 being the age when children formally became adults - just as 18 is today.

The difference between Marcel waving and finger waving

The internet gives the difference between Marcel waving and finger waving as that finger waving does not involve heated irons (curling tongs) whereas, by implication, Marcel waving does. Judging by the immaculate nature of the Marcel waves in the photo, it certainly must have involved heat.

Curling tongs were available for home use, so women did produce close waves as well as curls using heat, but the result would have been less immaculate than a professional job.

Hair clamps for 'Marcel'-style finger waving at home

My mother told me that her friends of the time achieved fairly tight waves at home using special clamps. Hers remained in her possession long after the fashion ended. So I have been able to photograph them.

The first photo shows the clamps, and the other photos show how they were used. This was always in the daytime before some special event, as sleeping on the tight waves inevitably spoilt them to some extent in spite of the widespread use of hair nets at night.

The waves were pressed in place with the fingers onto wet hair, and the 'peaks' of the waves were gripped with the clamps while the hair dried.

Old hair clamps for setting hair, suitable for Marcel waving

Hair clamps

The first stage of making a Marcel wave

Making the wave

A stage in producing Marcel style waves with hair clamps

A wave held in a clamp while the next wave is being produced

My trials while taking the photos showed that the clamps were top heavy. So a strong hair net or scarf would have been required to hold the clamps in position. The scarf would of course slow the drying process, and home hair dryers were not common at the time.

Marcel Waves

Hair set in Marcel waves: a family photo taken in the 1920s

Home produced setting lotion using sugar

For setting lotion, sugar water was frequently used, but I never spoke to anyone who had actually used it themselves. Some of my school friends in the 1940s mentioned that their mothers used it. They heated sugar and water in a saucepan and let it boil until it the sugar dissolved, then let it cool. I would imagine that this sugar water would make the hair sticky and attract insects, but I have no evidence for this, and it was certainly widely used.

Curling tongs for 'Marcel'-style finger waving at home

My mother said that heated curling tongs could be used to to produce close waves, but they needed very careful handling - for reasons explained on the curling tongs page.

As fingers and comb created the wave - just as in finger waving - its peak was crimped with the curling tongs.

Old metal curling tongs for curling hair

Curling tongs as used to crimp the peak of each wave

True finger waving, on the other hand, was used on wet hair with some sort of setting liquid, like the sugar water described above. These days, of course, other options are available.

Marcel look-alike hairstyles for older women in the 1950s

I have always noticed how women, as they get older, tend to retain something of the fashions of their younger years.

The final two pictures show typical hair styles that I remember among older women in the 1950s. The resemblance to Marcel waving is obvious. Both photos are screen shots from old films.

Common older women's hairstyles in the 1950s clearly based on the Marcel waving of their youth

Older women in the 1950s still wearing the Marcel-type hair styles of their youth

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

Text and images are copyright

sources: early 20th century material      sources: ww2 home front and other material     contact
the webmaster/author/researcher/editor     privacy policy