A couple of years ago I came across some great photography from the 1939 World’s Fair World of Fashion, a large exhibition space built to highlight trends and innovations in fashion. New York was just barely on the brink of beginning to compete internationally as an authority in this area and it was meant to demonstrate this shift. It also served to show off the general innovations happening in America at the time, with state-of-the-art displays, structures, performances, and even a restaurant. It was also a fun opportunity for many women to find various work that allowed them employment in a traditional function. 

I knew that there had been many fashion shows and competitions during the two-season fair. It wasn’t until I came across a collection of “hairstyles” from the fair that I realized just how far-reaching the fashion exhibitions had been. Besides showing off the latest and greatest in women’s clothing, the World of Fashion presented hair trends and the quickly advancing technology used to create them. The photographs are a frozen moment in time showcasing the last few decades when women would set their hair each day. 

It is challenging to obtain much information on the World of Fashion, likely because it was so marketed towards women and not necessarily following the futuristic theme of the rest of the 1939 event. However, through research on the fair as a whole, 1930s hairstyles, and by studying the photographs I have been able to ascertain what went on. 

I don’t think many fairs include hair exhibitions or competitions these days so I thought it would be fun to explore this time capsule of glamour. 

Photos courtesy of the New York Public Library’s digital collection.

About the 1939 World’s Fair

The idea for the 1939 New York World’s Fair was conjured up at the height of the Great Depression, with plans beginning in 1935 by local businessmen. The thought was to raise spirits and create revenue for the city. The idea that a new reality was desired was a strong emphasis throughout the planning of the event, with the theme being “The World of Tomorrow” and the opening slogan being “Dawn of a New Day.” The fair’s pamphlet read: 

“The eyes of the Fair are on the future—not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines. To its visitors the Fair will say: “Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.”

Night view of the fair. Photo source: Rarehistoricphotos.com

The fair was held from April 30, 1939, to October 27, 1940, coming to an end as the world entered WWII. It welcomed over 250,000 people on opening day and 44 million overall. Attendees of note included King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Albert Einstein, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

Perhaps because the purpose of The World of Fashion was to showcase New York as a player in the modern fashion industry, it was the least futuristic of the exhibition halls. It did, however, include the finest and most trendy clothing and styles of the day with hundreds of women participating.

Learn more about the hall in my blog post As American as apple pie: The 1939 World’s Fair World of Fashion. 

The World of Fashion included demonstrations of styling equipment, instruction on the most popular set hairstyles, hair styling equipment, and hair as a display in and of itself. 

Hair competition
The sign reads “Clairol will present spectacular hair style show ‘cellophane blondes’ of 1940. Sunday, Sept. 17th at 3pm”

Hairstyles in 1939-1940

The 1930s was a decade of highly styled hair, perhaps never to be seen again. Most women wore “set” hair, meaning that it was “set” in curls with the use of rollers, meticulously with fingers, and most recently at the time of the fair, with the help of electric curlers that were on display at the fair. While occasionally a longer, sleeker shoulder-length style was seen, particularly on screen, the height of fashion was highly styled, chin-length dos. The photographs from the fair are proof, as the purpose was to showcase the most popular techniques of the day. 

Do you love hairstyles from the past? Check out: 100 years of women’s hairstyles: 1830-1930

The less-common trend of the time, longer, shoulder-length curls.

Want to learn how to do a 1930s hairdo? Check out these video tutorials: 

HOW DID THEY DO IT? | Creating 1930s Vintage Hairstyles

1930’s Hairstyle For Long Hair (to make it look short)

The Salon of the Future 

The 1930s and 1940s were important decades in the history of hairstyling. New electric equipment was rapidly being invented, changing the way we groom ourselves forever. 

Some of these inventions or progressions are captured in the photographs from The World of Fashion, such as the “electric presser” advertised in the image below. 

See how this equipment was put to use in the videos below: 

A 1930s beauty salon

A Visit to a 1930s Salon

Love the 1930s and 1940s? The following posts are for you:

Glamour escapism: 1930s fashion

Art deco fashion: dresses and gowns

1950s housewife fashion

Three pioneering women’s outdoor clubs that broke all the rules

I sure wish I had more information on this photo!