Fashion Moments – Marcel Wave

Fashion Moments by Deborah SweeneyWelcome to my weekly fashion blog post. Each week I will discuss a female garment, fashion trend or influencer from the age of photography (1840s through the 20th century). My goal is to educate family researchers and genealogists about the clothing worn by our ancestors. Dating photographs is an issue we all struggle with as family archivists. Additionally, anyone who writes about their family’s history should be aware of the environment in which their ancestors lived. Period clothing is an important part of that environment from how it affects a person’s movement to their overall lifestyle. This week I introduce you to the 19th century French hair dresser Francois Marcel.

Who was François Marcel?

There are conflicting reports about who Francois Marcel was, mostly due to the fact that he used different names throughout his career. However, it appears that he was François Marcel Grateau (1852-1936).  During the 1870s, he invented a technique for curling hair using hot curling tongs. By 1905, then known as François Marcel Woelfflé. he patented his first design for a curling iron in the United States. Marcel continued to register patents for various curling irons, permanent machines and hair clippers until his death in 1936.

Marcel Wave

Although the technique was originally perfected for longer hair which was styled up and back, as women began to “bob” their hair in the 1920s, the Marcel wave became even more popular. Many film stars, like Claudette Colbert, sported Marcel waves during the 1920s. My grandmother Gladys employed the style on her hair during the late 1920s and early 1930s. This picture was taken in 1929. The main characteristic of the Marcel wave is the alternating “S” shape in the rows of waves.

Foster, Gladys - Terre Haute, Indiana,1929

Gladys Foster, Terre Haute, Indiana, 1929

The style was not restricted to the young and famous, or to specific geographic regions. Women of all ages and social standing “marcelled” their hair.  Coincidentally also in 1929, this photograph was taken in the San Francisco Bay area. While my other grandmother, Louise, was only 14 at the time, her mother stylishly wears the Marcel wave in her hair.

Leonard, C. Estelle (Whitten)  with Louise - 1929-07

Louise and Estelle Leonard, San Francisco Bay area, 1929

Further Reading

Article on the website discusses Marcel and the Marcel Wave in more depth.

Book titled Technique and Art of Marcel Waving – Creating 1920s Hair Waving Styles in Six Easy Steps by William Zentler was originally published in 1923, and currently available as a reprint.

Check out‘s selection of high school and college yearbooks in their database, “U.S. School Yearbooks, 1880-2012.” These provide a great resource for dating hairstyles on a yearly basis.

©2015 written by Deborah Sweeney
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6 thoughts on “Fashion Moments – Marcel Wave

  1. davidmadison1942

    Such a classic–and classy–photo of my mother! And how cool to have a photo of Louise and Estelle Leonard taken the same year.

    So many resources for uncovering our cultural history. The 1923 book by William Zentler looks fascinating.

    I read this post on Sunday, then Sunday night on Downton Abbey I noticed the Marcel Wave. 🙂

  2. Amy

    These posts are so helpful. I have an album full of old photos that I am trying to date, and I am hoping that one of your fashion posts will help me achieve that goal.

    1. Genealogy Lady Post author

      Yay!!! That is my goal. If you come across something that you would like me to write a post on, please send it my way. In general, I have a harder time with men’s fashions because their styles changed so much more slowly (and subtly).

  3. Susan Buck

    Fantastic, love it. I have my grandma’s curling tongs and am halfway through writing a post about the marcel wave and hairstyles of the 1920-30s.


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