Shirley Temple: A Look Back At The Original Curly Girl Role Model


I have a lifelong relationship with Shirley Temple and her hair. Since toddlerhood, I’ve been told that I looked like Shirley Temple, specifically because of the curls that sprouted from my head as soon as I began to grow actual hair.

Here’s an Instagram #tbt of me at 18 months old, blonde halo and all:

So, you can see why my grandparents called me “Shirley” and gifted me Shirley Temple movies, coloring books and more. My hair made me a tiny 80s version of Shirley and as a result, Shirley and her movies became a huge part of my childhood.

I watched Shirley while I drank milk and eat gingerbread men at my grandmother’s house, I watched Shirley with my sister on snow days, I learned the dance routines that Shirley did with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. I sang “Animal Crackers In My Soup” every time I ate soup. I felt like I was Shirley, or she was me, even though she lived in a black-and-white movie world with hoop skirts or sailor men and I lived in a brick house with my mom, dad and sister.

I hated my naturally curly hair when I was a kid, but having hair that looked like Shirley’s somehow made me special in my family. When I watched her movies, I felt special, like we had a curly-girl kinship that spanned decades and celluloid. She had her happy ringlets and I had mine, even though as I grew mine turned brown and tangled, even though as I got older I resented more more and the girls around me whose hair flat-ironed like a dream.

My favorite Shirley movie is The Little Colonel, with a close second Captain January and then Curly Top. These movies were already fifty years old when I was born. It’s pretty insane to watch them now and notice the racist, sexist stereotypes that eluded me as a child. Shirley herself was aware of the questionable nature of much the work she did as a child, saying, of the Baby Burlesque films she did in 1933, that they were “a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence that occasionally were racist or sexist.”

As problematic as the movies Shirley made were, as corny as they seem to our modern eyes, they remain one of my favorite things ever. I see Shirley tapping along with her curls bouncing and bobbing, and I’m the same little girl in our imagined curly kinship. Here’s a look back at Shirley and her curls, which remained her trademark throughout her long, amazing life, which ended yesterday.

Shirley in 1933

Cutest curls at five years old. Photo: by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shirley circa 1934

With ringlets on ringlets. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shirley in 1934

Dressed in an evening gown? This is one of the only photos I've seen of Shirley being remotely sexualized as a child and it's damn creepy. Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Shirley in 1936

"Captain January" era. Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Shirley in 1936

Arriving at the studio to celebrate her eighth birthday. Kinda sad that she had birthdays at work. Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Shirley in 1937

Photo: should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Shirley in 1940

By 1940, Shirley was losing the baby-faced cuteness that the studio loved so much, but her hair was still in the same short curly bob. Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Shirley in 1945

Shirley on her wedding day to her first husband, John Agar, in 1945. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shirley, mid 40s

Shirley, looking sultry (but still curly!) in the mid 40s. Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Shirley in 1947

Shirley and Cary Grant starred in 'The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer', 1947. Her hair was longer, but still remarkably wavy. Photo: RKO Pictures/Getty Images

Shirley in 1957

Shirley at home with her children by her second husband, Charles Black. Photo by: Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Shirley in 1958

She can really rock short curly hair, huh? Photo: Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Shirley in 1960

Shirley as the host of Shirley Temple's Storybook a show that ran from 1958-1960. Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Shirley in 1965

Getting ready for her daughter's debutante party with very VERY 60s hair. Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Shirley in 1987

At the Oscars, she's gone back to the length she sported as a child. Less ringlet-y, though. Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage

Shirley in 1990

Here's Shirley during her time as a US Ambassador, holding a Life magazine with herself on the cover. Photo: Terry O'Neill/Getty Images

Shirley Temple and Dakota Fanning in 2006

At the Screen Actor's Guild Awards in 2006. Photo: KMazur/WireImage for Turner

Photos: Getty Images

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    • Kaitlin Reilly

      I used to watch her movies all the time with my grandma but never really heard much about her later life. She was beautiful!

    • Rachel

      Ahh, yes, I can relate…

    • Choo

      She looks like Michelle Williams… or I guess the other way around…

    • Elizabeth Alexander

      omg curly-girl kinship is my new favourite phrase. and so so true