American Notions of Masculinity, Revealed Through Beards

One of the fascinating things about looking over old photographs lies in comparing how styles of dress and grooming changed from one decade to another. In many cases, this is merely the result of economic prosperity or want at some given time and place, for some group of people. In others, we can see in these a reflection of changing attitudes towards class, gender roles and what could loosely be termed “morality”.

In the 1920’s, for instance, when a prudish mainstream culture clashed with the rise of an unprecedented nouveau riche caste, women could be fined and even imprisoned for daring to wear bathing suits higher than 6 inches above the knee:


For men, we can see much the same tendency to conformance and the suppression of overt sexuality:oldfootballteam

This picture is actually of a college football team, a peer group that tends to represent itself quite differently these days.

The History of Shaving in the Old World

In ancient times, men didn’t shave simply because razors were only available after people learned to smelt copper. Before then, the available options for depilation amounted to rubbing pumice stone or sharp seashells across the face, neither of which could have been pleasant.

In fact, this discomfort, which persisted until the invention of steel razors around 1800, may have led to the the popularization of shaving in the militaristic societies of Alexander the Great’s Macedonia and Rome. There and then, being clean-shaven was seen as a status symbol: a sign of having enough wealth and self-respect to care about your appearance, as well as being a member of a “superior” race. As it happens, there may be an etymological connection between the words barber and barbarian.

From the Middle Ages onward, social attitudes towards facial hair both diverged and oscillated wildly, although neatness continued to be prized as a sign of wealth. In Russia, for instance, Ivan the Terrible decried shaving as a sin, while his successor Peter the Great taxed and banned beards a century and a half later. In Britain, mustaches were seen as uncivilized, yet, in order to make their soldiers look more fierce, were also a required part of the uniform from 1860 up to the First World War. This, as it happens, may be the origin of the saying “keeping a stiff upper lip”.

Beards and Shaving in America

On the North American continent, there was initially a significant divide between sophisticated city-dwellers and their rural brethren. Hairless cheeks were greatly preferred among society men and reinforced their intellectual credentials: the first 15 American presidents were all clean-shaven.

This attitude reversed itself as cheaper steel razors, and especially safety razors from 1880 onwards, made visiting a barber unnecessary. After King Gillette created the disposable blade in 1895, few people, including farmers, couldn’t shave themselves if they chose to do so. At about the same time, changing attitudes to male virility and perhaps the nature of democracy brought mustaches and beards back into fashion, starting with Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, much changed in the decade starting 1910. A new emphasis on cleanliness and efficiency made shaving almost mandatory. At least to some extent, this norm persists up to the present day.

The Effect of Metrosexuality and Counterculture

In modern times, not shaving is often an expression of membership in some subculture or religion. More pervasively, though, it has become generally accepted that men looking their best, or sporting an uncommon appearance, is neither effeminate nor obnoxious.

Everything from goatees to full lumberjack-style beards is now more or less in fashion. This change in attitudes has also lead to the expansion of the U.S. shaving industry: websites like Home Spa Select now exist to advise men on everything from the best shaving accessories to correct technique.

Which way the public’s opinion on facial hair will go in the next decade is anyone’s guess. What is certain, though, is that mass media and highly tuned marketing now have a much greater effect on social attitudes than ever before. It will certainly be interesting to look back in 20 years and see how this plays out – the length of beards may not be the best sociological barometer, but it does give us an unusual angle from which to view developments.