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A Hair’s Difference: Shaving and Facial Hair Throughout History

It’s something most of us will have to face in early adolescence:

The human body sprouts surprisingly creative quantities and patterns of hair.

Every culture has had its own particular way of styling this hair, sometimes utilitarian, sometimes elaborate, but all based on collective ideals of cleanliness, status, and social relationships.

No element of the human body can escape significance and symbolism, and the beard is no exception. 

So what are the different attitudes toward, and practices surrounding, facial hair and shaving throughout history? 

Well, overall attitude has varied and gone through many changes over time; and its cyclical fads certainly made the evolution of how we wear facial hair interesting. 

Early Growth

Beards are a naturally occurring secondary sexual characteristic, meaning they are generally only found on members of one sex while serving no direct reproductive purpose. While no one is entirely sure of just why (most) men are capable of growing beards, the likeliest explanation is that they serve an evolutionary function in signaling sexual maturity and quality as a mate. 

Regardless of the scientific reasons for their existence, they have long held special focus for humans since they tend to be one of the most distinctive marks of malehood, signifying everything from wisdom, elder status, physical health, or even spiritual soundness. 

Archaeological evidence provides us with examples of shells used to pluck or pinch prehistoric beards from the body, as well as obsidian blades which may well have been used for shaving once some enterprising groomer realized that that must have been more comfortable than yanking out your beard with a clam shell.

Carvings and illustrations from early human civilizations in the Indian subcontinent, Mesopotamia, and Greece have demonstrated the care and attention, and thus the importance, ancient peoples paid to their beards. Ancient Persians waxed and threaded their faces. Romans, both men and women, would use fire to singe and scorch hair from various parts of the body.

In 440 BCE, the historian Herodotus wrote that “Egyptian priests shave their whole body every other day, that no lice or other impure thing may adhere to them when they are engaged in the service of the gods”. 

At first, this might seem a bit odd compared to the modern norm of the clean-shaven jaw.

So what happened?

The short answer—for Europeans and North Americans, at least—is Alexander the Great.

The Face of a God

Alexander was both the son of the bearded Philip II as well as a student of one of history’s most famous beard-wearers:

Aristotle 

You probably have an image in your head of the many statues and paintings from ancient Greece which have been preserved all over the world, depicting such well-known figures as Socrates, Pericles, and Leonidas wearing full, well-tended beards. Greek men shaved only to demonstrate grief; in all other contexts, a clean shave was seen as unmanly and distasteful by citizens of the Hellenic city-states.

In Alexander’s world, men wore beards, but, critically, gods did not. When, at the age of 20, he succeeded his murdered father to the throne, he chose not to wear a beard for a very good reason:

His clean shave was meant to associate him in the minds of his followers with the depictions of gods, and thus to make a connection in the minds of his soldiers between him and superhuman abilities and invincibility. 

It was also a striking look for the time, akin to someone gaining the presidency of a modern country while wearing a head full of spiked green hair. Alexander’s followers soon copied him, and beards were placed firmly under “optional.”

Thus a cyclical pattern was begun, which has largely repeated to this day

The reasons for this and the shape that it’s taken have some pretty surprising explanations.

Changing Attitudes

Following closely on the heels of the Macedonians, the Romans soon established fashions which became widespread throughout their empire. Unlike the Greeks, Roman men stopped shaving when in mourning, otherwise tidying themselves with razors, allegedly introduced by the king Lucius Tarquinius Priscus.

For over 600 years, Romans shaved regularly, the trend only being bucked in the 1st Century CE, when the emperor Hadrian grew a short beard, possibly as a result of his admiration for all things Greek, although it may also have been to hide his facial scars.  

For most of the Roman period, though, shaving was strongly linked to ideas of civilization, culture, and order. This was reinforced by the association of facial hair with non-Roman nations including Gauls and various Germanic tribes, casting beards as a mark of primitivity and a lack of refinement.

Here’s why:

Traditionally, power has played an outsized role in fashions.

Alexander emulated the most powerful beings of all; Romans emulated Alexander; and eventually, long after the collapse of the Empire and the rise of Catholicism, the clergy began shaving for a number of complex reasons that influenced hairstyles for decades to come.

Christian priests were expected to shave to set themselves apart from their bearded congregations. Despite being devotees of perhaps the most famous beard-wearer in history, these priests, many of whom early on were Romans themselves, preached and practiced the connection between a clean shave, civilization and order, and goodness, all in the face of political instability and violence in Europe at the time.

The Frankish king Charlemagne provides a sterling example of the tension between these two ideas.

The German who emulates and admires the manliness and strength of bearded chieftains, but who, as a realistic ruler in post-Roman Europe, must cloak himself in the church, build libraries and wear Roman clothes, and, of course, shave all but his mustache.

This was merely one entry in the ongoing back-and-forth over facial hair. 

By the late 1300s, every element of Medieval society was shaving, with barbers seeing a boom in trade (when they weren’t performing minor surgery or dentistry, as was their practice at the time).

At the beginning of the Renaissance period, Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France grew beards in a friendly competition, and in Italy beards soon began to be seen as an expression of educated humanism, an intelligent investment in the earthly rather than attachment to the supernatural.

Following this, the societies of Europe became more centralized and stratified, and as the ideas of the Age of Reason became entrenched in political and cultural thought, order became an ideal reflected in state institutions like courts and uniformed armies, and in the clean shaves of their members. 

The Eighteenth Century, in fact, was almost universally clean-shaven in Western Europe. Growing knowledge of hygiene led people to the idea that you didn’t have to play host to lice or nits, as well as the simple realization that no hair, or at least little hair, was easier to keep clean.

But this is a cycle, remember?

Razors and Broomfaces

One of the realities of shaving—which razor manufacturers would probably rather not talk about—is that the popularity of the practice really has nothing to do with its ease. We’ve seen that people will burn, pluck, cut, and pinch hair off. With pain being no obstacle, it seems unlikely that missing a sixth, seventh, or eighth blade on their razor is stopping anyone from shaving.

Straight razors had been manufactured in England since the late 17th Century, but they were largely set aside by the 1850s by most European men who chose to begin wearing the elaborate styles of the last great age of the beard. 

In the United States, Abraham Lincoln forsook his bare face for the simple beard which would become a trademark; British prime ministers grew great curtains of hair from their jowls; French and Italian nobles wore waxed and elaborately curled mustaches; and facial hair reached a new popularity in Japan, which had recently begun imitating Western styles in an attempt to achieve that old feat of dressing the part of sophistication and power (see Charlemagne).

But at the same time, people had largely returned to wearing natural hair rather than periwigs for fear of parasites. This was partly due to improved sanitation, but also to a desire to express a growing sense of freedom and individuality (if only among men) in matters of politics and philosophical attitudes. 

However, this last golden age of beards ended for a number of complex reasons, cut short in 1880 by a new fashion for shaving with mass-produced safety razors (so-called because of their perceived safety over straight razors). Modern sensibilities and the perceived old-fashionedness of the beard spelled the end for the huge whiskers of the 19th century. 

During WWI, the Army prohibited beards as they compromised the seal of gas masks which were essential during warfare.  

Factors like the US Army forbidding, more on prejudice than practicality, the wearing of beards soon indicated an acceleration of anti-barbism which has continued to this day.

So what’s next?

Over the last 20 years, beards have made a comeback in the West, with prominent figures sporting them and their presence ever more accepted. However, they still remain an unusual feature, and will doubtless continue to be so until the hairy pendulum swings back once more, making their presence welcome and desirable.

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