November has come to be known in recent years as Movember, a month where men grow moustaches and other facial hair to raise money to promote awareness of men’s health issues. It started in Australia in 2003 with a group of 30 individuals, and over the last decade has grown into a worldwide movement that has seen more than 4 million participants raising almost US $560 million. Even with the availability of razors, trends of being clean-shaven and wearing facial hair have changed through the years.
Straight razors have been around for millennia. Researchers have identified Egyptian razors from 4,000 BCE and from India around 3,000 BCE. Roman razors daring from around the first millennia BCE were the first to straight razors. Archaeologists have found foldable straight razors as far back as the 15th century. The so-called “cut throat” razor is still in use today. Not only does the James Bond character use them, but so does my barbershop, where the barbers finish every man’s haircut by using a straight razor to shave the back of his neck.
Jean Jacque Perret created the first razor designed to minimize injury. He placed a razor blade in a wooden sleeve (like a carpenter’s plane) to reduce the risk of cutting one’s self while shaving. What we think of as today’s “safety razor” came about in 1875. This led to King Gillette developing and selling the first razor at the turn of the 20th century.
The current fashion of men growing enormous beards is reminiscent of a similar fashion that occurred in the mid-nineteenth century. It all started in Britain with the British Army’s participation in the Crimean War. Prior to this conflict, men in the British Army were required to be clean-shaven. But the conditions during the war required the rules to change. When these soldiers returned home, their beards were seen as the mark of their bravery and service. It did not take long for them to become the fashion for all men in Victorian Britain.
Americans have long taken their fashion cues from Europe, especially from Britain. When American men saw images of the whiskers adorning the faces of their British compatriots, the trend took off here as well.
As with all things fashion, the trend did not last forever. It was around for about twenty years before starting to fall. The downfall was brought on by two things. First, younger men began to see the fashion as belong to the previous generation and looked for a way to create a more modern look. Second, the availability of safety razors made the job of shaving much simpler.
You can find out more about razors in Waremakers’ Guide to Razors. And the BBC recently ran a piece on The Great Victorian Beard Craze that discusses the nineteenth-century fashion trend in more detail.