Ever since the time of the cavemen, men have cycled through trends of growing facial hair and shaving it all off. Edgy facial hair often emerged to counter mainstream trends, resulting in some of the strangest facial hair ever seen. Whether men grew goatees, sported mustaches, or went clean-shaven, facial hair trends changed every decade of the 20th century. Some of these styles reemerged on men's faces years later, either through reinvention, embracing nostalgia, or expressing oneself through irony.
If one looks at edgy facial hair by decade, it becomes clear that men's facial hair is an important part of their identity. While the length and styles of facial hair during previous centuries largely depended upon the need for warmth and to keep dirt and the sun away from one's mouth, beards and mustaches later evolved to demonstrate one's class and level of manliness. Throughout the 20th century, styling facial hair also became a method for men to assert their individuality and show their distaste for the mainstream styles that followed changes in society's beliefs. While facial hair styles went back and forth between having hair on one's face or not, edgy styles emerged to make things more interesting, both for men's faces and for history.
1900s: The Handlebar Mustache
By the end of the 19th century, people considered beards to be unhygienic. New discoveries about bacteria and its role in causing sickness led people to believe facial hair would attract and harbor germs. Beards quickly fell out of style as hospitals required bearded patients to shave, and food establishments banned men with facial hair from food-handling positions. Men who wanted to prove themselves manly while showing off their social status, however, kept their facial hair in the form of mustaches.
The handlebar mustache became popular in the Edwardian and Victorian eras of the 18th and 19th centuries and remained popular into the 1900s. It symbolized colonialism and brought about nostalgia for the distinguished gentlemen of years past. Although the style was thought to have originated in England, the look was just as popular in America. President William Taft helped popularize the handlebar mustache in the US as he twirled and curled the ends higher and higher. His look was apparently impressive enough to detract imitators - no US president has since had facial hair while in office.
1910s: The Mustache But No Beard
Continued concerns about bacteria and germs kept beards off most men's faces through the next decade. The Gillette Safety Razor Co.'s newly invented safety razor made shaving quick and easy, and men all over the world purchased Gillette's products to maintain a clean-shaven face. To counter the historical idea that beards made men manly, the company focused its marketing on convincing consumers that shaving made them civilized. "The country's future is written in the faces of young men," a 1910 ad read. "The Gillette is a builder of regular habits."
During WWI, military personnel believed gas masks would fit better on soldiers' faces if they didn't have facial hair. Soldiers were banned from growing beards or mustaches and used military-issued khaki kits containing Gillette safety razors to keep their faces hair-free. Men became used to easy shaving thanks to the safety razor, but once WWI ended, those not allowed to grow facial hair used the post-war relaxed rules to rebel by growing mustaches.
As mustaches became popular after WWI ended and soldiers were allowed to grow them, the media helped popularize the look by showing beloved celebrities with mustaches. Mystery writer Agatha Christie debuted Hercule Poirot in 1920 and gave her famous detective a memorable mustache. Aside from literary characters and movie stars, however, 1920s men preferred a clean-shaven look. Due to the ease with which men could now shave at home thanks to Gillette's safety razor and the invention of the first electric razor in 1923, more and more men opted out of having facial hair of any kind.
Movies became an influence on society during this time, as well, as Hollywood's silent era brought beautiful faces to screens all over the country. Without words, movies had to depict villains through their actions, costumes, and looks. Facial hair in film was often a signifier that a character was evil - a trope that goes back to Satan's goatee in Dante's Inferno. Many people believed facial hair meant the wearer was unclean or had something to hide. Even beloved heartthrob Rudolph Valentino received backlash when he grew a goatee in preparation for a film. As the economy declined at the end of the decade, mustaches and beards fell even further out of style.
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1930s: Toothbrush Mustache
In response to the bushy, thick mustaches of previous decades, some men in the 1930s opted for a smaller version known as a toothbrush mustache. Worn by Germany's Crown Prince Wilhelm, Oliver Hardy, and Walt Disney for a brief period, the style also gained recognition thanks to Charlie Chaplin. The toothbrush mustache became so closely associated with the actor during the 1930s that costume companies made it the most important accessory in capturing Chaplin's look.
The toothbrush mustache failed to become popular with the majority of the American public, however, and most people considered the style to be a joke. Possibly due to the influence of Chaplin, Adolf Hitler adopted a version of the mustache, and the style became almost synonymous with the man. Even before he adopted the look, Germans believed the style to be unfashionable and silly. Hitler reportedly said, "If it is not the fashion now, it will be later because I wear it." After WWII ended, however, no one dared wear the style aside from Michael Jordan's short-lived attempt to bring it back in a 2010 Hanes commercial.