Style, Sanitation and Control: The Ever-Changing History of Shaving
Let’s face it, shaving is a total inconvenience, whether it be your beard, legs, or something else. Yet most of us regularly do it in some form or another. Why? When did this trend begin? Well, evidence for shaving goes back as much as 30,000 years! By looking at the history of shaving we can see that even today, in some ways, we’re really not that different from our ancestors.
Early Evidence and the History of Shaving
It probably comes as no shock to find out we’ve been shedding the fluff for a long time. While we’re not entirely sure when exactly humans first began to shave, we do have evidence of shaving all the way back to between 30,000 BC and 10,000 BC. There are cave paintings dating back to this era that show our ancestors sporting smooth chins.
As straight razors didn’t exist at the time, it is thought that rather than shave, these people would pluck using the edges of two shells to pull out any unwanted hair. Slightly later we began to use flint blades with water to speed up the process.
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With no written history we can only make educated guesses as to why people began to shave. Prehistoric humans likely began shaving for reasons of hygiene, since it’s not a bad way to get rid of parasites like lice and mites.
Head from an Osiride Statue of Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh. It wasn’t uncommon for Egyptian leaders to adorn their shaven faces with fake beards. ( Public domain )
Shave Like an Egyptian: Cleanliness, Chin Wigs and Fake Beards
It wasn’t until around 3,000 BC however that shaving hit its stride. The advent of copper tools changed everything. But, it was the Egyptians who became the first civilization to take shaving seriously. Very seriously.
The Egyptians were obsessed with cleanliness and hair was associated with being unclean. In the Egyptian heat more hair equaled more sweat. And more sweat meant more smell. In fact, it was not uncommon for the upper echelons of Egyptian society to be shaved from head to toe. They were often shaved bald and then used handmade wigs to keep their chrome domes cool in the direct heat.
Even better, chin wigs actually became a thing. Egyptians still associated power and virility with facial hair and it wasn’t uncommon for Egyptian leaders (male and female) to adorn their shaven faces with fake beards. Hence all the hieroglyphics of Pharaohs sporting beards. Unfortunately, as is the human way, shaving soon became associated with class and status. Hair meant you were a smelly peasant, too poor or stupid to get a good shave.
It’s also around this period we start to see people using dangerous concoctions of arsenic and quick lime as depilatory creams. This begins the unfortunate trend of people putting their health on the line to look good. The societal pressure to look a certain way had begun.
Alexander the Great and his clean-shaven face on the famed Alexander Mosaic at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. ( Public domain )
The Strategic Sense of Shaving: Greeks, Romans and the Catholic Church
It would take a little while for shaving to catch on outside of Egypt, with shaving only becoming more popular among ancient Greek and Roman men around the 4th century BC. This is normally attributed to Alexander the Great who decided shaving made sense strategically.
Alexander the Great realized that not having a beard gave the enemy one less thing to grab onto so he ordered all his Macedonians to shave. Soon shaving was fashionable. Who wouldn’t want to look like a hunky Macedonian soldier?
The Romans really embraced shaving. Men would spend hours at tonsors (barbershops) gossiping and getting a shave. A man’s first shave even became a rite of passage. Much like in ancient Egypt, the Romans soon started equating hairlessness with social standing.
Leaving the ancient civilizations behind, in the Middle Ages shaving remained popular in certain parts of the world, but for different reasons. When the Catholic Church split from the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054 shaving became a matter of religion.
Western Church leaders began encouraging their male practitioners to shave as a way of distinguishing themselves from their Muslim and Jewish neighbors whose religions forbade them from shaving. This was made law in 1096 when the Archbishop of Rouen banned beards altogether. That’s right, shaving became a tool for religious persecution.
Advert for hair removal cream in the Motion Picture Magazine August 1923 to January 1924. ( Public domain )
Constructing Masculinity and Femininity: Shaving and Fashion
From around the 15th century shaving appears to become the norm in the West and more aligned with modern beauty standards. For example, it was Queen Elizabeth I who popularized the tweezing of women’s eyebrows.
Up until the late 18th Century, shaved beards remained popular amongst men. In 18th century society it was considered polite for men to shave, as it was felt beards drew too much attention to a man’s masculinity. Excess beard hair was associated with pubic hair. The 19th Century saw a brief resurgence in male beard growth. Beards were once again associated with masculinity. Once again it was cool for men to grow a beard, particularly in the military-style.
History has had less of an interest in women and shaving, although we know that at various points in the last few thousand years it has been both common and uncommon for women to shave. For much of the last few thousand years, women simply weren’t allowed to show off their bare arms, legs, or other areas. That’s why those areas often remained unshaven. Whether a woman was shaved or not was deemed to be between her and her husband.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the world developed such an unhealthy obsession with whether a woman was shaved or not. Silky smooth armpits took the world by storm in May 1915 when Harper’s Bazaar , an upmarket magazine, ran an ad featuring a beautiful model wearing not much of anything and with her bare arms over her head. Shockingly, she was shaved.
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Up until this point it was fashion, largely dictated by moral decency, which had dictated that women remain largely covered. But now armpits were fair game, free to be flaunted. Shaved legs took a little longer to catch on. Long hemlines and unshaven legs remained the norm until World War II, but the rise of pin-up stars like Betty Grable around this time soon popularized shaved legs.
Unfortunately, this came with new societal pressure on what these body parts should look like. Capitalism soon caught on and before long women were being bombarded with countless adverts telling them what and how to shave. The age of impossible beauty standards had begun.
A review of the history of shaving shows us that for thousands of years humans have been obsessed with the shaven body for myriad reasons. Sometimes for hygiene, sometimes for religion, and nowadays as a way to sell you rubbish you don’t need. Nearly always for societal reasons. So, to shave or not to shave? These days, it’s really up to you.
Top image: The history of shaving reveals how ideals of beauty and body politics have changed over time. Source: master1305 / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
James, H. 2022. “The Ultimate History (and Future) of Shaving” in History Cooperative . Available at: https://historycooperative.org/the-ultimate-history-and-future-of-shaving/
Peterkin, A. 2002. One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair . Arsenal Pulp Press.
Sherrow, V. 2006. Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Greenwood Publishing Group
Tarantola, A. 2015. “A Nick in Time: How Shaving Evolved Over 100,000 Years of History” in Gizmodo. Available at: https://gizmodo.com/a-nick-in-time-how-shaving-evolved-over-100-000-years-1545574268