MIGHTY CULTURE

How a change in warfare set men's style for almost 100 years

U.S. troops are trendsetters, for better or for worse.

It's a common lament among male troops and veterans these days — you don't need to be clean-shaven to seal a gas mask. That might be true today, but in the trenches of World War I, it was not the case. The Doughboys and Tommies in WWI Europe absolutely needed to be clean-shaven to seal their masks.

World War I and chemical warfare changed the way men groomed themselves for combat. And, when the troops came home, the American public kinda liked the change, cementing the nation's universal preference for (a lack of) facial hair.


Just twenty years prior, beards were a common sight in the Spanish-American War. Troops and their officers thought nothing of a well-grown face of whiskers. And because safety razors weren't as common as they are today, it was a good thing that sporting beards was still in vogue.

That's the kind of facial hair that remembers the USS Maine.

But by 1901, there was finally an option to make it safer to shave the faces fighting to make the world safe for democracy. Before this, men had to use a straight razor or go to a barber. This was both dangerous and expensive, especially in the middle of a war.

When the Germans started using poison gas on World War I battlefields, the Army started issuing gas masks — and these new safety razors. Suddenly, shaving was a requirement as well as a lifesaving tactic. In order for these early gas masks to fit properly, the men needed to be clean-shaven.

You can tell he's in regs because he's alive.

When WWI-era soldiers returned to the United States, they appeared in newsreels and newspapers as well as their hometowns. They were all shaven to within stringent Army regulations — and America liked the new look. Facial hair would fall out of favor until the 1960s and, even then, it was mostly American counterculture that re-embraced the beard.

Goddamn hippies.

It all makes sense when you think about it. Generations of children grew up watching the fighting men of World War I and World War II become the qrsenal of Democracy over the course of some 30 years. Who wouldn't want to emulate their heroes?

But it wasn't heroism alone that inspired America's smooth faces. The 20th Century was when advertising and big American corporations came of age. In the days before the "clutter" of ads Americans are inundated with every second of every day, advertising was remarkably effective. Even today, when an ad campaign hits a nerve in society, it changes the way people think and act.

But you're too smart for that, right?