The preoccupation with male grooming, most closely associated with the modern phenomenon of the metrosexual and his fastidious rituals of hair and skin care and physical fitness, is not simply the product of late-20th-century consumer culture.
Men have been obsessed with their physical appearance for centuries. In the ancient Egyptian world, for example, men practiced a rigorous health and beauty regimen that included the use of skin conditioners and moisturizers as well as the application of cosmetics to the eyes, lips, and cheeks. The obsession with skin care was also reflected in the Roman penchant for elaborate bathing rituals that included, along with the use of ointments and oils to replenish and restore vitality to the skin, the practice of bathing in mud. Makeup on the eyes and cheeks, as well as the use of hair dyes, were common features of the male grooming regimen in Rome by the first century c.e.
In medieval Europe, the Christian church generally frowned upon the extravagant adornment of the male body and issued injunctions against the wearing of wigs and the use of facial powders and paints. During the reign of Elizabeth I in England (1558–1603), however, the preoccupation with male physical appearance seems to have come to the fore once again. During this era, men used rosemary water on their hair, sage to whiten their teeth, and elderflower ointments to moisturize their skin. They also resorted to a lead and arsenic-based powder to whiten their complexions and applied rouge made from geranium petals to pink their cheeks. These early precedents point to the complex nature of the history of male grooming.
Male grooming in North America predates the arrival of European settlers and was a common feature of the indigenous cultures of the New World. By the 18th century, the European fascination with male wigs held considerable sway in the American colonies of the British and reflected a preoccupation with a trend that served to not only mark status but also reinforce specific standards of attractiveness. The concern with covering the head in a fashionable manner affected all segments of society, including slaves, who fashioned wigs from animal hair and plant fibers and used them both as standard accessories and as a mechanism for changing their appearance, particularly when they were on the run. While never as elaborate as equivalent French fashions, wigs of this nature point to the role that male vanity and grooming have played in the larger history of physical appearance.
Since the 19th century, men have been obsessed with three specific areas of grooming: hair, the beard, and the male physique. Historically, hair (and more particularly the lack of hair) has proven to be an obsession for men. In the 19th century, Native Americans in the southwest used, among other techniques, an ointment of yucca and chili pepper oil to encourage hair growth and prevent male pattern baldness. Cowboys, during the era of westward expansion, lined up at medicine shows to purchase a whole array of snake oil products thought to prevent hair loss. Similarly, purveyors of patent medicines in this period offered remedies for baldness in the pages of numerous periodical publications such as Harper’s Weekly. Products like Scalpine, created by patent medicine entrepreneur H. H. Warner in the 1880s as one of his Log Cabin remedies, promised to cure a host of scalp disorders, counteract baldness, and prevent the premature growth of gray hair.
Concerns about baldness and premature graying remained pressing concerns in the 20th century. For most, relief from these afflictions was frequently found through the use of hair dyes or the wearing of a hairpiece. Despite the fact that they were frequently stigmatized and often the subject of humor, more than 350,000 men were wearing toupees by the end of the 1950s. By the 1960s, the quest for a remedy for baldness led to the development of several products based on the so-called Helsinki formula, a corn derivative identified as polysorbate 60 that was said to encourage hair growth. While its success was open to scientific questioning, this development led to new research that resulted in the discovery, by the pharmaceutical giant Upjohn, of minoxidil, an effective restorative. By the 1970s, new semi permanent hairpieces like the Micro-Lock wig were being marketed and the first hair implants, using artificial fibers and infection-producing techniques, were being offered to men willing to shell out more than $1,000 for the procedure. Upjohn continued to offer pharmaceutical solutions to men interested in encouraging hair growth by launching Rogaine in 1988. New advancements in the 1980s also led to the development of a broad range of hair transplantation techniques that offered new hope, and in some instances a broad range of medical and aesthetic complications, to millions of balding men.
While worries about hair loss have certainly provided the impetus for one particular male grooming ritual, concerns about the cutting and styling of hair have inspired another. Barbershops have been a prominent feature of urban and rural landscapes for generations. Barbers, responsible for shaving the face, trimming beards, and cutting hair, were found in ancient history. In the premodern world, they provided aesthetic services while also performing medical functions as dentists, bloodletters, and surgeons. Despite criticisms of men who paid excessive attention to their physical appearance, mid-19th-century barbers in rural villages, smaller towns, and large urban settings offered a variety of aesthetic services to their clients. Most men went to barbers for haircuts, shaves, and beard and mustache trimming. Their shops, however, were also places where clients could sample a broad range of beautifying techniques and products, including face washes, colognes, and concoctions intended to hide gray hair.
In the antebellum period, a number of freed African American men served, especially in urban areas, as barbers for a largely white clientele. These men often achieved an impressive level of financial independence and social prominence in their local communities. By the 1880s, these African American barbers were displaced by white competitors, drawn primarily from German and Italian immigrant communities. By the 20th century, African American barbers were catering increasingly to an exclusively black clientele, providing specialized services and creating, within their shops, an important public space for men organized around the rituals and practices of grooming.
Since the end of World War II, men’s hair care has changed dramatically. Despite a brief penchant among American men for longer hair and elaborate beards, sideburns, and mustaches in the 1840s and 1850s and then again in the countercultural 1960s and 1970s (the era of the natural look), the general trend in the 19th and 20th centuries has been toward closely cropped short hair and minimal facial hair. Since the 1960s, the prominence of the barbershop as the institution of male grooming has been challenged by the rise of the unisex hairdresser and, more recently, by the emergence of the upscale salon and spa catering to both female and male customers, especially those men most closely associated with the rise of metrosexuals.
Beards And Shaving
The growth of facial hair and, perhaps more importantly, the ritual of shaving, have always functioned as important rites of passage for adolescent boys in a diverse range of cultures. Prior to the emergence of self-shaving in the late 19th century, most men had their beards shaved by servants or barbers. The straight-edge razor was the preferred instrument and remained prominent until the introduction of the safety razor in the 1880s. This period also witnessed the proliferation of a broad range of shaving paraphernalia and products like shaving soaps and soothing homemade washes such as cherry laurel water. In the 1890s, King Camp Gillette revolutionized shaving with the invention of the disposable razor blade. By 1905, Gillette had emerged as the undisputed leader in the shaving industry, selling close to 100,000 razors and 125,000 blades annually and expanding into European markets. In part, Gillette’s successes were brought about by inventive advertising campaigns that appealed to middle-class notions of self-sufficiency and used portraits of famous self-starters like Andrew Carnegie and Horatio Alger, or idealized, and frequently clean-shaven, images of baseball players and soldiers. The technology of men’s shaving was altered in the 1960s and 1970s by the introduction first of the plastic disposable razor, intended to be used only once or twice, and then by the widespread marketing of electric shavers.
The shaving industry was not just affected by innovations in razors and blades. By the 1920s, producers were capitalizing on shaving consumers by offering men new, and highly masculinized, toiletries that were intended to ease the rigors of shaving and improve appearance. New lines of lotions, powders, and moisturizers like Florian, introduced in 1929 by beauty industry entrepreneur Carl Weeks, were routinely advertised in prominent men’s magazines like Fortune (f. 1930) and Esquire (f. 1933). Since World War II, when military men embraced fastidious grooming habits in order to meet the military expectations of short hair, a clean shave, and pressed and polished clothes and shoes, the men’s shaving industry and the market for attendant skincare products has expanded dramatically. From this point on, men became big consumers of aftershave products, skin lotions, and deodorants in order to live up to new standards of male cleanliness. By the late 1950s, female cosmetics companies began to develop lines specifically directed at men. This commercialization of men’s appearance has led to further significant developments since the 1960s. By the 1980s, cosmetics companies were seeking to further encourage men to use products previously thought to be reserved exclusively for women. Clinique, by the mid 1980s, began marketing skin care products specifically to men by giving key products like exfoliating masks new masculine-sounding names like Scruffing Lotion. The products, increasingly advertised in a growing number of men’s magazines like Gentlemen’s Quarterly (GQ) were, by the late 20th century, becoming more common accessories for men interested in achieving their best possible appearance. This emphasis on skin care, which grew out of the shaving industry, also led to a new valorization of the hairless male body as a symbol of youthfulness and a general sign of cleanliness. Since the 1980s, when the hirsute look of the ’70s epitomized by Burt Reynolds’s 1972 centerfold spread in Cosmopolitan was replaced by a hairless ideal, men have been shaving and waxing their chests, back, buttocks, and, in some instances, even arms and legs.
Building Better Bodies
The final area of men’s grooming relates to the maintenance and improvement of the body’s general appearance. While concerns about, for example, the fineness of a man’s leg appeared in considerations of masculine appearance in the 18th century, the preoccupation with an athletic and trim body was, primarily, an invention of the 19th century. Concepts of muscular Christianity, borrowed in part from Britain, predominated in discussions of the male body in antebellum America. The muscular Christian, who trained his body through moderate exercise and appropriate games, was expected to achieve physical fitness as a general sign of moral and spiritual health. While some men in this period, like Diamond Jim Brady (1856–1917) and President William Howard Taft (1857–1930), embraced corpulence as a sign of prosperity, most middle-class American men, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, began to eschew fatness as a sign of foreignness and lower social status. Indeed, it was during this period that many men came to groom their bodies, as they groomed their hair and beards, through sports like football, baseball, and track and field and, increasingly, through physical culture exercises and bodybuilding, promoted most notably by Bernarr Adolphus Macfadden (1868–1955). Macfadden, as a proponent of physical culture, promoted healthy diets, regular exercise, and the acquisition of muscle through his magazine Physical Culture (f. 1899).
This physical culture craze, despite a recent rise in general obesity rates, has continued unabated for the past century, and informed, in rather profound ways, concepts about the ideal male body. In 1939, the well-built muscular body was celebrated as an ideal worthy of admiration and reward with the creation of the Mr. America contest. This idealization of the muscular body was further promoted through the work of Harvard psychologist William Herbert Sheldon who, in work published in 1940, valorized the positive physical and emotional traits of the V-shaped mesomorph. This emphasis on fitness led, by the 1950s, to large-scale efforts to promote physical education as a means of improving national efficiency and health. While this preoccupation with the cultivation of a muscular body seemed to fall off somewhat in the 1960s and 1970s, concerns about fitness never disappeared entirely. In the late 1960s and 1970s, running as a form of exercise experienced something of a boom as sedentary men sought to improve their health and their body image through aerobic activity. The 1970s also witnessed an increase in the sale of exercise equipment and the formation of health clubs, intended to provide people with an opportunity to retain or reclaim a youthful appearance and strive for individual physical perfection. Since the 1980s, the impossibly chiseled muscular body, complete with perfect pectoral muscles, well-developed biceps, and the rock-hard abdominal six-pack has been the ideal that many men have struggled to achieve through the consumption of dietary supplements, long hours at the gym, and, in some cases, liposuction, pectoral implants, and the use of steroids. Concerns with the grooming of the body have also led, since the Reagan era, to the creation of a broad range of fitness magazines, such as Men’s Health (f. 1987), concerned with providing male readers with how-to advice about achieving the perfectly sculpted body.