A look at the grooming habits in the United States Military over the years.
Hair and beard standards through the ages.
A soldier’s appearance isn’t limited to his uniform and weapons; it also includes his personal grooming. In the era of the American Revolution, large, curly wigs were commonly worn by civilians but were too hot, expensive and liable to get infested by bugs to use in war. Officers often wore a looser wig with a pigtail made out of either their own hair or the hair of horses, goats or yaks. Common soldiers wore no wigs at all. Instead, they tried to grow their hair long and wear it in a pig tail, called a queue at the time, usually powdering it with a mixture of tallow and flour. Men with short hair would wear a fake queue made of leather with a puff of hair at the end.
Upbraided hair and clubbed style, in which hair was gathered at the back of the neck, tied in a bundle, folded up and tied again in a club, were also alternatives for soldiers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the club being particularly popular with mounted soldiers as it stayed in place during the fury of close combat.
Sailors in the early U.S. Navy adopted the British practice of dipping their tails in tar which would keep it in place and prevent it from getting entangled in the rigging of sailing ships. It’s possible that it was this practice that led to navy uniform shirts with long collars that could protect the uniform from this improvised gel.
During this time, beards were forbidden in the Army and soldiers in garrison had to shave at least three times a week. In 1801 Major General James Wilkinson, Senior Officer of the Army, abolished queues, leading to an almost mutinous outcry. In 1805, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Butler, an Army veteran of 30 years, was sentenced to 12 months of suspension from command without pay for refusing to cut off his queue. This was unusually harsh for a man of such rank and service time but he died of illness before the sentence could be carried out.
While hair got shorter, facial hair gained ground by the Civil War. Many high-ranking officers took advantage of the 1861 regulation that allowed beards “to be worn at the pleasure of the individual,” conveniently ignoring the second half of the sentence: “but, when worn, to be kept short and neatly trimmed.”
General Ambrose Burnside went so far with his grooming style that an entire category of facial hair was named after him: the sideburn. Many others did their best to outdo him but none achieved the same historical legacy.
Beards were eventually banned during World War I, for two reasons. Unsanitary conditions in the trenches of France meant that beards were a haven for lice and mud. Perhaps even more importantly, gas masks of the time couldn’t get a proper seal with a beard, putting bearded soldiers in mortal danger.
World War II regulations went even further and stipulated clean fingernails in addition to short hair. In practice, reasonable exceptions were made for units in the line of fire or in isolated locations with no proper grooming facilities. Submarine and ship crew in particular often ignored the ban on beards and even had beard growing competitions judged on returning to harbor.
Mohawk haircuts and war paint were adopted by some soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division for their psychological effect on the enemy. The haircut lives on in the “high and tight” hairdo often associated with the Marines today.
In the Vietnam era, the short hair of servicemen contrasted with the beards and long hair popular in the civilian world, often making them the targets of harassment by anti-war protesters. Some men bought and wore long wigs to blend in Stateside but the Navy and the Coast Guard also received a helping hand from Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. During his tenure, Zumwalt issued numerous Z-gram directives aimed at reforming outdated policies that he felt were hampering recruitment and retention. One such Z-gram explicitly allowed sailors longer hair, beards and sideburns. Naval Secretary John Chaffee also relaxed the rules, claiming that the famous 18th century captain John Paul Jones, “Father of the U.S. Navy,” also wore long hair, so it was actually part of the Navy’s tradition. This liberalization went a bit too far, though, and was soon reigned in again.