1780 - 1949

The Mo Show (with beards)

National Portrait Gallery

A history of facial hair fashion

Wigs and sidewhiskers: 1780s–1840s
 "They wanted to know of what sex we were, which they explained by pointing to where it was distinguishable, as they took us for women, not having our beards grown. I ordered one of the people to undeceive them in this particular, when they made a great shout of admiration." Phillip Gidley King, 1788 – describing an encounter between members of the First Fleet and Eora people

Eighteenth century men differed from those of the preceding centuries in their preference for beardlessness. This was the typical facial hair condition throughout most of the 1700s, when wearing a beard was likely to cast one into the category of eccentric, insane or otherwise unreasoned and ungoverned.

Wigs were customary for men in this era. Also called periwigs or perukes, wigs were made from human or animal hair and worn by all men, regardless of class or profession. They were available in various colours and were often powdered.

By the mid 1700s, the short, tied-back style of wig known as a bag wig had replaced the elaborate shoulder-length styles of wig typical of the first part of the century.

By the end of the century, however, ideas about equality and liberty had begun to filter through to fashion. Looks and fabrics became less opulent and styles more flowing and comfortable – notable particularly in women’s gowns, which had higher waistlines that required less restraint from undergarments.

For men, wigs fell out of favour – and in revolutionary France became associated with the excesses of the idle rich. In the prevailing mood of egalitarianism, short, tousled and unpowdered hairstyles became the standard. Men’s clothes likewise became less fussy and more practical.

Shorter waistcoats and closer-fitting breeches might be argued to have emphasised a gentleman’s masculinity, but the late 18th-century habit of being clean-shaven gave Indigenous people cause to question the gender of the explorers and colonisers they encountered as Enlightenment ideas and imperialism lured the British to the New World.

In Australia, the British reinforced their belief that being beardless was the mark of a civilised man by introducing shaving to the Aboriginal men Arabanoo, Colebee and Bennelong after they were captured as a means of forcing contact between the two communities.

Throughout the first decades of the 1800s, the beard remained a signifier of cultural or political radicalism or other conditions eschewed by respectable society. Men’s fashions – high collars, neckcloths, high-waisted trousers and close-fitting coats – tended instead to create a romantic or dandified air.

Sidewhiskers began migrating southward and along with restrained moustaches were adopted in emulation of the facial hair fashions observed by men such as Prince Albert and members of the military. Some men wore their hair in curls and used preparations such as perfumed Macassar oil to smooth or sculpt it.

Bushy beards and muttonchops: 1850s–80s
"We have many extraordinary beards and moustaches in the House; we have flowing beards and stubby beards and curly beards; we have moustaches light and delicate like a lady’s eyebrow, long and pendant like a Chinaman’s, bushy and fierce like a brigand’s. Some men wear beards, whiskers and moustaches; others shave the whiskers and beard and leave the moustache; whilst others preserve the moustache and part of the beard but eschew whiskers! In all these varieties, and a great many more, there are marks of design." William White, a House of Commons doorkeeper, 1858

The restrained and cultivated facial hair fashions evident through the first decades of the 1800s were on the wane by the middle of the century, when hirsute faces became mainstream. The period from the 1850s to the 1880s is one characterised by greater diversity in men’s hairstyles and is distinct in particular for the renaissance of beards: long or short; tidy or unkempt; with or without side whiskers and moustaches.

Historians have put this trend down to a combination of factors that resulted in beards being considered an outward, physical expression of the masculine attributes most prized in Victorian times. The flipside of attitudes that enshrined characteristics like demureness, vulnerability, and chastity in women were those that measured male worthiness in dignity, decisiveness, independence and virility.

Hairiness, by this reckoning, was next to manliness. With the failure of liberal revolutions in Europe in 1848, beards lost their association with radicalism. They were consequently adopted by men of all classes and in numerous styles – something that a survey of famous nineteenth century faces demonstrates. Abraham Lincoln with his trim, chinstrap style fringe beard; Charles Dickens, whose clean shaven cheeks terminated in a beard joined to a generous moustache; the long, philosopher-like beard worn by Charles Darwin; or the vigorous, bushy style sported by locals Robert O’Hara Burke and Ned Kelly.

Sideburns – named after the Civil War general, Ambrose Burnside – also grew longer and more luxurious. For example, Burnside’s ‘mutton chop’ style, where whiskers broadened across the cheeks and met in a moustache, was popular; and the style known as ‘Piccadilly Weepers’ – very long, comb-able, pendant whiskers – came into being in the 1860s.

The so-called beard movement of the 1850s saw the promotion of beards on various grounds, including that they were a sign of strength (think Samson) or sageness (Socrates et al); and that they distinguished ‘real’ men from their effete or otherwise questionable contemporaries. Religious arguments proposed that shaving was somehow sinful as a means, for example, by which gender distinctions might become blurred.

Facial hair was also argued to have benefits for health and hygiene. ‘For the man who goes out to his labour in the morning’, stated an essay published in Dickens’ journal Household Words in 1853, ‘no better summer shield or winter covering against the sun or storm can be provided.’ Beards and moustaches, it was argued, had the effect of filtering out smoke, dust and pollutants. Shaving therefore was ‘a painful, vexatious and not merely useless but actually unwholesome custom.’

In Australia, beards could be emblematic of a frontier ethos. Explorers, bushmen, squatters, gold-seekers and others whose existences took them beyond the settled, civilised districts adopted beards for reasons of practicality as well as for ideals of ruggedness, independence and masculinity. Others, including bushrangers like Frank Gardiner (‘black curly hair; whiskers and moustache; dressed in cabbage tree hat, black poncho, long thigh boots’ according to the NSW Police Gazette in June 1862), consciously favoured the ‘flash’ moustachioed look that symbolised defiance or rejection of polite convention.

Magnificent 'mos' and manscaping: 1890s–1940s
"It was the man from Ironbark who struck the Sydney town / He wandered over street and park, he wandered up and down / He loitered here, he loitered there, till he was like to drop / Until at last in sheer despair he sought a barber's shop. / 'Ere! shave my beard and whiskers off, I'll be a man of mark. / I'll go and do the Sydney toff up home in Ironbark." Banjo Paterson, ‘The Man from Ironbark’, 1892

Although the tough, weathered, hard-drinking bushmen of the kind mythologised by writers like Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson are popularly associated with the character of late 19th-century Australia, it was also a time when alternative ideas about identity began to come into play. Like earlier ideals of masculinity, these ideas are traceable through the changes in facial hair fashions adopted by Australian men.

The period between the 1850s and the 1880s may have been the era of beards as badges of the wise, protective, resourceful or vigorous. But the decades that followed might be considered those when dignified restraint and greater attention to grooming took precedence and when, in Australia, the rugged, anti-authoritarian bushman began to be replaced by the urbane, responsible and educated chap.

An increasing emphasis on tidiness and tailoring was characteristic of men’s fashions in Britain and America in this era. Beards retained some popularity, but were more commonly seen in trimmer, more manicured or sober styles.

Some older men maintained hirsute appearances. Sir Henry Parkes, for example, was famous for his long, white beard – a style befitting the age and wisdom of the ‘father of Federation’.

But it became more typical for younger men to wear their hair short and to cultivate moustaches in bushy, drooping or pointed styles. In Australia, the trend for mos, smaller beards and clean-shaven faces could be argued to demonstrate the mood of youthful nationhood that began to take hold in the time leading up to Federation in 1901.

Australians, by this reasoning, began during this period to assert, consciously or otherwise, a sense of themselves as responsible, healthy and hopeful – a sunny, outdoors breed known for sportsmanship and egalitarianism and not just as hardened frontiersmen. The boys’-own-annual type of chap – fit; charming and easy-going; comradely; reliable if adventurous; capable of heroism; and a dab hand with the bat – was one of a number of models that resonated with Australian men at the turn of the century.

These qualities were also seen as typical of Australian soldiers in the First World War. By this time – assuming newspaper advertisements and barbering manuals are sound evidence – men were beginning to take personal grooming more seriously, using a variety of products and remedies to smooth, sculpt, dye, wax or lighten their hair. Advances in scientific understanding demonstrated that diseases were caused by microbes and not miasmas, discrediting the old argument that facial hair had health benefits.

Wartime strengthened the preference for more serious and dignified men’s hairstyles, partly because of the increased numbers of men in uniform and who were thus bound by regulations regarding the degree and style of facial hair growth. The moustaches sported by the likes of Lord Kitchener (he of the massive mo featured in the ‘Your country needs you’ enlistment poster) and the Australian general Sir John Monash might therefore be considered symbols of bravery, heroism and patriotism.

By the 1920s and 30s, the fresh-faced, clean-cut look was very fashionable and it was typical for men to wear their hair cut very short at the sides, parted, and doused with brilliantine. The effete, pointed beard known as the ‘Van Dyke’ was also a typical look of the period, along with moustaches in various styles, often influenced by the suave Hollywood looks of actors such as Errol Flynn and Clark Gable; and by the fashions imported by artists and other expatriates returning to Australia after extended sojourns abroad.

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Credits: Story

This exhibit is based on Jo's Mo Show.

Jo Gilmour is Assistant Curator at the National Portrait Gallery and a bit of a boffin on colonial Australia. Explorers, bushrangers, harlots, mutineers and cannibal convicts are among the topics she’s explored in floortalks and in her writing for Portrait magazine. Her fascination with the Burke and Wills story led to an interest in the prevalence of bushy beards in portraits of chaps from the 1850s and 1860s.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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