One of the great things about archives is that not only can they provide you with very specific information about an event, person or company; they can also give you an overview of how things in society have changed over time. So, I took inspiration from Movember and had a hunt through our collections to chart the rise and fall of the moustache, and present some of the finest examples of pogonotrophy (cultivating facial hair) I could find.
Interestingly, if you go back before the Victorian era (1837–1901), men generally tended to be clean shaven. I looked at a few examples, from scientists to entrepreneurs, but there is barely a whisker amongst them.
The Victorian Era (1837–1901)
It wasn’t difficult to find examples of moustaches in the Victoria era. In fact, they were everywhere.
So why was it that the entrepreneurs and inventors of the Victorian era tended to sport moustaches, when their 18th century counterparts did not? Well, there were two events that may well have changed the fashions in Victorian times—The Crimean War and the British Rule in India.
The freezing temperatures in Crimea and the fact that adequate soap wasn’t available led to the majority of soldiers growing not only bushy moustaches, but huge beards as well. When they returned to England at the end of the war in around 1854–56, they were pretty hairy. And because they were war heroes, the look took on.
Another theory for the Victorian penchant for hairy lips, is that in the early days of the British Raj in India (1858–1947) the British Army apparently had difficulty maintaining authority among the Indian soldiers, for whom facial hair was a sign of masculinity. Eventually, the clean-shaven officers began growing moustaches to earn the respect of the troops. Naturally, this quickly spread to the British civilian population.
Whilst I couldn’t find any images of the British Army in India, the archive does hold an impressive collection of photographs from cable manufacturer W.T. Glover, who did extensive work overseas. Many of these pictures show impressive moustaches on the men installing cables in Madras and Calcutta, c.1911.
The early 1900s
Developments in the study of bacteria in the late 19th and early 20th century led to concerns about the cleanliness of beards. Coupled with the invention of the disposable razor in 1901, the beard soon fell out of fashion.
However, the moustache persisted well into the early years of the 20th century. This image shows the Electricity Committee, Wigan in c.1911.
The fashion for moustaches can also be seen in products and advertising of the time. These images are from a collection of designs for scarves and handkerchiefs, designed by the Thornliebank Co Ltd in c.1905.
The First World War eventually put paid to the fashion for moustaches. Gas mask seals would only work on hairless skin, and only men of a certain rank in the military were permitted to grow a moustache, so the majority of soldiers were clean shaven.
Pictured above: Sir John Alcock (1892–1919) and Sir Arthur Whitten Brown (1886–1948), who made the first non-stop transatlantic flight from St John’s, Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland in June 1919. Both men served as pilots in the First World War and were both held as a prisoners of war.
Just as the war heroes from Crimea became fashion icons, the soldiers of the First World War inspired a fresh-faced look for the next decade. During the 1920s, the majority of men remained clean shaven.
1930s to 1960s
During the 1930s and 1940s, the moustache did have a bit of a revival, partly thanks to the likes of Clark Gable and Errol Flynn. The best example of the ‘Errol Flynn’ pencil moustache in the collection belongs to Roy Chadwick (1893–1947).
Chadwick was the Chief Designer at Manchester Aircraft company A.V.Roe & Co. (AVRO). His most famous design was the Lancaster bomber, which dropped 600,000 tons of bombs on the enemy during the Second World War, and were also used to drop food to the allies and for repatriating 74,000 ex-prisoners of war.
An important development from the 1920s onwards was electricity, which was becoming much more widely available in the home. The range of electrical products available grew rapidly, and were actively promoted through the Electrical Development Association (EDA). Products for heating water made shaving much quicker and easier.
A look at some of the group portraits from this era show that the clean-shaven look persisted well into the 1970s.
1970s and 1980s
I haven’t been able to turn up any information to suggest why, but moustaches began to reappear in the 1970s. This brochure is from the EDA in around 1970:
It proved very difficult to find any photographs of moustaches from this period. Though we have thousands of images in the collection, many of these are either unlisted, or they are held as negatives, which can be difficult to reproduce. However, after much digging, I unearthed these two, from 1979:
I think the effort was worth it just for the hairstyles. But that’s a whole other blog…