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Hair Has Long and Short History in U.S. Armed Forces

While Americans today expect to see soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen with closely clipped hair, many don’t realize that hair standards in the armed forces have changed radically since the American Revolution.

Many don’t realize that hair standards in the armed forces have changed radically since the American Revolution.

A lack of barbers in the American colonies in the 18th century meant that soldiers in the Continental Army usually had rather long hair, wrote Randy Steffen in the authoritative The Horse Soldier 1776-1943. Nonetheless, general orders published by commanders required male soldiers “to wear their hair short or plaited (braided) up.” But a Revolutionary-era soldier also had the option to wear his long hair “powdered and dried.”

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who led Union forces to victory in the Civil War, was one of many soldiers of both sides sporting facial hair during the conflict. National Archives photo

Although hairstyle rules were relaxed when soldiers were on campaign, Continental Army personnel who did powder and tie their hair did so with a mixture of flour and tallow, a hard animal fat. This powdered hair was usually tied in a pigtail or “queue.”

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, cavalrymen preferred a “clubbed” hairstyle in which they gathered their hair at the back of the neck and tied it in a firm bundle, then folded it to the side before finally tying it again in a club. Mounted troopers liked the club because it was “likely to stay in place during the excitement and violent action of a mounted fight.”

It seems that soldiers believed that the short hair requirement was nothing short of self-mutilation.

Beards were forbidden in the Army of the early Republic and soldiers were required to shave a minimum of three days a week, at least while in garrison. A major change in military hair rules occurred in 1801, when Maj. Gen. James Wilkinson, commanding general of the Army, abolished the queue. Some historians believe he took this action because the pigtail was an aristocratic affectation that had no place in an egalitarian republic, but whatever the reason, Wilkinson’s decision caused soldiers to “howl in protest, until their resentment swelled almost to mutiny,” according to a February 1973 article published in American History Illustrated. It seems that soldiers believed that the short hair requirement was nothing short of self-mutilation.

In July 1805, the Army court-martialed Lt. Col. Thomas Butler, Jr., a 30-year Army veteran, who refused to cut his hair. A panel of officers found him “guilty of mutinous conduct in appearing publicly in command of troops with his hair queued.” The panel sentenced Butler to be suspended from command, without pay, for 12 months. This was a severe sentence, given Butler’s seniority and three decades of service. While Gen. Wilkinson ultimately approved the sentence, it was never carried out because (unbeknownst to Wilkinson) Butler had died a few days earlier (probably of yellow fever) with his queue still intact.

Lt. Cmdr. Stephen B. Luce

Lt. Cmdr. Stepen B. Luce, a contemporary of Grant’s, serving in the U.S. Navy, went for a more flamboyant look. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

When it came to facial hair above the lip, the Army took a very different approach, at least in the years before the Civil War. From 1841 to 1857, regulations provided that “mustaches” or “moustaches” would not be worn by any soldiers except for those in cavalry regiments, “on any pretense whatsoever.”

By the Civil War, hairstyle standards had changed markedly, as senior officers in both the Army and the Navy wore beards and mustaches as a matter of course. While a beard could be worn “at the pleasure of the individual,” both services preferred that it be kept short and neatly trimmed. This preference, however, was very much in the eye of the beardholder. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had a somewhat neatly trimmed beard while Adm. Stephen B. Luce had a much more wild look.

But, while beards were officially outlawed, soldiers and Marines in sustained combat operations sometimes grew beards – if for no other reason than it was too hard to shave under fire.

World War I was the first conflict where shaving was required. There were two reasons: to get a proper fit and seal on the gas mask and personal hygiene. Beards were outlawed, and the maximum permitted hair length was one inch.

During World War II, the Army required soldiers to “keep your hair cut short and your fingernails clean,” and most men in both the Army and the Navy wore a medium-short tapered cut. But, while beards were officially outlawed, soldiers and Marines in sustained combat operations sometimes grew beards – if for no other reason than it was too hard to shave under fire.

Korean War Haircut

Pfc. Brian J. Magee receives a haircut from a South Korean barber during the Korean War, ca. Aug. 1950. Other Marines in background wait their turn. In combat conditions hair lengths were more loosely enforced. U.S. Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections photo

In the last half of the 20th century, hairstyles in the armed forces followed civilian trends, especially in the Army, Navy and Air Force. In the late 1960s, long hair was popular, and soldiers who refused to get a haircut received non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Navy and Coast Guard, however, simply gave in to relatively long hair and beards: witness the announcement by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. – in “Z-gram No. 57” published in 1970 – that beards could be worn by active duty sailors. Zumwalt believed that the Navy must “learn to adapt to changing fashions” and this meant that sailors should have the freedom to wear the long sideburns, neatly trimmed beards and mustaches favored by civilians. Not until 1985 did the Navy once again prohibit beards on sailors, and the Coast Guard, which had followed Zumwalt’s permissive decision on beards, also abolished them a year later.

In the 1980s, the mustache was especially popular in the services. Although still permitted, it has almost disappeared today.

Today, short hair is the norm for men in all the services, and women too favor shorter hairstyles.

Today, short hair is the norm for men in all the services, and women too favor shorter hairstyles. Regulations and instructions on female grooming standards reflect this “shorter is better” style. In the Air Force, for example, a female airman’s hair must be “clean, well-groomed and neat” and hair length cannot extend beyond the bottom edge of the uniform shirt collar; women who have longer hair must wear it “up.”

Given the long and short history of hair, the future is certain to bring yet more changes in the armed forces.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...