Life is getting difficult for writers of Georgian and Regency romance
Shave? Our Regency heroes have traditionally been clean shaven. In fact a quick flick through Mills & Boon’s book of cover designs, The Art of Romance, has only one cover with any facial hair on a man. It is a small, neat moustache. I confess I haven’t read the book, but I am not convinced that he is the hero. However, a quick look in any street or on social media will tell you that beards are now becoming fashionable. Designer stubble is already creeping in, will full beards follow?
but how about designer stubble? It is definitely considered sexy now, isn’t it?
It certainly didn’t put off the fans of Bridgerton!
To be fair, stubble isn’t as inappropriate as we might think, in some circumstances. Read on…..
In the 18th century, clean shaven faces were the order of the day for a gentleman. Many had clean shaven heads, too, but one never saw that, because everyone who was anyone wore a wig.
Back in the days of Good Queen Bess, neatly trimmed beards were de rigeur for men like Sir Walter Raleigh, who wanted to cut a dash (painted in an excess of finery here by Nicholas Hillyard). By the end of the 17th century, Peter the Great was slapping a beard tax on his people. He ordered courtiers to shave off their facial hair, to bring his court into line with the (supposedly) more sophisticated courts of Western Europe.
Middle and upper class men could pay barbers to visit their homes, while for the poor, penny shaves were available in barber shops (often weekly, on a Saturday, in time for church).
Some preferred to employ a man who was proficient in the use of a razor. Imagine taking someone’s word for that!
In the beginning were the Barber Surgeons
Traditionally barber-surgeons performed tooth drawing and bloodletting as well as shaving but this changed as barbering became its own trade. And in 1745 the Company of Barbers officially split from the Barber-Surgeons Company.
The 18th century brought improvements in steelmaking and master cutlers were producing fine surgical instruments as well as razors.
Suddenly, it was possible not only to have a closer shave, but to shave oneself!
The French had a name for it
Of course they did.
In 1770 Jean-Jacques Perret, a Parisian master cutler whose shop was at the romantically named “sign of the Golden Blade” in Paris, wrote “Pogonomotomie or the art of shaving oneself”. Basically, a guide to shaving. Perret designed what we would today call a “cut throat razor”. He called it a guarded razor, a folding razor with a guard that fitted over the blade. Apparently, he did not patent his idea, but offered to teach other cutlers how to make it.
Harwood & Co, Sheffield, began to manufacture such a razor. The illustration shows one such razor acquired by Museums Victoria. It came in its own green velvet lined box together with a pair of leather strops, one red, one green, and the whole was supplied inside a red leather case.
Safety razors were developed in the 19th century.
The shave was becoming big business
Razor makers were targeting individuals now with their advertising, and master cutlers moved into producing razors and fine surgical instruments. Perfumers, too, offered soaps, creams and pomatums to aid the shaver. Some still do, like Floris, in Jermyn Street.
In 1802, William Nicholson (that’s him on the left, a fine, clean-shaven chemist) wrote in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Literature and the Arts. He said “the caprice of fashion, or the modern improvements in personal neatness has deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards!” However, far from criticising, he advised against buying a cheap razor, which would never sharpen satisfactorily and give a good, clean shave.
Tastes and Ideas were changing
By the end of the 18th century, beards were associated with “wildness”, i.e. hermits or eccentrics.
In 1787 Lord George Gordon (he of the 1780 Gordon Riots) converted to Judaism. However, the beard he grew for his faith was considered by the general public (in England, that is) as confirmation that the man was unhinged.
He became the target of the cruel humour of the 18th century cartoonists.
Hair on the head (or lack of it)
After the Lockdown of the last twelve months most of us can empathise with the problems of hairdressing and the disasters that can occur when cutting one’s own hair, so I think we can see why barbers still had an important role to play.
(Maybe someone should have told Beethoven?)
Wigs were already fashionable at the dawn of the 18th century. A gentleman could choose between the Comet, the Cauliflower or the Rose. Or perhaps he might prefer the She Dragon or the Snail. Some of course, preferred to keep their own hair, curled and powdered to look like a wig. By the end of the century, however, wigs were becoming old hat, if you see what I mean, as was the use of hair powder.
You might refer me to Mr Bennet’s famous line in Pride & Prejudice “I will sit in my library, in my night cap and powdering gown, and give as much trouble as I can – “ but although this was published in 1813, Jane Austen began work on this novel in 1797, when hair powder was still being worn, especially by the older generation.
Men were wearing their own hair, and it was cut short!
I admit that as a sculptor, and French, this guy was perhaps a little ahead of the English Bon Ton.
But I thought he was rather dashing so was glad of an excuse to put him in.
But this is the look we like, isn’t it?
Beau Brummell was a hit in the Regency and the short haired, clean shaven look still sets hearts a-beating. Even when we know Brummell spent the whole morning at his dressing table. But we have to face it, dear reader, bearded men are “in” at the moment.
In the 1820’s facial hair in the form of whiskers and moustaches began to creep back in, but for most of the Georgian period, a clean shaven face was a sign of refinement, of breeding and good taste. And I, for one, shall continue to write my clean shaven heroes…
OK, Ok, I admit this whole post has been an excuse to add these last three pictures! I am off now to work on creating my next hero. Wish me luck!
PS… If you want to read more, Dr Alun Withy from Exeter University has produced “Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England 1650-1900”, published by Bloomsbury