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A Brief History of Grooming in the U.S. Navy

Military grooming standards made news this summer when African American women in the Army and Navy complained about revisions in the regulations governing hair. At least one sailor was discharged for a hairstyle that was unauthorized when the Navy said she couldn’t wear a gas mask properly.

The instance is the latest in a long line of revisions and controversies over military grooming standards in the U.S. Navy going back more than a century.

Most sailors in the early decades of the U.S. Navy stayed clean-shaven, pulling their long hair back into a tail. That had more to do with the fashion of the time rather than official regulations. It was common for American seafarers to adopt the British custom of dipping their tails in tar to keep them in place and out of the rigging—which may be the origin of “tars” as a nickname for sailors. It is also believed the practice led sailors to protect their uniforms from the improvised hair gel by adding a long collar to their shirts. The collar eventually was incorporated by the Navy and still exists today as the flap on the back of the distinctive “crackerjack” uniforms.tar2 cp

It was not until 1841 that the Navy began to issue service-wide regulations about grooming. Secretary of the Navy George Badger established that hair and beards had to be cut short, but whiskers could “descend more than one inch below the tip of the ear, and thence in line towards the corners of the mouth.” Whiskers had always been popular, but the Navy was now entering the era of epic sideburns.

Midshipman John G. Walker in 1853

Midshipman John G. Walker in 1853

Rear Adm. John G Walker in 1889

Rear Adm. John G Walker in 1889

The regulations were modified in 1852, banning officers from wearing mustaches and imperials, but Secretary James Dobbin later relaxed the ruled to allow men to wear “neatly trimmed” beards at their discretion.

Rear Adm. Stephen Luce in 1888

Rear Adm. Stephen Luce in 1888

Throughout the Civil War there was quite a broad interpretation of what constituted “neatly trimmed,” as evidenced by photos and illustrations from the period.

Rear Adm. Worden in 1873

Rear Adm. Worden in 1873

From the 1880s through the 1960s, sailors were required to keep hair, beards and moustaches short and trimmed, though there we often exceptions due to circumstance.

Barbershop onboard USS Enterprise

Barbershop onboard USS Enterprise

In 1893, midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy requested permission to grow longer hair. Their reasoning was that the extra tresses would serve as padding for their heads in their football game against Army. It had not yet occurred to anyone to wear a helmet for more effective protection.

1893 Army-Navy Football Game

1893 Army-Navy Football Game

Submariners were allowed to grow longer beards because their limited access to fresh water made shaving difficult. Sailors deployed to colder climates also were permitted to have fuller facial hair to protect them from the elements.

USS Pensacola proudly display their facial hair circa 1944

USS Pensacola proudly display their facial hair circa 1944

Beard-growing was often viewed as a sport on those deployments and a judge would decide who had the most impressive beard at the end of the cruise.

Beard growing contest onboard the USS Staten Island

Beard growing contest onboard the USS Staten Island

By the late 1960s, the military was struggling with a negative public perception because of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The conservative military appearance was also contrasting sharply with civilian fashion, making sailors feel like misfits in society.

The “Converted Mountaineers” of USS West Virginia in 1944

The “Converted Mountaineers” of USS West Virginia in 1944

Because of those developments, PXs on many bases experienced a boom in wig sales. Sailors were buying longer-styled wigs to better fit in and avoid derision when they were off duty. Conversely, their sons, who often had trendy long hair would buy short wigs in order to get jobs at the establishments that still maintained that “hippie-types” need not apply.

When Admiral Elmo Zumwalt became Chief of Naval Operations in 1970, he began issuing his famous “Z-grams” containing initiatives that he thought would help reduce racism and sexism in the ranks while improving the Navy’s image. He also reasoned that eliminating the more stringent policies would boost recruitment and retention.

Adm. Elmo Zumwalt with sideburns

Adm. Elmo Zumwalt with sideburns

In addition to allowing longer hair, beards and sideburns, Zumwalt dropped many uniform regulations. Dungarees that once were restricted to designated work areas could be worn anywhere. Sailors were also no longer required to wear dress white uniforms when entering port.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus during his tenure in the U.S. Navy.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus during his tenure in the U.S. Navy.

Zumwalt also recognized the importance of the Afro as symbol of black pride and identity, so African-Americans were no longer ordered to keep their hair “high and tight.”

1972 Navy recruitment poster

1972 Navy recruitment poster

Secretary John Chafe stated that the relaxed rules would improve the Navy’s fighting ability by encouraging more men to remain in the service. He also claimed that the liberal grooming standards were in line with tradition, given that the “Father of the Navy”—John Paul Jones—had long hair.

It did not take long before Navy ships began to look like they were crewed by hippies who had crashed their bus into a military surplus store. Even Zumwalt realized that the liberalization of grooming standards had gone too far and needed to be scaled back. Hair and beards were ordered to be neat while “eccentricities” such as mutton chop sideburns were outlawed.

Throughout the 1970s, more restrictions were placed on hair and beards. In 1981, CNO Adm. Thomas Hayward sought to institute “Pride in Professionalism” by tightening regulations even further. No one under the rank of petty officer 3rd class was permitted to have a beard, nor were officers of “special authority or highly visible positions.”

The razor finally dropped in 1984 when CNO Adm. James D. Watkins banned all beards. The concern that a sailor with a beard would not be able to gain a proper seals with his emergency breathing apparatus frequently was given as the reason. However, the blunt-speaking Secretary John Lehman said that it was simply due to aesthetics. Lehman said that master chiefs had been complaining that beards made the Navy look “extremely un-uniform” so it was decided that having clean-shaven sailors would bring “a general sharpening of appearance.” Moustaches were allowed, but could not extend beyond the upper lip line.

The decision was not well received. Some sailors shaved their heads in protest while others threatened to send their whiskers to the CNO. Wives cried when their once rugged seamen were shorn to reveal baby faces and double chins. One sailor on an aircraft carrier yelled that the CNO would have to come get his beard if he wanted it, then stepped off the flight deck and plunged into the sea (he was later fished out of the water).

  • Tom Fortin

    Though I was sad to see well-seasoned full beards go in the early 80’s, I also was glad to see a lot of the scruffy faces get cleaned up. Some guys THINK they have a “beard” but have just a few scraggly hairs here and there that look like CRAP! I don’t think we lost anything big when we cleaned up the fleet in the 80’s, though I’ve worn a beard or a goatee since I retired.

    • SHEP

      I tried to raise a beard twice. It looked like mange!! Today if you have a beard you look like a MUSLUM terrorist!!

  • Bhess

    I understand the aesthetic of banning them it’s just one thing I see as keeping men from looking like a man.

  • Olrik

    Is shaving the public hair moslem/porn star style ok in today’s Navy?

    • Tim Fackler

      No one looks, so no one cares what you do with your pubic hair.
      Learn to use spellcheck.

      • Bob Williams

        I don’t see any words in his comment that would be corrected by the use of spellcheck.

        • Billy Bob

          Bob what is public hair? in Olrik’s comment

          • Busta Ruckus

            Billy Bob…the word “public” is indeed a word. Spell check doesn’t see two words next to each other and automatically know that they aren’t supposed to go together, so Bob is correct.

            Eye am a meet eater, butt I cook the meet to avoid fresh-eating bacteria…Sea?, know spellcheck notifications hear.

  • Served on USS Vreeland. Our namesakes painting was outside the CO’s stateroom. He work whiskers and sideburns. A great looking gentleman but in conformance with Navy grooming regulations our XO had his sideburns and facial hair trimmed by an artist. It seems like our Navy has more of a “hair problem” than other navies. Think of all the time spent on worrying about facial and head hair.

    • Sterling Bushnell

      man that is just sad that they would even worry about it . its just a version of the extremes that people will go to in revising history to that person’s taste.

  • Robert Lee

    Can anyone give me an update on rules regarding tattoos in the Navy?

    • Sterling Bushnell

      it was the arbitrary tastes of those in charge who outlawed it.
      just like with the hair and beards.

    • James Byrd

      In re guard to tattoo.you could have been court Marshall if you became sick from getting one because while on active duty you belonged to the government. But the were also responsible to take care of you if you got hurt in line of duty or playing in organizations sports. I heard about a person that was playing base ball missed up his shoulder and got c&p

  • Robert Philbrook

    Secretary Lehman had it right. That is why the decree was published over the Xmas holidays in 84. I was clean shaven for my last two months before I retired. CPO Retired

  • John O’Neill

    When I taught at Nuc School in the 70’s, I remember the spec was individual hairs less than 3/4 inch and beard bulk less than 1/2 inch. Nobody ever measured, though.

  • Viet Vet 69

    Arguments For Arguments Against. The only one that matters is the impact on equipment use ie, gas masks., To not have one fitted properly may be like committing suicide however one sailor down should it impact his/her shipmates is wrong and a violation of oath. There is NO Draft, so if the rules dont appeal, Dont Enlist.

    • jeff

      I do respirator fit testing, and can confirm that a person with a beard can get a seal. Seen it. Done it.

  • Thomas L Snyder

    First day I came home clean-shaven, my young sons recoiled in horror: they didn’t recognize their dad, who’d always (to them at least) had a beard. Took several weeks for them to get used to seeing me full-faced.

  • They also bring back the original bellbottom dungaree navy uniform. The dungarees were cheap and useful. Much better than the fancy digital camoflage uniform they wear today….

  • Guest

    Complications of gas masks used in the Civil Way should be obvious.

  • Guest

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