I Wish I Had A Moustache - Hair Today (Gone Tomorrow)

Posted on 14 October 2015

Keisha Thompson is fighting a battle against the taboo of body hair in I Wish I Had a Moustache. We thought we’d take a look at the history of hair removal, the extents to which people, especially women went to to remove body hair and why something which can be so time-consuming and expensive became the norm.

Ancient Egypt

Hair removal has been going on for thousands of years. Copper razors from 3,000 BC were found in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The ancient Egyptians in particular were also known to have types of razors made of flint or bronze. Both men and women could also remove hair with pumice stones, tweezers (made from seashells) and depilatory cream.

They also invented a hair removal method now referred to as ‘sugaring’. A sticky paste, sometimes made of beeswax would be applied to the skin and then a strip of cloth was pressed onto the paste and yanked off, removing the hair – kind of like waxing!

Egyptian women were well-versed in hair removal – richer women even removed the hair on their heads and wore elaborate wigs. Men often could have neat (possibly fake) beards.

Ancient Rome

In Ancient Rome, the lack of body hair was considered a symbol of class for both men and women. Wealthy women and men used razors made from flints, tweezers, creams, and stones to remove excess hair. Hair could also be removed by scraping a metal strigil over oiled skin.

Ovid’s advice on grooming includes body hair removal. Suetonius, a Roman historian, noted that Julius Caesar was meticulous in his hair removal (his servants plucked his hair out with tweezers).

Hair removal creams from this period could contain anything from pitch to she-goat gall, donkey fat, bat’s blood and powdered viper!

Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe

In Elizabethan times English women began the practice of hair removal – they removed their eyebrows and the hair from their foreheads to give themselves a longer brow, emulating Queen Elizabeth I.

It was so popular that it’s said that mothers would rub walnut oil on their children’s foreheads to prevent hair growth. Rather more unhygienically, they were also said to use bandages covered with vinegar and cat droppings.

There were a lot of books that detailed recipes for hair removal creams and facial beauty for women. The recipes tended to create a highly alkaline solution which melted hair from the skin’s surface (much like depilatory creams today). There’s evidence that this type of paste (often referred to as rhusma) was used in Ancient Turkey in around 3000 BC, and a recipe for this was also included in a 12th century recipe book called the Trotula.

A 1532 book gives this version of the recipe:

How to Remove or Lose Hair from Anywhere on the Body

Boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. Go to a baths or a hot room and smear medicine over the area to be depilated. When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off.

The book also recommends women wash the area where hair is to be removed in a mixture of cat dung and vinegar!

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The Perret razor was invented in the 1760’s by a French barber called Jean Jacques Perret. It is an L-shaped wooden guard that holds the razor and is supposed to reduce the cuts from shaving, and some women used this, although it was aimed primarily at men.

By 1844, Dr. Gouraud had created one of the first depilatory creams called Poudre Subtile.

The safety razor (which, as its name suggests, was much safer than the Perret razor) was invented in the 1880’s. The best-selling version was invented by King Camp Gillette, an American businessman with an incredible name and an aptitude for men’s grooming products (He founded the modern-day Gillette).

The Twentieth Century

In 1915, Gillette created the first razor targeted at women, aptly named the Milady Decolletée. The early 1900s also saw widespread ads for depilatory cream appear. In 1907, for example, an ad for X-Bazin Depilatory Powder went into circulation, promising to remove the “humiliating growth of hair on the face, neck, and arms.” A decade later, a Harper’s Bazaar magazine ran an ad featuring a woman with her arms raised and her armpits bare, the first of its kind.

Remington released the first electric women’s razor in 1940 after the male version’s success. There was a shortage of nylon during the war, which meant that more hair removal products began to be released, as women needed to go bare-legged more often.

Wax strips originated in the 1960’s and gained popularity. This was also the period when the first laser-hair-removal tools hit the market, but, as they damaged skin, they fell out of use.

With the development of transistorized equipment, electrolysis became more common in the 1970’s. The decade also saw a resurgence in the removal of bikini area hair due to the remaining prevalence of swimsuits and bikinis.

And so we come to today, where we have a range of hair removal techniques and products and 90% of women in the UK remove their body hair. Join Keisha Thompson as she tries to get to grips with why and whether its something we should do inI Wish I Had A Moustache at the Belgrade on 30 & 31 Oct.