Hail to the hair! Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, America hasn’t just looked to its leaders for strength and guidance; we’ve also turned to the man in the White House for advice on all the hottest new hairstyles. Well … maybe not the hottest hairstyles — none of our presidents have ever been at the cutting edge of fashion. But for hundreds of years now, our presidents have tended to sport the most common and popular hair trends of their time. Looking back on the history of American presidents will also give you a good look at how hairstyles changed and evolved over time.
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The Wig Party
Today, if you’re a man wearing an obvious hairpiece, you’re bound to endure a fair amount of dirty looks and rude comments. But if you were a man during the early days of our country and you weren’t wearing an obvious hairpiece, then people were likely to think you were just some poor loser. From the 1700s through the late 1800s, powdered wigs were all the rage in Europe; wearing one was a symbol of rank and nobility. Our Founding Fathers had a lot of problems with their former rulers from an Ocean away, but their fashion choices weren’t one of them. Powdered wigs became commonplace for men of a certain stature in the colonies, and when it was finally time for one of them to step into office, he wouldn’t have dared doing so without a pile of goat hair on his head. (Wigs were most commonly made out of goat hair in this era.) George Washington’s iconic white wig has become an inseparable part of his image, and to this day, it lives on in history books, presidential portraits and the face of our $1 bill.
The powdered wig trend persisted through the early days of our country and on the heads of our next four presidents: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. But by the beginning of the 1800s, they were waning in popularity all over the world, and it was time for our commanders in chief to make some executive decisions about brand new hairstyles.
Home of the Beards
Only 11 of our presidents have ever sported facial hair, and they all held office between 1825 and 1913. This was a period of bold Western expansion. The country was getting bigger, and hundreds of men were finding their fortunes by heading out into the wild and hunting for furs or digging for gold. These rugged adventurers needed an equally rugged hairstyle for their endeavors, so it’s no wonder beards, mustaches and other assorted facial hair became so trendy at that time; they were symbols of true manliness. And, of course, our leaders couldn’t look any less rugged or manly.
John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren started the trend by rocking mutton chops while they served as the sixth and eighth president, respectively. But the presidential facial hair truly reached its peak in 1857 when the most beloved president of all time, Abraham Lincoln, entered the White House with one of the most beloved beards of all time. Honest Abe was a true outdoorsman who grew up splitting logs and hunting bears. Is it any wonder that he would be able to grow such an amazingly iconic beard? Strangely enough, Lincoln never actually grew a beard until he decided to run for office. Before that, he had always prided himself on being clean-shaven. But as he entered the race for the White House, some people suggested his gaunt features might scare off potential voters. The solution? Fill in those features with some winning whiskers.
Lincoln further popularized beards throughout the nation; everyone wanted to look like the man who kept the union together, and thus began the true era of presidential facial hair. Nine of the next 10 sitting presidents would go unshaven. From Rutherford B. Hayes’ shaggy beard to Teddy Roosevelt’s well-trimmed ‘stache, it was a time when America stood for life, liberty and the pursuit of hairiness. Sadly, it was not to last. When William Taft entered office in 1903 with his handlebar mustache, he became the last president to get elected with facial hair.
The War on Long Hair
Looking back on the first 100 years of American history, a lot of our presidents had pretty unkempt hairstyles; Andrew Jackson’s wavy locks aptly reflected his slightly unhinged personality, and James Polk may be one of the few politicians who was ever able to get elected with a mullet. But at the dawning of the 20th century, American hair was about to take a turn for the conservative. In 1912, America entered into its first global conflict, and the realities of modern warfare were not friendly to those who liked to keep their hair long. World War I was one of the first wars to employ chemical warfare as a means of attack, and sometimes a soldier’s survival depended entirely on how well his gas mask fit. A few long hairs could mean an unbroken seal, which would lead to certain doom. Thus, the U.S. military outlawed beards and made the maximum permitted hair length one inch. This clean-cut, conservative look seen on our heroes overseas soon picked up steam in the states as well and kept going strong through World War II.
Beginning with Woodrow Wilson in 1913, our presidents went through a long stretch of unadventurous hair. Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge all look like they went to the same corner barber shop and asked for the exact same cut: clean, respectable and fitting for the leader of what was quickly becoming the most powerful nation in the world. During this time, the president with the most noticeably different hair was Dwight D. Eisenhower, and that was because he was the baldest of the group. Fortunately for him, he got elected when he did, because our country was about to vote “no” on hair loss.
The TV Age
By the 1960s, televisions were commonplace in American households, which meant that for the first time, the public was getting a good look at the people they were electing to office. In 1960, we had our first-ever televised presidential debate, and while people listening to it on the radio thought Richard Nixon won, anyone watching on TV sided with John F. Kennedy. JFK was the more handsome and photogenic of the two. He looked good on camera, thanks in no small part to his impeccably coiffed hair.
Kennedy’s good looks thrust us into an age of photogenic presidents. Since then, the only president to take office with significant balding was Gerald Ford, and that was simply because no one had to vote for him. From Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, our commanders in chief have been upping their hair game, but will this trend last?
Bernie Sanders? Hillary Clinton? Donald Trump? Who will our next president be? It’s still too early to call. The only thing we can be certain of is no matter who wins, he or she will usher in a new era of presidential hair. Will Bernie’s old-man hair sweep the nation? Will women go to their salon and ask for “The Hillary”? Or will scientists spend the next four years trying to figure out how to replicate President Trump’s unexplainable combover? Who knows? Just remember that when you vote this year, you’re not just voting for the future of our country; you’re voting for the future of its hair as well.