The female of the species has a reputation for vanity which far exceeds that of their male counterparts, but history has a different story to tell.

In the early 2000s, a new kind of heterosexual man emerged. It was the man who visited beauty salons, was interested in fashion and proudly manicured his appearance. Media and popular culture labelled him the ‘metrosexual’ and although it seemed like a new trend, history shows that male preening goes back further than the confessions of David Beckham and Ian Thorpe.

David Beckham (Photo: Debby Wong /
Ian Thorpe
Ian Thorpe (photo: s_bukley /

In nature, some male species are more adorned than the female. The feather train on male peacocks is among the most striking and beautiful physical attributes in nature, and the male lion is the one with the mane.

In various cultures throughout history, males have aimed to look impressive, either as part of ritual or religious ceremonies, to mark rites of passage or to emphasise rank or status.

In the Samoan Islands men were traditionally tattooed from waist to knees. Samoan boys were tattooed at the age of 16 to 18 in a group ceremony that served to reinforce societal authority. In battle, tattoos were thought to confer magical protection.

Maori men of New Zealand had their faces tattooed by an artist ‘moko’, a technique unique to the Maori. The process, which was extremely painful, was typically done in stages, starting in early adulthood. Maori facial tattoos were indications of power and prestige, designed to impress and intimidate, especially in battle. Since no two patterns were alike, men’s facial tattoos were also markers of identity.

Photo: Patricia Hofmeester /

The removal of body hair was a common practice in many ancient civilisations. The Greeks believed being civilised meant being smooth, and the Egyptians removed hair to prevent infestation by lice, fleas and other parasites. Ancient Egyptian priests also shaved all over daily to present a ‘pure’ body before the images of the gods.

In ancient India, hair on the chest and pubic area was shaved every fourth day, and in Roman times the first hair removal of a young male marked the arrival of his masculinity and adulthood.

While there was much emphasis on the removal of hair, there was also great concern about baldness. A full head of hair typically has been synonymous with youth and virility, so potions and lotions claiming to stimulate hair growth for men have a long history. Egyptian remedies dating as far back as 1500BC prescribed remedies made of ibex, crocodile, lion fat, human nail clippings and singed hedgehog bristles. Ancient Roman physicians prescribed weekly applications of boiled snakes, and Roman men painted locks on their bald heads.

The elite and powerful went to great lengths to disguise their baldness. Julius Caesar wore his trademark ceremonial wreath to disguise his shrinking hairline and Hannibal wore a wig into battle and had a second on hand for social occasions. Hippocrates, obsessed with his own hair loss, mixed opium with floral essences, wine and pigeon dung as a cure.

Throughout the Middle Ages, monks and alchemists searched for baldness cures and guarded these secret remedies. Seventeenth century English noblemen rubbed a mix of Indian tea and lemon onto their bald scalps, while the less noble used chicken droppings. In the 19th century American West even the tough and supposedly imageindifferent cowboys lined up at medicine shows to buy snake oil concoctions.

During Elizabethan times male grooming hit another boom. Treatments included rosemary water for the hair and sage to whiten the teeth. Other historical examples of male adornment in this era include the leg-revealing stockings and codpieces that were designed to emphasise male genitalia and which were eventually padded and enlarged. Wigs, forbidden by the Church throughout the Middle Ages because they suggested vanity and worldliness, had become common by the 15th century and reached the height of fashion for the wealthy in 17th century France. Louis XIII, balding by the age of 23, made wigs immensely popular at the French court and their use soon spread throughout Europe. These wigs became symbols of wealth and status and the white powder (often flour) made them look older, therefore wiser.

Beauty spots were also common, with placement indicating a message: for example, a beauty spot at the corner of the eye was an indication of passion. In the newly created United States, wigs were an essential fashion accessory for men but they were never as ostentatious as at the French court. Still, they indicated social status – hence the origin of the term ‘bigwig’.

Men who took great pride in their dress and appearance in mid-18th century England were known as maccaronis. These aristocratic men were known to exceed the ordinary bounds of fashion, with tall, powdered wigs, rouge and spying glasses. Anything that was highly fashionable was labelled ‘very maccaroni’.

The maccaronis were precursors to the dandies who, far from their present connotation of effeminacy, came as a more masculine reaction to the excesses of the maccaroni. A dandy was a man who placed particular importance upon physical appearance. The model dandy in late 18th and early 19th century British society was Beau Brummell, who changed men’s fashion in England. He established the mode of men wearing understated but fitted, beautifully cut clothes, adorned with an elaborately knotted cravat.

Brummell is credited with introducing the modern man’s suit, worn with a tie. High heels and knee breeches went out of style. He claimed to take five hours to dress and recommended boots be polished with champagne. Throughout the 20th century the main grooming concern for a man was his hair. Men wore specific hairstyles to project a certain image.

In the 1920s, the impact of cinema was felt for the first time. Fashion-conscious men wore their hair parted in or near the centre and slicked back with brilliantine – an oily, perfumed substance that added shine and kept hair in place.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood stars were setting the trends. Men continued to wear their hair short and often slicked back with oil, and skinny trimmed moustaches were popularised by stars such as Errol Flynn.

Hip white men in the 1950s wore their hair in a DA (short for duck’s ass). Formed by combing longish hair into elaborate waves and holding it in place with hair grease, the hairstyle took off when it was worn by stars such as James Dean and Elvis Presley. It was usually coupled with long, thick sideburns.

When the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, their ‘mop tops’ created a revolution in men’s hairstyles, making long hair fashionable for the first time since the 18th century. The influence of the hippie movement advocated a natural, wild look and a complete rejection of cosmetics, while the rise of black pride prompted many African Americans to adopt the afro.

Hair became the symbol of the 1970s, evolving into perhaps the most powerful means of making a statement. For most of the decade, men and women wore their hair long, natural and free. This changed radically with the punk movement when young men went for a deliberately shocking stylised tough look that included spiked hairdos, sometimes dyed bright colours, shaved and tattooed scalps, and facial piercings.

In the 1980s, the ‘age of excess’ was easily translated into hairstyles. In general, bigger was better. Teenage boys adapted the punk-influenced spiked hairstyle which sometimes included a small braid at the back of the neck (the rat tail). The infamous mullet became popular, partly due to the influence of glam rock artist David Bowie.

The Beatles
Image: Lenscap Photography /
David Bowie's mullet (Image: sewonboy /

The grunge movement of the 1990s popularised an unkempt, natural style in opposition to the artificial looks of the 80s. Long, matted and unstyled hair characterised this look, and tattoos as well as tongue, eyebrow and nose piercings became popular among young men.

By the end of the 20th century, men became interested in cosmetic products formerly regarded as ‘unmanly’.

Recently, there has been an increase in the amount of money men spend on fashion as well as a higher demand for male cosmetic procedures. Magazine publishers have established men’s titles such as Men’s Health and GQ and the number of male grooming blogs is possibly in the 10,000s with great titles like Fashion Beans and The Art of Manliness.

Although it is often assumed that females are more concerned with their looks than males, men have a long history of elaborate adornment. The appearance concerns and grooming habits of today’s metrosexual are not so far from those of men through the ages after all.