Prince Harry returned to London on Saturday, after a 10-week deployment to Afghanistan with the Household Cavalry of the British army. Photographs of the young royal showed him dressed in desert fatigues with a healthy mop of red hair —an unusual sight for Americans accustomed to military buzz cuts. Don’t British soldiers have to cut their hair, too?
Only if their commander says so. Unlike American male recruits, for whom the buzz cut is part of the initiation into the service, the British Ministry of Defence leaves coiffure decisions up to individual regiment leaders. Most require new recruits to report with neatly groomed hair of modest length; they’ll even go so far as to prohibit cuts shorter than about 1 centimeter. For example, the Army Training Regiment in Lichfield manual for recruits (PDF) mandates that “the closest permissible haircut is a No 3,” a clipper that leaves about3/8 of an inch of hair. It specifically prohibits “skinheads.” Women are generally required to keep their hair in a net or bun, as they are in the United States.
The differing standards are representative of the British army’s organization, which emphasizes loyalty to one’s regiment in addition to the army as a whole. Unlike the U.S. commanders, whose “Army of one” approach emphasizes uniformity among service members, the Minister of Defence tolerates a little bit of panache.
Historically, facial-hair styles have conferred status to British officers. Soldiers across the pond picked up the habit of growing mustaches in the early 19th century while living in India. The colonial mustache became so prevalent, in fact, that by the middle of the century, British officers serving in the East India Co.’s forces were required to grow them. Several British authors have gone so far as to equate the rise and fall in the popularity of the mustache with the strength and decline of the British Empire.
In the United States, military men have worn closely cropped hair since at least the 1950s. The standard buzz cut of today edged out the crew cut—as immortalized by Elvis—or the flattop as the predominant style beginning in the 1970s. * In the Army, regulations dictate strict standards for a soldier’s general hygiene and appearance, stating that “the requirement for hair grooming standards is necessary to maintain uniformity within a military population.”
American soldiers have rebelled against their commanding hairdressers on occasion. When the top general of the U.S. Army demanded shorter hair for his troops in 1801, a colonel named Thomas Butler took the matter all the way to court-martial for refusing to cut his locks. And when the Navy cracked down in the 1970s on facial hair among sailors deployed at sea for extended periods of time, the aggrieved began mailing their beards to an executive officer in protest.
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Explainer thanks Carol Burke of the University of California-Irvine and the British Ministry of Defence.
Correction, March 6, 2008: The original story incorrectly stated that, by the 1990s, members of the Marine Corps were described as “jarheads” because of their buzz haircuts. The term has been used since at least World War II, perhaps in reference to the Marines’ high-collared blue dress uniforms, which looked a bit like Mason jars made of blue glass. (Return to the corrected sentence.)