Men in the military are required to have short haircuts for various good reasons: they are low maintenance, practical and clean; they create a professional and unified image; the hair won’t get caught in helmets, weapons, wires or an enemy’s hands; and the field of vision is not blocked.
Since the turn of the 20th century, there have been various short hairstyles favoured by military men – here we look at the more popular styles, along with regulations and allowances for religious beliefs.
Military personnel worldwide have to conform to dress standards and personal appearance rules, which includes haircuts. These are set out in regulations, which vary slightly in definition from country to country, and between the different armed forces.
For example, the US Air Force regulations state that men must have haircuts with:
“Tapered appearance on both sides and the back of the head, both with and without headgear. A tapered appearance is one that when viewed from any angle outlines the member’s hair so that it conforms to the shape of the head, curving inward to the natural termination point without eccentric directional flow, twists or spiking.” (Air Force Instruction 36-2903, 2014).
British armed forces come under similar regulations, with much of the final say on haircuts being down to the commanding officers, e.g. the Royal Air Force regs state:
“The hair of the head is to be well cut and trimmed. Sideburns are to be short and well trimmed and are not to extend below a line running through the mid point of the ear. Extreme styles of haircuts and colouring are not permitted. If the hair is dyed or highlighted, the colour chosen is to be natural and in a uniform shade appropriate to the individual. The commanding officer shall be the arbiter upon what is or not an acceptable style or length of cut.” (Royal Air Force, AP 1358, 5th Edition)
These requirements are common throughout many military forces worldwide. It is all about creating a high standard and united team look that says “professional”.
There is enough room in the regulations for individuality, and the haircut is often the only form of individual expression a military guy can have within their unit.
“The requirement for hair grooming standards is necessary to maintain uniformity within a military population. Many hairstyles are acceptable, as long as they are neat and conservative.” (US Army dress regulations, AR 670-1)
Military Haircuts and Styles
First military haircut during Induction Day at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Around 1,200 prospective Midshipmen 4th Class (“Plebes”) reported to the Academy for induction and establish medical records, complete paperwork, receive uniforms and haircut. (U.S. Navy photo by Damon J. Moritz. )
The haircut you get at boot camp after signing up as a new recruit, particularly in the US.
It is a clipper cut with no guard (number 0) all over the head, leaving a short stubble-like finish.
The induction cut has practical and psychological purposes. Firstly, it reduces the possibility of things like head lice in close quarters and the barracks; secondly, it evens the playing field, making all new recruits equal and encourages a team spirit.
Also known as a Mighty Fine by army drill sergeants, or “on the floor“ or “Army’s number one haircut“. The French Foreign Legion refer to it as a “boule à zéro” (zero ball).
Once someone has passed initial training and, therefore, earned the right, a military man can decide what haircut to sport.
One up from the induction cut is terms of hair length. A uniform clipper cut with guard number 1 or 2 all over the head.
A butch cut is created by clipper cutting the hair to a uniform length all over the head, using a guard size of 3, 4 or 5.
The hair at the ears and neckline can be faded out for a more tapered look around the edges.
A generic term for a short haircut that is tapered from the top of the head to the front hairline, creating more length at the front. It is also tapered at the sides and back. The contour of the head is usually followed on the top, creating a rounded look.
Definitions of a crew cut can vary slightly. For example, in the UK, a crew cut may be defined as a one-length haircut all over. In the USA, a crew cut is tapered and faded out.
Seen in the 1920s and during World War II for military men, the crew cut was regarded as athletic and patriotic. The crew cut continues to be popular today.
A fade haircut is where the hair is taken very close around the nape and ears, fading out down the nape onto the skin. The hair gradually gets longer towards the top.
A fade can be high, medium or low, and this tells you where the fade goes to. So a high fade goes high up the sides and back of the head.
German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg in 1914 with splendid moustache and flat top
Where the hair on top of the head is cut to form a flat surface when brushed up. The sides and back of the hair are done with a short taper.
The hair at the edges of the flat top can be cut with a very square look (a “boxy flat top”) or rounded slightly at the edges, creating a slightly softer look (called a “bevelled” or “rounded” flat top).
A longer version of the flat top is called a brush cut. This style can be seen on the character “Ice Man” (Val Kilmer) in the film Top Gun.
High and Tight
The Marine on the floor has a high and tight; the top guy has a recon – the top patch of hair is much smaller
The high and tight consists of very short sides and back, with a slightly longer patch of hair on the top.
The sides are clipped above the temples (hence the “high” element of the name) using a guard number 0 or 1. The sides can also be shaved.
The top of the hair is left straight across at the bottom and goes round the crown of the head in a horseshoe shape. The top hair is also clipped to one length – using a clipper guard from 2 to 5.
The High and Tight started in the 1960s and took off in the 1980s. It’s a cut particularly popular with US Marines, once they have earned the right to wear their hair like this.
High and Tight Recon
The Recon is an extreme High and Tight, where the close cut is taken further up the sides and back of the head, creating an even smaller patch of top hair, known as a “landing strip”. The top hair, when viewed from above, is rectangular in shape.
The sides are either shaved off or clipped with a number 0. The top is clipped to an even length (a guard number 1 to 4). There is no blending or fade.
Top: Private in the British Liberation Army (c.1944-45); Bottom: WWII.
This is the haircut we always think of as the classic short back and sides.
Known as an Ivy League in the US for its popularity among Ivy League undergraduates of the 1950s who favoured this neat and tidy hairstyle.
Either way, it is a graduated haircut, where the top hair is left longer, the sides and back are tapered to a shorter length, which is finished with a fade.
It is a versatile style, as it the longer hair on top can be combed and styled in various ways; like creating a pompadour at the front, or simply parted and kept flatter.
Hair product is used to slick it back and keep it in place. In the 1940s, products would be things like Brilliantine and pomade.
Popular with military personnel for many decades. Nowadays may be seen more on higher-ranking officials.
Middle regulation haircuts. Bottom picture was taken during World War II (1939-1945)
“Regulation” is a generic term that refers to short, military haircuts that adhere to the regulations and could include any standard haircut (e.g. crew cut, butch cut) or variation of.
However, “regulation cut” means a short cut that features longer hair on top, with a clear definition between the top and the sharply tapered sides and back.
The sides and back are clipped very close, even shaved, so that the scalp is plainly visible.
This area of scalp is known as a whitewall, and the height of a whitewall determines whether it is a “low regulation” (short whitewall), a “high regulation” (tall whitewall) or a “medium regulation” (in the middle).
Popular with soldiers in the First World War (especially as heavy helmets were worn, often in freezing conditions) right through to today.
US Marine drill instructor shaping up the new recruits
A shaved head is a powerful symbol – it looks sharp and tough.
A shaved head is often worn in the United States military by those who have to motivate e.g. drill instructors.
A shaved head may also be preferred by someone who is bald/balding.
Some armed forces do not permit shaved heads in general, stating that the haircut must be a minimum length of X, e.g. no shorter than a clipper grade #1, #2 or even a #3, depending on the regiment.
Undercut / Bowl
German soldier from WW2 with an undercut (c.1939-1945)
This haircut was popular with German soldiers during the late 1930s and into the 1940s.
The top of the hair is left quite long, while the sides and back are shaved or clipped really close.
There is little or no blending between the two lengths.
It is the style that the character “James Darmody” wears in Boardwalk Empire.
Exceptions and Allowances
Lance Corporal Sarvjit Singh (left) and Signaller Simranjit Singh – Sikhs in the British Army in turbans that match the regular headwear colours © AP
Some military forces worldwide, where short hair is the norm, may allow long hair on religious grounds, so long as safety and the ability to perform one’s functions are not affected. Facial hair may also be allowed where not normally acceptable.
For example, Sikhs in the British Army or the US Army can keep the long hair required of their religion and wear it under a turban in the same colour as the issue berets/forage caps/headwear. They can also keep a beard.
The Indian Army regs state that hair must be short. Exception is made for the Sikh Regiment.
Rastafarians in the Royal Air Force can have dreadlocks, so long as they’re tidy:
“Male Rastafarian hair is to follow the same general rules for other Service personnel in that it is to be neat and tidy and not of an exaggerated nature. Dreadlocks are to be no longer that the collar and able to be worn with all types of military headdress in such a way that is compatible with the image of the Royal Air Force.” (Royal Air Force AP1358)
So, that was a look at military men’s hair. Apart from things like the high and tight making its mark in more recent times, many of these styles have been seen on male armed forces personnel since the turn of the 20th century.
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