Razors, Shaving, and Gender Construction:
An Inquiry into the Material Culture of Shaving

Abstract

Particularly in the context of contemporary consumer society, one’s physical appearance plays a significant role in their sense of personal identity. The aim of this study is to investigate how conventional gender roles are both reflected and reinforced in contemporary North American culture through the methods and material elements of one specific grooming habit, namely shaving. This paper seeks to identify the symbolic categories implicit in razor design and to suggest some of the ways in which these symbolic meanings are communicated by drawing on a number of theories and methodologies. This preliminary investigation reveals that contemporary shaving habits are ritualistic processes that represent conventional cultural gender prescriptions and that the designers of these goods are virtually always influenced by a particular set of associative images.

Résumé

In particular, in the setting of contemporary consumer society, one’s physical appearance is a significant factor in how one perceives their identity. The goal of this study is to analyze the ways in which the procedures and physical elements of one specific type of beauty care, the rasage, reflect and reinforce traditional gender roles in contemporary Nordic culture. This essay attempts to identify the symbolic categories that are included in the conceptualization of razors and advances theories regarding how these symbolic meanings are disseminated. This preliminary examination suggests that modern practices of shaving are rituals that express traditional cultural prescriptions based on gender and that those responsible for their production.

1. The archaeological and artistic records also demonstrate that men have been shaving their faces since at least prehistoric times. For the majority of North American men today, shaving is undoubtedly a daily ritual.1 They will invest an average of 3 000 hours—or roughly four months—in the exercise over their lifetimes. 2 The sequence is usual, the motions are habitual, and the implements are commonplace—or at least that is how it appears when you first look at it—so there is little thought given to the real process involved. However, a closer look at shaving routines and material culture reveals a complicated system of gender affirmation and construction that is neither easy nor “natural,” but rather a culturally defined and polished procedure dedicated solely to transforming the biological “man” into the social “masculine.”

2. Furthermore, despite the fact that shaving is a relatively recent phenomenon for women4 and differs from the male activity in a number of significant ways, the same analysis suggests that it too embodies and reflects the same gendering functions, as well as emphasizing and maintaining a number of conventional signs of sex differentiation. Although this may seem like a minor point in a field where themes of politics, violence, and discrimination predominate, I would argue that it is precise because the micro-ecology of our daily lives is given such scant attention that we find the most persistent and deeply ingrained reflection of cultural norms and symbols here. By offering a paradigm and framework for examining the relationship between consumer grooming items, individual grooming rituals, ideal body imagery, and finally the role played by all three in creating the individual’s self-image, this study aims to open up this field of inquiry.

3. An instant challenge arises when attempting to decipher the layers of meaning connected with a grooming regimen like shaving. Similar to other domestic and private activities, shaving is glaringly lacking from the documented record since it is such a minor, thoughtless, and “natural” activity that it does not warrant even a journal note, let alone a monograph. 6 During the fieldwork for his anthropological study of hair, Grant McCracken observed that oral surveys can be similarly challenging in the context of men’s grooming. Men “would not engage in the research,” he said. According to a hidden code of masculinity, “man stuff” doesn’t include things like hair and fashion. 7 The challenge in locating a sufficient number of respondents during the earliest eras of a study that covers more than a century exacerbates the issue further. In any case, it doesn’t appear plausible that either textual study or oral history will yield enough relevant data in the current situation. The third strategy, which has been used in this case, involves studying the items directly using the theories and techniques linked with the study of material history.

4. Today, the majority of people agree that things may disclose a lot about the people who create, utilise, and exhibit them. In reality, we all frequently criticize others based on their attire, vehicle, place of residence, and other characteristics. By doing this, we implicitly accept the possibility that the things we surround ourselves with can be interpreted as a reflection of the type of person we are. However, it is much more difficult to describe precisely how such information presents and transmits itself.

5. Since meaning constantly and exclusively exists in the mind of the beholder, it might be challenging to comprehend how “meaning” can be communicated by an object. In short, artifactual analysis necessitates a sizable semiotic component, although one that is not based on linguistics but rather primarily on tactile and visual input. Yet, the leading analytic paradigms have not sufficiently taken into account this area, despite its importance for understanding the function of items in a consumer society.

6. It should be emphasized that shaving is not intrinsically “natural” before moving on to a direct analysis of the tools and customs involved. Contrarily, what is natural for the human male is the existence of facial and other epigamic hair, which has functioned as an important fundamental indicator of sex since ancient times. As one author put it, “it is not unexpected that hairiness has become a sign and evidence of masculinity since hairiness is one of the apparent traits that identify the male from the feminine. The ability to grow a beard is only possessed by men. After explaining the connection between puberty, fertility, and virility, the author comes to the simple conclusion that “male hair means virility, equals power, equals strength.” 

7. If this is the case—and there is ample evidence to support this—then the present stereotype of the manly man with a perennially clean-cheeked appearance is all the more astounding. And it is very much a phenomenon of the twentieth century, whose origins can be reasonably traced to the 1903 introduction of the Gillette safety razor. 10 Shaving was a strictly male pastime up to this point, and it was always done with a straight or “cut-throat” razor. Only the relatively affluent or leisured could really manage to shave on a regular basis, frequently at the hands of a servant specifically hired for that reason because it was a time-consuming, risky, and highly expensive practice.

8. Shaving only once or twice a week was more typical, and for the urban middle class at least, this was frequently accomplished through frequent trips to the barber. Therefore, “clean-shavenness” was a highly subjective phrase before the 20th century, as the majority of men must have worn beards that had only grown for one or two days most of the time. Additionally, in these earlier stages, it served to at least partially distinguish classes and was frequently a social activity rather than a private one.

9. The ritual of the daily shave is a distinctly twentieth-century phenomenon whose roots match almost perfectly with other similar developments around the turn of the century as a common, or if you will, “democratic,” habit. The shift from seeing the “self” as a constant identity to one that is variable and “fabricated” was one of these, and it was the one that was most relevant to the current study. As noted by historian Kathy Peiss:

By the 1920s, self had primarily become a matter of retailing and performance and was based around commodities, style, and personal magnetism, in contrast to mid-nineteenth-century Americans’ belief in the fixity of identity, a core self rooted in a moral economy of hard work and thrift.

10. In addition, Peiss adds that “although performances may naturally constitute identity, they became increasingly visible and obvious as performances in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.” 14 For the time being, it is sufficient to note how the concept of the created identity is mirrored in the guidance books from the 1960s and 1970s on how to “dress appropriately.” This is a significant problem, and I will return to it. The very fact that these publications exist at all might be seen as “an indicator of a hidden cultural bias,”15 reflecting the contemporary understanding of human identity as a self-created and mutable social construct. These publications also have the ideological effect of implying that such standards are somehow “natural” and external, a normative ideal towards which all right-thinking people will naturally strive. They teach how to comply with the dress code without discussing how or why such a code came to be. These books are all extremely clear on the matter of facial hair while being mostly about clothing: “Most guys shouldn’t have any facial hair on their faces, especially beards. Men who are clean-shaven have a better chance of finding employment and being widely and readily accepted in business. The response to facial hair is virtually always unfavorable.” 17

11. As a result, by the middle of the 20th century at least, the ideal of clean-shavenness had changed from being a question of taste or trend to becoming a standard cultural value for men. 18 The emergence of the modern razor must be viewed within the context of this essential conceptual shift, which is that a man’s face is now perceived as a manipulable aspect in the presentation of the self, a display good in and of itself.

12. The most reliable approach for our purposes is the use of formal sequences comprising a “Prime Object” and subsequent replications. This is in part due to the fact that tools or implements like razors “commonly have extremely long durations” among the various classification methods used to categorize items within a given constellation of objects, including materials used, date of manufacture, technological sophistication, decorative elements, and any other common characteristic. 19 We may analyse the attributes inside each range and detect any notable similarities or variations between them by first recognizing such sequences.

13. We might start by accepting the fundamental contrast between an object’s design and utility. According to Roland Barthes, objects “always have, in principle, a function…we believe we experience [them] as pure instruments, whereas in reality they carry other things, they are also something else: they function as the vehicle of meaning” (i.e., the object serves a purpose effectively but also communicates information). 20 The first approach to the items will be from the aspect of their utility, with a particular focus on their crucial engineering component, the cutting edge or blade, since function in this sense precedes form.

14. From this functional vantage point, the manual or “wet” razor and the electric or “dry” shaver represent the two main formal sequences of the different razors manufactured during the past 100 years21. 22 We can legitimately draw this additional differentiation right away within the first of these sequences since there is a sub-division between the straight (cut-throat) razor and the safety razor that is significant enough. The straight razor, the safety razor, and the electric razor are the three categories that come from this high-level classification.

15. The straight razor is the oldest and most resilient type of razor . They have undoubtedly been in continuous use since at least the first half of the seventeenth century, despite the fact that it is impossible to pinpoint when the first of these objects appeared. With the exception of the creation of the much sharper “hollow-ground” (concave) blade in the early 1800s, the basic design and construction have not changed throughout the course of over 350 years. Honing and stropping are routine maintenance procedures for the tempered-steel blades, which will eventually lose their sharpness. 23 Although these razors’ fundamental form and construction are relatively constant, there are notable differences in the materials and designs used for their handles, which range from carved ivory or tortoiseshell to simple black rubber.The cost of razors was mostly determined by these factors as the functional component, the blade, was essentially uniform. The appearance of “high-end” variants implies that they were utilised as status symbols. This is consistent with the classic book on conspicuous spending by Thorstein Veblen, which was first released in 1899, during the height of the straight razor’s popularity. 24

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