Women's pursuit of smooth, hairless skin has been a beauty constant for centuries. Over the years, new methods and dramatic product improvements have changed the history of shaving hair.
The history of shaving hair reveals that many of today's techniques are hardly new. In the Stone Age, cave men and women used sharpened rocks and seashells to scrape hair away, the first example of primitive shaving. In ancient Egypt, women applied hot wax and strips of gauze to the legs; after it hardened, they ripped the wax and hairs away, paving the way for today's waxing procedures.
Early Arabian women introduced bandandoz, a precursor to the epilator. They laced cotton string between their fingers to form a cat's cradle, then ran it briskly over their legs to simultaneously encircle and pull out hairs.
Even depilatories, creams, and lotions, which chemically dissolve hair, have an origin in the history of shaving. In the early 18th century, American women prepared poultices of caustic lye, which, when applied to legs, burned away unwanted hair.
The history of shaving gives us a fairly comprehensive record of hair-removal methods over the years, but what about the motivation behind this beauty and grooming ritual? The reasons for man's—and woman's—initial decision to remove hair are more difficult to determine. In the absence of mirrors, or any clearly-defined standards of beauty, mere vanity can probably be ruled out. Early men may have removed facial hair because it appeared as they grew older and was associated with aging and death. Or perhaps long, unruly beards simply got in the way during eating and drinking.
We do know that during the earliest Egyptian dynasties, some 7,000 years ago, aristocratic men shaved their faces, heads, and bodies, while women shaved their bodies and their heads. Clean-shaven bodies and faces were clear indicators of wealth, power, and gentility.
As civilizations advanced, to shave or not to shave became a matter of fashion. For early Greeks and Romans, beards symbolized wisdom, maturity, and manhood. But as shaving spread throughout the Roman Empire, beards became a mark of slaves, servants, and barbarians adding to the ever-changing history of shaving.
During Elizabeth I of England's reign in the 16th century, beard-wearing returned, and frequently was carried to extremes. Beards were dyed, curled, and starched into strange shapes, then protected by special boxes while their owners slept each night. Elizabethan female hair removal was equally unusual; the Queen herself, along with all the ladies of the court, began plucking the hair from the top of their foreheads in order to make their foreheads appear higher and nobler.
But it wasn't until the 20th century that hair removal moved from the virtually exclusive domain of men. During the post-Victorian era, particularly in the United States, women's fashions dictated the removal of hair from both legs and underarms.
For the first time in nearly 2,000 years, women were baring their legs (up to the knee!) and wearing sleeveless flapper dresses. Every American woman of fashion sported clean, hairless legs and underarms.
Smooth, closely-shaven legs took on a new appeal during the early days of World War II in the United States. Nylon hosiery became scarce, causing women to go without stockings and to apply leg makeup instead. These American women appeared to be wearing hose with the help of makeup, complete with a seam up the back of the leg applied with a black marker. Smooth, hairless legs made this illusion much easier to achieve.
Since then, the appeal of clean, smooth, hairless legs and underarms for women has never dimmed. Hair removal has become as much a part of women's beauty routines as conditioning hair or applying lipstick. Hair-removal products and techniques have changed throughout the history of shaving, yet the desired result—soft, smooth, hair-free skin—remains.