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U.K. Royal Air Force Takes Sides in the Military’s Battle of the Beard

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For the past century, the U.K.’s Royal Air Force held firm against a persistent menace to the British order.

The RAF has now decided to let beards grow, and many current and former military men are bristling. “It’s about discipline, about high standards,” said

Stewart Hill,

a former U.K. army lieutenant colonel. “Psychologically, you are saying, ‘I am now shaved, and I am ready for war.’”

Battles to maintain formal attire in the workplace have largely quieted. Casual Friday togs have taken over neighboring weekdays. Ties are turning tail.

The armed forces were among the holdouts, but the last lines of defense are crumbling. Never mind beards. The U.K. army now allows tattoos on hands and the backs of necks, a street fashion that can still raise eyebrows in some offices.

Armed forces, traditional bastions of male virility, have wrestled with how much they need to reflect societies they protect, such as whether to allow gay enlistees or women in combat roles. Western militaries of late have been pressed to allow facial hair on religious grounds, which the RAF already permitted.

Edward Birch Reynardson, a British army officer during the Crimean War in 1855.


Photo:

Roger Fenton/Getty Images

The RAF said allowing beards across the service would help “promote inclusivity,” as well as attract and retain more aviators. It’s no free-for-all: The beards must be uniform—no longer than 25 mm, about an inch. Airmen can only have full beards with mustache; no goatee, Vandyke or mutton chops. And a commanding officer must grant permission to grow.

The beard ban end has drawn volleys of derision on internet chat sites used by service members. “Man buns next?” one conversation was titled.

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Traditionalists say shaving is as much a part of the military as saluting and marching. Anyone who can’t suffer a bit of personal sacrifice probably doesn’t belong in uniform, one military officer said.

Hirsute supporters counter with British military history. Soldiers returned victorious in 1856 from the Crimean War with long, bushy beards grown to protect against the cold and wind. Beards became de rigeur, “symbols of the heroic male,” according to

Alun Withey,

senior lecturer at the U.K.’s University of Exeter and an expert on the history of facial hair.

A mustache requirement was eventually written into the King’s Regulations for the army, leaving a bare upper lip grounds for a court-martial.

At the start of the 20th century, the fashion pendulum swung. Lt. Gen. Nevil Macready, a senior British Army officer, recalled in his memoirs how an officer complained that a mustache would hinder his postwar career in acting.

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, after their wedding last year in Windsor, England.


Photo:

Noam Galai/GC Images

At

Lt. Gen. Macready

’s recommendation, King

George V

authorized the army in 1916 to allow the removal of mustaches. The next evening, Lt. Gen. Macready got a shave. “I was only too glad to be rid of the unsightly bristles to which I had for years been condemned by obedience to regulations,” he wrote.

Fashion has again tipped in the bearded back and forth. A 2017 survey by U.K. pollster YouGov found that 61% of men ages 18 to 39 had some facial hair, compared with 43% in 2011.

Thomas Coney, a 27-year-old former British Army engineer, said he quit in 2017, in part, because he wasn’t allowed to wear a beard. “I was taking back my own freedom,” he said.

Mr. Coney, who now sports a long beard and runs on online bookstore, said rules on tattoos were overlooked, but “beards have been persecuted.”

Canada last year welcomed beards in its armed forces, saying “greater control over personal appearance enhances organizational morale.”

A German court this year fired back at the trend of relaxing appearance standards. It rejected a complaint from a Goth soldier over rules that permit only women to wear their hair long. The trooper had argued the practice discriminated against men.

While forbidding beards, the Royal Marines and RAF have long allowed mustaches, a style liberty that caused a dust-up with allies in Afghanistan.

Prince Charles stands with the Goat Major and Shenkin the goat, regimental mascot of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment Of Wales in 1998.


Photo:

Tim Graham Photo Library/Getty Images

A British airman attached to the U.S. Air Force in 2008 was told to trim his handlebar mustache. American airmen aren’t allowed facial hair stretching below the top lip, the Brit successfully argued that he was subject only to the Queen’s Regulations. [The King’s and Queen’s regulations are identical, and the name used depends only on who is monarch.]

The U.K.’s Royal Navy allows beards, in the tradition of legendary seafarers. Still, it keeps a strict code. “Designer stubble,” less than 25 mm, and “hipster beards” are out. If there is any doubt, according to the Queen’s Regulations, commanders “define an acceptable appearance of a beard, as much depends on the features of the individual.”

The British Army appears disinclined to change, though there are exceptions beyond religious and health reasons. Prince Harry, a former army officer no longer in the service, wore both a beard and his old uniform at his wedding.

The British Army allows beards for handful of ranks that carry ceremonial roles, including pioneer sergeants. Historically, they performed ironwork and were allowed a beard to protect their faces from the heat of forges. They still parade in bushy beards, toting axes.

The same privilege is afforded Goat Majors, who are assigned to tend a regimental mascot. Nature cut short one serviceman’s tenure, Mr. Hill recalled. The major couldn’t grow a decent beard.

Write to James Marson at james.marson@wsj.com

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