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A pop culture timeline of the rise (and fall) of chest hair


TextDaniel Rodgers

From ‘sexy’ on ‘Marlboro Man’ Tom Selleck in the 1980s to ‘subversive’ at Art School’s AW20 show

“Nice wig Janice, what’s it made of?”…“Your mum’s chest hair!” This iconic one-liner (from the now-canonical 2004 film, Mean Girls) is indicative of just how far chest hair, be it your mum’s or your own, is loaded with cultural connotation. 

When it comes to body hair, a kind of ‘all or nothing’ politics abounds and chest hair is no different. Of course, there was a time when humans were completely covered in body hair but, as our ape-adjacent ancestors migrated to warmer climes, and eventually indoors, we began to shed this coating through a process of natural selection. Over time, any body hair that did remain became encoded in deep sociocultural associations. 

Because of chest hair’s correlation to higher levels of testosterone, these codes tend to be rooted in virility: namely sex and dominance. As a result, a hairy chest has flitted between sexy and seedy depending on the decade – big bushes were everywhere in the 70s yet by the 90s they had all but disappeared. And now, bare chests seem to be gaining popularity again – at least according to one 2018 Mintel report which found that 46 per cent of men remove hair from their bodies, a figure up 36 per cent in 2016. 

Needless to say, our relationship with chest hair is profound. And, when even the most recent Tarzan (by Disney starring Alexander Skarsgård) managed to get a wax, is it any wonder? So, as our chest hair continues to wax and wane, let us take you through some of the most breast-beating moments of the past few decades.

TOM SELLECK (1980s)

If your mum ever told you to “eat your veg because it’ll put hairs on your chest”, this is who she was picturing. Tom Selleck was an actor who rose to fame in the 70s as a model, most notably as the Marlboro Man. 

Whether three buttons down opposite Farrah Fawcett in a Dubonnet commercial or topless as Thomas Magnum in 80s drama Magnum P.I., Selleck was the ultimate hairy chest poster boy. And if the Marlboro cigs didn’t knock you out, the pheromones would have.

Presumably all too aware of this, Selleck famously turned down the role of Mick Buchannon in Baywatch (taken up by other fur ball, David Hasselhoff) as he didn’t want to become a sex symbol. At this point, it was probably too little too late, but it is suggestive of the extent to which a hairy chest, and its proximity to masculinity, has been sexualised. You might also recognise him as Dr Richard Burke, Monica Geller’s older boyfriend in Friends.

MARKY MARK (1990s)

In 1992, small-time rapper Mark Wahlberg (Marky Mark) was picked up by Calvin Klein to feature in a series of underwear ads. The now-iconic campaigns, lensed by Herb Ritts, starred a bare-chested, pumped up Wahlberg opposite an elfin Kate Moss. 

For Calvin Klein, it was all about one aesthetic - “straight-looking, masculine men, with chiselled bodies, young Greek gods come to life.”

Klein’s newfound ideals of hairlessness and muscular definition became the catalyst for a wider bare chest movement, in which a slew of other 90s pop figures like Justin Timberlake, Take That, and of course, Peter Andre would come to replicate. 

SIMON COWELL (2001-2011)

In the ever-changing landscape of TV talent shows, one thing remains constant, Simon Cowell’s look. Alongside half-buttoned shirts, and dodgy boot-cut denim, Cowell’s bristling bosom has been a long-term fixture of Saturday night TV since he first appeared as a judge on Pop Idol in 2001 (although viewing figures for his shows have now plummeted since Little Mix’s The X Factor win in 2011).

Framed with a deep v-neck or shown off on a jet ski, Cowell parades his chest hair with pride. And in the context of this industry mogul, it would seem to conflate the patriarchal ideals of success and wealth with masculinity. 

In fact, it’s reminiscent of Gaston from the 1991 Beauty and the Beast Disney film who proclaims “and every last inch of me’s covered in hair”. It was chauvinistic then and edges towards a certain toxic masculinity now.

CRISTIANO RONALDO (2010-2014) 

As we enter the 2010s, footballers start to gain major celeb status. As a result, the profession’s most fair-faced booked huge advertising campaigns – think David Beckham for Emporio Armani, Freddie Ljungberg for Calvin Klein, or Cristiano Ronaldo, whose oiled-up bare chest scored a four-year contract with Armani from 2010.

While a hairless body could provide the athlete some aerodynamic benefits, it’s these men who are widely accredited for influencing the naughties ‘metrosexual’ –  a word now exclusively used to describe music teachers and people who wear Ted Baker.

Because of men like Ronaldo, a waxed chest became a calling card for the masculine revolution – a new breed of heterosexual man, who moisturised, went to the hairdressers but was definitely not gay. 

DON DRAPER (2007-2015)

For seven seasons as Don Draper, the tragic hero of hit TV series Mad Men, John Hamm bought chest hair ever closer to the proponents of the on-screen casanova. Charismatic, rich, and unbearably handsome – Don Draper was, in so many ways, the ultimate zaddy.

As he charmed his way from the boardroom to bedroom, Draper’s scruffy chest became as synonymous with his character as bourbon or a post-coital cigarette. It was the marker of an effortless sex appeal and has no doubt fuelled the rapid sexualisation of the ‘dad bod’. 

LOVE ISLAND (2015-PRESENT)

Then comes Love Island. For six nights a week, we watch male islanders sprawl around the villa like really buff Sphynx cats. And it’s become one of the biggest cultural phenomena of recent years (maybe). 

Waxed to perfection, the islanders reflect the radical acceptance of male grooming (an industry projected to reach $60.7 billion this year). These pumped up, boulder-built 20-somethings put forth a specific brand of masculinity, the ‘spornosexual’. 

Just as moisturised and preened as the metrosexual before him, for the sporno man it’s all about being jacked, meal plans and personal bests. And obvs, no chest hair.

CATS (2019)

Once you’ve seen a hairy-chested Jennifer Hudson sing “Memory”, or Judi Dench’s chest fuzz billow in the dawn of Trafalgar Square, you don’t feel quite the same. 

Cats introduces us to ‘digital fur technology’ – a new kind of anthropomorphic body hair, void of all social connotation and sexual allure. It does look warm though, as aside from Judi Dench, no-one really wears a coat.

ART SCHOOL AW20 (2020)

As part of its AW20 collection, Art School (London’s non-binary luxury fashion label), sent a model down the runway with their chest hair slicked around to form the brand’s name.

It’s a cursed image at first, but it triggers that familiar sense of unease which the brand’s shows have come to represent – like the models who walked the viral SS20 show at a feverish, unhinged pace. 

At the hands of this queer label, to play with chest hair is to divest its associations to cis-hyper-masculinity. It’s a subversive move when so much of queer identity politics is linked to body hair (think fuzzy ‘bears’ or smooth ‘twinks’). And in doing so, Art School follows in the footsteps of other non-binary figures, like Jonathon Van Ness or Sam Smith, who have embraced their chest hair as a part of a fluid identity.

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