The Most Famous Male Style Icons
The Most Famous Male Style Icons

The Most Famous Male Style Icons

D.G. Hewitt - September 15, 2018

The Most Famous Male Style Icons
General Burnside’s facial hair became more famous than his political career. Wikimedia Commons.

15. Ambrose Burnside’s facial hair has been copied by everyone from the Kaiser to the King

Ambrose Everett Burnside was a soldier, businessman, inventor and politician. For many, however, he was simply a facial hair pioneer. After all, this was the man who gave the world sideburns. Even to this day, men around the world follow Burnside’s lead and craft their beard like he did. Indeed, over the years, his distinctive style has been copied by everyone from Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany right through to Elvis Presley.

Of course, it’s likely that Burnside himself would have preferred to have been remembered for his other notable achievements. The Indiana native, who was born in 1824, graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1843 and then served south of the border. After a largely-unsuccessful spell in business, he re-joined the army and led Union troops as a general in the Civil War. After that, he went back into business, mainly in the railroad sector, and then into politics.

It’s not clear when exactly Burnside started developing his iconic style of facial hair. However, his sideburns were prominent in photos taken while he was in political office. He served three terms as the Governor of Rhode Island, from 1866 to 1869, and then one term as a Senator. Throughout this, he sported his sideburns – indeed, some observers noted that, since they were almost purely white, his whiskers made him look much older than he actually was.

Burnside died in 1881 at the age of just 57. By the time of his death, the facial hair style he sported was still called ‘burnsides’. Many men, especially those who regarded him as a Civil War hero, copied the look, keeping their chins smooth while joining the hair from the ears to the mustache area. Within a few years, however, the syllables were reversed, giving us the term sideburns, which is still used to this day.

The Most Famous Male Style Icons
King Charles II started wearing wigs to hide his hair loss, and he started a fashion craze. Wikimedia Commons.

16. King Charles II’s vanity made wigs the must-have fashion item of 17th century London

At some point in the 1650s, King Charles II started losing his hair. Even though he was still in his 20s, it’s possible that he was just balding prematurely. However, it’s far more likely that he was actually suffering from syphilis. Afraid that he would be mocked, he tasked his courtiers to find him the best wigs money could buy. Satisfied with what they brought him, Charles started wearing a wig every day – and a new trend was born in England.

However, Charles was not the first monarch to inspire his subjects to start wearing wigs. Across the sea, King Louis XIV of France had done so a few years before. He too suffered from syphilis and wanted to cover up some of the most obvious symptoms. The Sun King as he was known reputedly hired 48 wigmakers and kept a huge collection of hair pieces. Eager to win his favor, French nobles started wearing wigs, too, even spending large sums of money on pieces made by the same specialists that supplied the court.

In England, as soon as Charles stared sporting a hairpiece, aristocrats started following suit. It even became fashionable among the wealthier members of the middle classes, despite the fact that a new wig cost the equivalent of a week’s wages. Unsurprisingly, people used the fashion craze to show off. Over time, wigs became bigger, more flamboyant and more perfumed. The term ‘bigwig’ was coined to describe someone who was able – and indeed willing – to spend a large sum of money on a wig they didn’t even really need.

Even when both Louis and Charles died, the fashion for wigs refused to go away. In fact, it endured for another 100 years. This is because many people realised that, as well as being trendy, wigs were practical, too. Unlike real hair, they could be taken off and deloused – a big advantage in a time when almost everyone was infected with headlice.

The Most Famous Male Style Icons
Nelson Mandela’s shirts were widely copied in 1990s South Africa. Wikimedia Commons.

17. Nelson Mandela made Indonesian shirts a massive hit in his native South Africa

In the 1990s, men across South Africa started sporting a new kind of shirt. It was known as the ‘Madiba shirt’ or ‘Mandela shirt’, in honor of the freedom fighter, then President, who made the style so popular. Even now, Nelson Mandela’s formidable legacy can be seen everywhere in his native country, including in the clothes its people wear.

Upon being released from prison in 1990, Mandela worked for reconciliation, not revenge. Four years after being freed from the island prison cell he had called home for 27 long years, he was President of South Africa. World leaders wasted no time in congratulating him, with many sending him gifts. The leader of Indonesia sent Mandela a brightly-colored shirt made from batik cloth, a popular garment in the Asian country. The elder statesman was delighted – and he adopted that type of shirt for his everyday dress.

Over the years, Mandela wore hundreds of different versions of the shirt. Some were patterned to celebrate South Africa’s rich flora and fauna, others in bright colors. Sometimes he wore them to greet national leaders, eschewing the usual suit and tie. He famously even wore one for his 90th birthday party. By the late-1990s, Mandela had become a style icon and bright batik shirts were being sold – and worn – right across the newly-democratic country.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Did Hitler Invent the Hitler Moustache?” Slate Magazine, May 2013.

“The Wardrobe of Winston Churchill.” The Rake, January 2018.

“Prince William, Harry and Phillip don the majestic Windsor Uniform.” Daily Mail, May 2016.

“Garibaldi Shirt.” Victoriana Magazine, June 2014.

“Ambassador in a hat: The sartorial power of Benjamin Franklin.” Early Americanists.

“Fury’s fashion people: Louis XIV, the power dresser.” The Independent, July 2013.

“How the Duke of Windsor became a style icon.” The Gentleman’s Journal.

“Science and celebrity: Humphry Davy’s Rising Star.” Science History.

“Ambrose E. Burnside and His Sideburns.” George Washington University.

“Why Did People Wear Powdered Wigs?” Lucas Reilly, Mental Floss, June 2012.

“Indonesia: Mandela the batik fashion icon.” BBC News, December 2013.