50 Objects #2: Brylcreem

Brylcreem first glistened into the light of day in Birmingham in 1928. Time has been unkind to the content of this particular jar — once a gleaming white, now it’s more of a coffee brown. From London’s Science Museum, it dates from about 1960, when this hairstyling product was a staple of the British bathroom cabinet.

But history was on the move. That year compulsory National Service for the country’s youth ended, a moment that signalled goodbye to the military-style, greased short, back and sides haircut that went with it. Soon, in came the long, unlubricated hair of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and the end of civilisation as many parents understood it.

Men, heroes and villains alike, had hitherto kept their hair plastered down. Sharp of appearance and reaction, second world war RAF pilots and their crews, for example, were known as “Brylcreem boys”. Meanwhile, the slickly turned out spivs who ran the wartime black market, with its illicit supply of many home goods subject to strict official rationing, also wore well-greased hair.

Then, within the postwar gloom of the early 1950s, adults throughout the land faced the indignity of their rebellious teenagers flocking to join gangs of Teddy Boys, with their oily quiffs, violent tendencies and shocking antics on the rock ‘n’ roll dance floor.

British magazine advert from 1950s
A British magazine advert from the 1950s © Retro AdArchives / Alamy

Between fathers and sons, many households found themselves split as clearly as the parting in your old dad’s hair. Like all border zones, continued trouble was to be expected around it and, by the middle of the 1960s, national discipline appeared to have broken down completely. Bank Holiday battles on the seafronts of Brighton and elsewhere put dry-haired Mods against Rockers, the latter’s style greasily stuck in a bygone age.

Brylcreem has carried on regardless through such waves of fashion and social change. It has even presented itself as an accessory to romance, with advertisements suggesting that women love to run their fingers through a Brylcreemed head of hair.

From Middlesex and England cricketer Denis Compton in the 1950s to Manchester United’s David Beckham in the late 1990s, it has recruited top sportsmen to its cause. With Beckham, it was unlucky when the then rising star of English football suddenly shaved his hair off.

Though its popularity may slide here or there, however, Brylcreem retains a presence in many bathroom cabinets — fixed of purpose, resistant to movement, a survivor within the ever slippery parameters of our popular culture.

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