Appearance and Deportment - Tips for Re-enactors


The following information is presented as a general guide for re-enactors and Living Historians portraying German soldiers of the 20th Century.  The German soldier was subject to multiple intrusions into his personal life, as well as several sets of orders and regulations.   While some practices may have been relaxed in the field, it behooves re-enactors in the public eye to hold themselves to higher standards than may have been exhibited by those they seek to portray. 

The following are based on official regulations as well as informal common practice.

Male Haircuts

Several hairstyles were popular in the 20th Century, though soldiers in uniform found themselves restricted to what they were permitted to do with their hair.  In all cases, hair was kept short, the basic standard being that it had to be kept off the collar and off the ears.  In general, extremely short hair styles, as found favour in the 1980s and 1990s in modern militaries, the were not common during the Second World War.

The following information from The Haircut Site gives some examples of what would be considered acceptable or not.  (Photos also reproduced from The Haircut Site).  As well, re-enactors should keep their hair a natural hue.  Sideburns are not mentioned, but should net extend past halfway down the earlobe; even better is to have them cut in line with the top of the ear.

biz.gif (17649 bytes) According to The Haircut Site, the "Businessman's Cut" is "cut long enough to be either parted or brushed back. The back and sides may be tapered or slightly longer, and the hair is usually cut above the ears. This cut is short, but not too short. It's suitable for even the most conservative occupations, and versatile enough to wear differently in different circumstances."

This style is acceptable for re-enactment, and will not make a re-enactor stand out when he returns to his civilian life at the end of a weekend event.

taper.gif (16140 bytes) The Haircut Site defines the "Taper Cut" as "the style of having the hair cut progressively shorter lower down towards the nape of the head. This is generally done with electric clippers and gives a crisper, freshly cut look. The degree of tapering can range from a slight taper to a style in which the hair around the nape and around the ears is shaven."  At left is Casper Van Dien as he appeared in the movie "Starship Troopers." 
Re-enactors should remember to tell their barber to taper their hair rather than "block" it.  "Block" cuts have become popular among civilians in recent years, but are still not permissible in the Canadian or American military.  The hair is cut straight across at the bottom instead of being "tapered". block.gif (18491 bytes)
whitewalls.gif (16817 bytes) White Sidewalls, or White Walls, according to The Haircut Site, refer to "the back and sides of the head when they are buzzed extremely close to the skin, or shaved clean using lather and a razor. The newly-exposed sides of the head are often less tan then the rest of the face, and look white (like the white on white sidewall tires) in comparison."  The photo at left is of Ryan Tripp.  A complement to this would be a "soldier's tan", also known as a "farmer's tan" - being tanned on face and arms, but pale on shoulders, chest and back, indicating someone spending a long time out of doors with a shirt on.
crew.gif (18079 bytes) Finally, a "buzzcut" is, according to The Haircut Site, a "generic name used for a variety of short clipper cuts, usually uniform in length, where the hair conforms to the shape of the head (as opposed to a flattop). The name comes from the sound of the electric clippers used for the cuts.  A buzzcut typically ranges from 1/2 of an inch to stubble (no guard on the clippers). Variations include BUTCH - A Buzzcut where the hair is cut to a uniform, short length (usually 1/8 inch or less) all over. A butch would usually be considered shorter than a crewcut, and the butch is even all over while the crewcut has a little extra length at the front of the head.   CREWCUT - A Buzzcut where the hair is clipper-cut short on the back and sides, and to an inch or less on top."  Matt Damon wore a crewcut in the movie "Saving Private Ryan."
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German haircuts during the Second World War varied from man to man, but in general, extremely short styles were not seen (though some veterans of the "Old Army" may have worn brushcuts).  Hair tended to be cut very short on the side (as illustrated by the White Walls cut above), but was left longer on top, often treated with hair tonic.   Commercial hair tonics like Brylcreem are still available today.

A good source of information regarding German haircuts of the Second World War is the film STALINGRAD which was released in 1993.  The haircuts of the principal actors capture very well some of the different styles seen in period photos.

At left, German soldiers receive haircuts in the field.  At right, Obergefreiter Georg Ebner, photographed before his death in June 1945.

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Even senior officers got their hair cut; Knight's Cross holder Oberstleutnant Alfred Haase is shown at right, below - note hair shorn almost to the skin around the ears.  Haase was Commander of Pioneer Lehr Battalion 2, and was awarded the Knights Cross by Hitler on April 1, 1942.  Below left, it can be seen that hair on top sometimes got extremely long - but always kept off the ears and collar.

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Facial Hair

Mustaches were generally not  permitted in the German Army.  Those that did wear them did not let them extend past the corners of the mouth.  Beards were forbidden by regulation, except by Mountain Troops, or for medical reasons that prevented a soldier from shaving.  Even in these cases, regulations stated that beards could not exceed 2 cm in length.


Pierced ears were not adopted by men, generally speaking, until the 1960s as the earliest, and did not gain widespread popularity until the 1980s.  Men have always been prohibited from wearing earrings when in military uniform.  Other piercings, whether male or female, are a very recent fashion trend and was unheard of in the 1940s or earlier.

Tattoos have gained popularity among soldiers throughout the century.  By and large, however, tattoos in the Second World War remained modest in size and crude in design. A wide variety of other designs, non-military in nature, could also be found. Re-enactors should cover up non-period looking tattoos with the appropriate garments.  Tattoos were usually relegated to the arms, legs, or back by soldiers in the first half of the 20th Century.

Tattoos and piercings did not become fashionable for women until well after the Second World War.  Piercings were generally limited to the earlobes, one per ear on the bottom of the lobe.  Earrings were to be plain metal studs.


Eyeglasses are not commonly seen in period photos, especially not in combat units. For those who must wear eyeglasses, acceptable styles are limited to wire frames, horn-rims, or rimless glasses, always with round lenses. Mid-temple styles were common in addition to high-temple styles.


Wristwatches began to be common in the first years of the 20th Century; First World War soldiers were more likely to have a pocket watch, however.  By the Second World War, wristwatches were becoming universal.  Bands were in leather or metal "twist-o-flex" and the dial was a simple one with either Roman or Arabic numerals.  Day/date features did not yet exist.  Non period watches should not be worn.


Wedding bands may be worn on the right hand by married persons (this is the opposite of North American practice); otherwise it is best not to wear jewellery with re-enactment uniform.  Military regulation forbids the wearing of any other jewellery.

How to Talk to the Public

The main goal of re-enacting is educating people about military history.  Some tips on interacting successfully with the public at large (including veterans):

  • Thank people who pay compliments on your display or your appearance.

  • Don't argue with people who say that you have done something wrong, even if they are incorrect.

  • Don't use profanity.

  • When talking to veterans, don't ask awkward questions; it is best to stay away from the question of killing people altogether.  Do not expect a veteran to be overly interested in you until you have shown an interest in them. Ask them when they joined the military, how long they served, what unit they were in, and questions of that nature.   Sometimes they will open up, some will not want to talk much at all.  Respect whatever decision they make. Above all, listen to what they are saying.  Do not argue with veterans, even if they appear to be wrong about something.  Be sure and thank them for their service; they will not have heard it enough, even if they do act humble and tell you "it was only a job."

  • Admit when you don't know the answer to a question.  Do NOT make something up; it may well come back to damage your credibility. Some people enjoy asking obscure or trick questions to re-enactors out of a sense of superiority or mischief.  Admitting that you do not know everything there is to know only adds to your professionalism.   Your research may also be aided by having people tell you things you don't know already.  Be open to this.

  • In general, be polite, be receptive, and remember that a re-enactor's job is to convey his knowledge to the public, as well as be an ambassador for the unit he is portraying.


One of the main, and most difficult, tasks of basic military training is to remove civilian habits from the recruits. The reinforcement of grooming and dress standards is one way this is accomplished, and new, "military" habits became ingrained to the point that civilian re-enactors who have never served can become very conspicuous by their lack of attention in these areas. Good military units often concentrated - despite anecdotes to the contrary - on small details, and well-trained, motivated units came to display these habits.

While away from the field, soldiers were obligated to present themselves as disciplined and well organized, to their superiors and to the public at large.  Soldiers were ordered (and re-enactors should seek) to follow many different guidelines of deportment. Note that exceptions to all of these can be seen in wartime photos. Re-enactors should generally seek to portray the rule rather than the exceptions.

  • Hands were to be kept out of pockets.
  • Gum was not to be chewed while in uniform.
  • Soldiers were not to lean against walls - they were to either sit or stand up.
  • Uniforms were to be kept clean and pressed, and not mixed with civilian attire.
  • Commissioned officers (and in the German Army, non-commissioned officers) were to be greeted with a salute appropriate to the uniform being worn. 
  • When addressing a superior, it was customary for a soldier to stand properly at attention
  • Headgear was always worn outdoors.  When leaving a billet or tent, proper headgear should be worn. Soldiers indoors generally uncovered, unless on official business or "under arms" and performing a specific duty inside. Headdress as also worn when driving (or riding in) a vehicle.

  • Items were to be worn, never carried. If worn, they were worn properly. 

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Soldiers don't carry overcoats, raincoats, etc., over their arm -- the item is either worn or left behind (except, of course, as part of the field equipment).  "Proper" wear means all the buttons are secured, pockets are closed, etc.

(While highly decorated, this German officer thinks nothing of posing for a photo with a greatcoat draped over his arm; generally not considered appropriate, the man was probably proud of his medals (or else the photogapher wanted a better view of them).  One must always treat period photos with suspicion; the intent of the subject and the photographer can only be guessed at, decades after the fact.)

  • Complete uniforms were to be worn, and the proper 'dress of the day' was worn for specific duties. For example, German soldiers off duty were permitted to wear low shoes and the Schirmmütze in secure areas.

  • Soldiers generally shaved once a day, with exceptions when in close contact or adverse weather conditions. (Mountain Troops, for example, were permitted to wear beards up to two centimetres in length when operating in mountains, to help preserve water.)

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While it was common for German soldiers to present a shoddy appearance due to aging uniforms and equipment (and later in the war the ongoing deterioration of quality of new clothing and equipment caused by materiel shortages), sloppiness brought about by neglect was generally not tolerated. Soldiers were held accountable for their kit (each German soldier's paybook had a section in which he signed for all the clothing and equipment issued to him). Missing buttons were replaced, holes and tears were mended either by the soldier, or by his unit's support services, which had access to sewing machines even in field conditions. Heavily damaged items were replaced for serviceable items.

(At left, a studio photo of a soldier with a pen clip clearly visible under his pocket flap - generally considered a no-no; pens, watch chains, combs, etc., were supposed to be hidden when in uniform)

While contemporary photos commonly show soldiers who are dirty, unshaven, and exhibiting all manner of sloppy habits, good units would tend to return to a natural state of order (ordnung muss sein) quickly once away from the firing line. Individuals had good habits trained into them, and good units considered those small details a sign of discipline and morale.

One re-enactment unit's newsletter noted:

Good units are built on the sort of discipline that results when soldiers can be trusted to do what they are supposed to without direct supervision.   Real or re-enactment, you can tell a lot about a unit when you see one of its soldiers walking down the street alone; does he look as good as when in formation, or is he out of control?  While not always true, the old adage "if it looks good, it probably is" is at least a start point for a better-than-average unit.

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