Dr Alun Withey

Welcome to my blog! I am an academic historian of medicine and the body, and 2014 AHRC/BBC 'New Generation Thinker'. Please enjoy and let me know what you think.

Beards, Moustaches and Facial Hair in History

 (This is not me by the way)

Today in the town of Bad Schussenried, Germany, will be held the World Beard and Moustache championships. Attracting hirsute entrants from across the globe, competitors can enter in no less than eighteen categories, from chin beards to Imperial moustaches. The Germans seem to be particularly adept at this competition, and have fielded a number of champions in recent years. Men’s relationship with the beard has changed a great deal over time and it is interesting to see how wearing (or indeed not wearing) some form of facial hair can often be linked to broader social and cultural trends.

In the Renaissance, for example, beard-wearing was a sign of masculinity and almost a rite of passage. To be able to grow a beard represented the change from boy to man. As Will Fisher put it in his article on beards in Renaissance England,  “the beard made the man”. It is noteworthy, for example, that almost every portrait of a man painted between, say, 1550 and 1650 contains some representation of facial hair – from the Francis Drake-style pointy beard to the Charles I ‘Van Dyke’. Beards were the coming thing.

The wearing of a beard, especially during this period, was actually linked to beliefs about the body. As people believed that the body consisted of four fluid humours in a perpetually precarious state of balance, so there were different ideas about how it got rid of waste material. Most people can associate bloodletting with the early modern period, and this was done to rid the body of excess blood, and carry with it any troublesome or dangerous waste. People routinely took laxatives and emetics to purge themselves of any potentially problematic substances.

Where does the beard fit in with this? Until at least the late seventeenth century it was widely believed that facial hair was aactually a form of excreta – a waste material generated by the body as a result of heat in the testicles! But this also provides the link with masculinity. Since the beard was linked to the genitals, it was an outward sign of virility and masculinity.

But in the eighteenth century something changed. For reasons that are so far obscure, men stopped wearing beards and, more than this, the beard even became socially unpopular. The eighteenth-century culture of politeness certainly played a part in this. The ‘man of letters’ was clean-shaven; the beard was seen as hiding the face, whereas shaving it left it clean and smooth and, therefore, more aesthetically pleasing. Having an ‘open countenance’ was also a metaphor for an open mind – the keystone of the enlightened thinker.

New shaving technologies also played a part. The invention of cast steel in the mid-eighteenth century meant that sharper and longer-lasting blades were available, making shaving a less uncomfortable experience. As newspaper advertising expanded, so razormakers capitalised on this new vogue for shaving, offering not just new types of razors ‘on philisophical principles’, but also a range of other goods. These included ‘razor strops’ to keep your shiny new razor sharp, to other things such as face creams, shaving powders and scents. We tend to think of male pampering as a modern thing, but the Georgians got there first!

A century later, though, the beard was back with a vengeance! In fact, in the Victorian period, there was even a ‘beard movement’. The reasons for this are more certain. By the mid-nineteenth century, the British Empire was in full flower, and the power of the British military was a matter of pride at home. Some military regiments had begun to wear moustaches, and British men began to imitate this style, with all its attendant military, masculine associations. There were other factors too. This was the age of explorers heading out into untamed lands and living amongst wild nature. Such men were the heroes of their day. Often unable to shave ‘in the field’ they sported large beards, and to imitate this was to link yourself to their rugged masculinity.

But there was also a rediscovery of the beard as both a symbol of natural virility and masculinity, and even in health terms. Rather than being a form of excreta, some writers now extolled the virtues of the beard in stopping disease before it could get to the face and mouth! The beard as a visual symbol of innate manliness also made a comeback in this period, and many popular writers of the day – from Trevelyan to Dickens – not only supported the beard, but sported fine examples. (See Christopher Oldstone-Moore’s excellent article on the Victorian beard movement in the Victorian Studies journal, 2005)

Fashions for facial hair seemed to change more rapidly in the twentieth century. In the 10s and 20s the fashion was for moustaches. By the 40s and 50s, the clean-shaven look was partially favoured before stunning ‘badger beards’ made a comeback in the 60s and 70s. My father sported a particularly fine ginger example c. 1975! But these things do show that facial hair has a history of its own. It is linked to the way men have experienced their own gender and sexuality, and how society and cultural values have intervened in the construction of male appearance. I’ve just finished an academic article on beards and shaving in the eighteenth-century, and it’s been an interesting journey.

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26 thoughts on “Beards, Moustaches and Facial Hair in History

  1. The technology and disease aspect I think is very powerful. WWI seems to be a sharp break point, at least in the US, as millions of men were introduced to safety razors, and shaving made trench hygiene easier. In the 60s, beards seem to be more countercultural than masculine, an ethnic or artistic marker.

    • Thanks very much for your comment Jonathan. I definitely agree in terms of technology and shaving; the eighteenth century was something of a golden age for this. It was the first time that adverts were addressed to ‘gentlemen who shave themselves’, i.e. rather than visit a barber.

      If you were interested, there is a fuller article on my academic website under ‘papers'; it’s a draft of an article by myself and Professor Chris Evans on shaving. http://swansea.academia.edu/AlunWithey which looks at the Enlightenment in particular.

      I take your point about WW1 too and it does seem to have been something of a watershed, not least because of Mr Gillette’s business!

  2. Very interesting. A couple of thoughts:
    Have you come across the vow that Irish rebels allegedly made after the 1798 Rebellion, saying that they would not shave ‘the hair beneath their chins’ until Ireland was free? There do seem to be a lot of bearded 19C Irishmen o/s who were able to recognize each other accordingly.
    Also, did the encounter with less bearded (but clearly masculine) men in Asia or America change attitudes to beards? I believe the Spaniards in South America saw hairiness as a sign of superior European ancestry (and not only in men – some of Frieda Kahlo’s portraits are of women with noticeable mustaches!)

    • Thanks very much indeed for your comments, and especially for the questions. I hadn’t heard about the Irish rebels’ vow, and this is extremely interesting. The use of the beard there is very definitely masculine, and adds another dimension to the visual symbolism of facial hair. I’ve submitted the article now to the journal, but that would be a great reference to include; would you mind letting me know where it is cited?

      The issue of beards in foreign countries is very interesting too. Some European writers noted the beardlessness of some cultures and asserted that it was only Europeans who were able to cultivate the ‘noble beard’. There was also a strong correlation with ‘exoticism’, popular in the Enlightenment, and the styles and appearance of other cultures. Interestingly, though, it doesn’t seem to have translated into a trend for wearing beards. Although the ability to grow a beard was a key male characteristic, shaving it off was the acme of fashion in the eighteenth century.

      Thanks once again though, and I’m really glad you found it interesting.
      Alun

      • Alun, there’s a discussion of this in Ch. 12, ‘Varieties of Brotherhood’ in Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia, vol 1 (OUP, 1997)
        He quotes there ‘General’ Joseph Holt, who had been transported to NSW after 1798, and was shipwrecked in the Falklands on his way home in 1811. In his autobiography (in Google Books) he tells how an American whaling captain came ashore, and they recognized each other: ‘I wore my beard under my chin as a mark of what I was, and he had his in the same manner’ (124)

      • Excellent – great references and I’m wondering if the early nineteenth century marks the beginning of the end of this sort of golden age of shaving that I’ve been seeing from around 1750. It definitely seems here that the beard is again signally masculinity, or at least status, which it wasn’t for a while.

        Thanks again – I’m really grateful for this.
        Alun

  3. My pleasure. You might also be interested in this exhibition that was on at the National Portrait Gallery (Canberra) last year – http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/exhibition_subsite_moshow.php
    ‘Jo’s Mo Show’ – on beards and moustaches in 19C Australia.
    Cheers – Marion

    • This is great stuff – thanks very much Marion. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s an interesting comparison to be made here between concepts of masculinity and politeness in Europe and Australia. I’m very grateful indeed for your comments and suggestions and will put an updated post with some more info on this soon.
      Alun

  4. academicbeards on said:

    Interesting reflections. Of course, academic beards tend towards cultural niche rather than general cultural trend, and according to our regression analysis their semiotic value has remained somewhat static throughout the 20th century and into this one. You’re not tempted to display your academic prowess on your chin?

    • Thanks for this. In the eighteenth century though, facial hair went out of favour with elites to the extent that it was beyond any niche; you seemingly just didn’t have any!

      I have sported a particularly bad goatee during my impetuous youth. I leave it now to those better suited and more able to do the majestic beard justice.

  5. Question: in the 17th century, men wore mustaches, “van Dykes”, etc. In the 18th century, the norm was for men to be clean shaven. The 17th century “look” did not simply vanish at the stroke of midnight on New years Eve, 1699, to be replaced by “clean shaven” on New Year’s Day, 1700, so is it safe to say that men still sported facial hair in the very early 18th century? I portray (in reenacting) a gentleman from 1710. Is a neatly trimmed van Dyke inappropriate? If the shoulder length 17th century style perriwig was still worn by some in the early 18th century, why not facial hair?

    • Dear Hans,
      Many thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right that moustaches and beards didn’t just disappear overnight. It seems to have been a gradual process which was largely complete by around 1750.

      In terms of your reenactment I think you’re probably right. There are certainly portraits from the early 1700s of men with van Dyke beards, so this wouldn’t be at all out of place.

      The reason men stopped wearing beards but continued wearing wigs is somewhat debatable, although it has to do with shifting ideas about masculinity. Wigs were regarded as masculine; beards were regarded as scruffy and unkempt. This was the age of ‘politeness’, where having an elegant appearance was key. Beards and facial hair were no longer regarded as elegant.

      Thanks again and all best wishes
      Alun

  6. I would love to see your article when it comes out.

  7. Question: Would the same have held true for slaves in 18th c. America? Would they have had access to such shaving instruments? I’ve been portraying my ancestor (who was first a slave turned RevWar soldier) with a soul patch, but now I wonder if that might be a stretch.

    • Dear Peter,
      Thanks for your comment. I must admit that I haven’t come across much evidence for beards or shaving by slaves. My feeling is that they probably wouldn’t shave routinely, unless they had a master who insisted that they did. I guess some of it also depends on ethnicity; some African peoples don’t have much facial hair, so it wouldn’t be an issue. Perhaps the soul patch – as a 1950s invention – might be a bit anachronistic…but you never know!

      Best wishes
      Alun

      • 18th century engravings usually depict black men (Crispus Attucks for example) as being clean shaven. 18th century paintings of highly regarded black male servants likewise do, perhaps to reflect the social standing of the people who commissioned them. As there are indigenous tribes in Africa which have long standing traditions of no facial hair for men, I suspect that slaves brought to Europe and the Americans in the 18th century, likewise found ways to shave, despite not having fancy razors and such. A sharpened clam shell will do the trick. Do a Google search for “African men 18th century” and you’ll find web sites with images.

  8. Wanted to add: 19th century African Americans, slave or freed, frequently sported long sideburns, beards, etc. They might not have been able to indulge in “fashion” due to poverty, but I suspect that they, like all people, were still aware of social “norms” regarding appearance, and wanted to be like everyone else in terms of it, as best they could. It would have been the same in the 18th century. As an aside, you can find 18th century advertizements for runaway slaves on line. All of them mention height, scars, clothing, etc., but none of them mention facial hair one way or the other.

  9. Steven McBrien on said:

    I’ve always found an interesting 300 year cycle in facial hair … the massive, full beards sprouted by men such as John Knox, Thomas Cranmer and and Pope Paul V in the 1540s/50s almost matches the same beards grown by Darwin, Tennyson and Ruskin 300 years later. My general outline was for a gradual increase in popularity in Century 1 (the 16th and the 19th) followed by initial popularity and then diminishing length and popularity in Century 2 (the 17th and 20th – the 60s and 70s aside, the general trend in the 20thc was away from beards) followed by the generally clean-shaven Century 3 (the 18th and 21st century).

    Re the 18th century, I would say that even by 1710, no fashionable man, especially a noble, would be seen dead with a beard. We know that Tsar Peter the Great, that noted europhile, imposed a beard tax on his nobles in 1698, in one of his frequent efforts to bring Russian society more in line with Western Europe. I think this underlines just how much, even by the time of Purcell and William and Mary, beards were out of the question for any men with pretensions to getting on in society.

    An absolutely fascinating, scholarly and well-researched article. Thank you!

    • Dear Steven,
      Many thanks indeed for your comments and I’m really glad that you enjoyed the article. It’s actually a slimmer version of an academic article published earlier this year in the ‘journal of eighteenth century studies’. If you are able to access my page on academia.edu, you should be able to download a pre-publication PDF; it’s got a much broader argument and more sources.

      I think your idea about the three-century cycle is very interesting indeed; it does seem clear that men’s facial hair goes in and out of fashion. My pet theory is that the pace of change has accelerated through the twentieth century and now beard fashions last years, or even months, rather than decades.

      In any case, thanks again
      All best wishes
      Alun

  10. Mark Reinhardt on said:

    If the soul patch was a 1950s invention, what would one call the equivalent bit of facial hair in England in the 1650s? As best as I can tell, there is something like a soul patch on the face of the sovereign in the famous frontispiece to Hobbes’s Leviathan. (My best efforts to enlarge a picture of his face from a digital copy of the first edition suggest that this is what the feature is, although it may just be sloppy engraving work there.) Any technical expertise would be much appreciated. Thanks!

  11. Reblogged this on Dr Alun Withey and commented:
    Especially for Sir Paxman and his beard, here’s a reblog of a post I did a while ago on the history of beards. Enjoy. #Paxmansbeard

  12. Pingback: Weekend Links #2 | quiteirregular

  13. Reblogged this on Stellar Makeup and commented:
    During research for my Postiche assignment I came across and interesting blog regarding facial hair in history, please read.

  14. There are really great summary…really nice moustaches and facial hair in history.and very unique shapes & style beards with blog….i really appreciate to read & see that blog summary..

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