(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.