More Popular than Ever? Beards and Masculinity in History.

This week came the startling revelation that, in the past year, manufacturers of razors and related goods such as shaving foam, have seen a drop in sales of more than £72 million pounds. Market analysts IRI noted that men’s shopping habits were changing and, even though the total market still accounted for 2.2 billion pounds, this was a substantial dent. The cause of this change? Beards.

Image from:

Nobody can have failed to notice in recent months the ubiquity of facial hair. Keep your eyes open as you walk down your local high street and you will probably notice a variety of styles, with the ‘Amish’ style seemingly especially popular. It is also interesting how newsworthy beards are. Just look at how often they have appeared as a topic for discussion in recent months. The furore caused by Jeremy Paxman’s beard for example. There were lengthy discussions about celebrity beards at the Baftas in 2013, and now the economic revelations about how much the beard is costing.

BAFTA Film Awards 2013 George Clooney Ben Affleck
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This current beard trend is actually very interesting. Over the past 10 years or so beards have been less in vogue. There have been ‘spikes’ of beardedness but these have tended to be of short duration – sometimes only a matter of months. But this latest outcrop of beards has already lasted the better part of eighteen months. By early summer 2013 the idea of ‘peak beard’ was already being put forward. Quoting the head of a major British barbering company, the Guardian suggested that “beards are more popular than ever…there’s a beard culture – people like talking about their beards, feeling their beards’. Now, in September 2014, passion for beards shows little sign of abating and, in many ways, appears to be going from strength to strength.

It is also interesting to note how economics have begun to intrude into the argument. By anyone’s yardstick £72 million is a large chunk of revenue to be lost to what some people see as an irrelevance – something everyday, quirky…even repulsive. In reality though beards have never been anything less than central to men’s conceptions of themselves. Faces, after all, are the most public part of us. The way we present ourselves to others involves all manner of things, from clothing to cosmetics, but the face is the ultimate index of character. The decision to shave, cover or adorn the face has implications for how we see ourselves and wish to be seen by others. Beards actually matter. Quite a lot. And they always have done.

Over the centuries beard trends tended to last for decades. It’s perfectly possible to identify an historical period by its beard hair. Think of sixteenth-century England. The Tudor ‘Spade beard’ was the order of the day. This was the long, oblong outgrowth of facial topiary sported by kings, princes and elites. Doubtless it made its way a lot further down the social scale too. This type of beard is evident in Holbein’s paintings. Not all Tudor men embraced the beard though. Men like Thomas More was a clean-shaven, perhaps in line with his austere lifestyle. Thomas Cranmer was clean-shaven but, it is said, grew a beard as a symbol of his grief upon the death of Henry and of his break with the past. In this sense the beard was a turning point in his life.

Young Cranmer

Old Cranmer!
Both images from Wikipedia

In the seventeenth century Stuart monarchs preferred small, pointed ‘Van Dyke’ beards. Charles I and Royalist ‘Cavaliers’ often sported this type of facial hair together with flowing locks. Masculinity here was remarkably feminine, with flowing, diaphanous gowns and silk breeches the order of the day. Contrast this with Puritans who generally went clean-shaven, believing beards to be a mere bauble. One argument about the origins of the term ‘roundhead’ is that it referred to the shape of the head after the beard and hair had been shaved – a popular parliamentarian style – rather than the shape of helmets.

Image: Wikipedia

Victorian men, after 1850, were characterised by their huge bushy beards. After nearly a century of being clean shaven British men were exalted by a range of new publications with names like Why Shave? which sought to convince them that shaving was little less than a crime against God and nature. The beard was the ultimate symbol of masculinity, and something used as a tool to prove to men that their position of superiority over women was justified. More than this, it was argued, beards had health benefits that simply couldn’t be ignored. They acted as filters to keep germs away from the nose and throat. (See my other post on Victorian beard health).

Mighty beard
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In the twentieth century, at least up until around 1950, moustaches were much more in vogue. Charlie Chaplin’s ‘toothbrush’ moustache was a cultural icon. Whether or not (as is sometimes suggested) Adolf Hitler grew his because of Chaplin, whose work he admired, is another matter, but the military moustache was a staple of the first decades of the century, from British Tommies to the emblematic RAF pilot’s moustache.

There are many other important aspects to beards. Growing a beard has been an important marker of life stage; the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The first shave is a virtual rite of passage for a teenage boy. On the other hand, in the past, the ‘beardless boy’ has been a symbol of immaturity or even of a lack of sexual prowess.

Indeed the ability to grow a beard has been central to conceptions of masculinity through time. In the early modern period the lack of a beard was viewed in humoural medical terms as the result of a lack of heat in the ‘reins’ and therefore a lack of sexual potency. Men who had a thin, scanty beard were open to suspicion of effeminacy (in the early modern sense literally meaning that they had feminine characteristics). In the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries, so central was the moustache to military regiments that men unable to grow one were expected to wear a false moustache made of goats hair.

How d'ye like me?
Image: Wikipedia

The management of facial hair says much about how men view themselves. During the enlightenment the mark of a civilized man was a clean-shaven face. To be bearded signified loss of control over the self and a rugged masculinity that was not elegant or refined. After 1850, however, as I have noted, the fashion was for huge beards, which were seen then as the ultimate symbol of God-given male authority. In this sense it was the emblem of the Victorian man.

After 1900 with the burgeoning market for shaving apparel and cosmetics the situation became even more complex. It is also noteworthy that the pace of change has quickened. Where beard trends used to last decades, since the 80s they have become more fleeting – probably a result of internet-driven celebrity culture.

If all this is true, what does the current vogue for facial hair tell us about men today? What ideal of masculinity are men in 2014 aspiring to? It is difficult to say. Unlike in the past it is harder to track changes in masculine ideal as they are now much more transitory. Nonetheless, one of the constants has been emulation. In the early modern period monarchs provided a bearded (or indeed clean-shaven) ideal. By the Victorian period powerful and fashionable figures, and new types of industrial and military heroes, offered men something to aspire to. Now, with almost unlimited access to the lives of celebrities through the voracious media and internet, the opportunities to find fashion ‘heroes’ to emulate are almost limitless. The question now is how long this trend will last and, perhaps more interesting, will there be a backlash against the beard? History suggests so.

85 thoughts on “More Popular than Ever? Beards and Masculinity in History.

  1. I was under the assumption that beards were safer than clean shaven. In the old days a nick could lead to infection. To avoid it, grow a beard. That is why so many men in the Civil War had beards.

    1. I like men with beards,not the long ones as such but a nice and short rough trimmed one. Just the right amount of sexy and masculine

      1. Exactly! Though some girls(and guys) lofe the 6 to 12 inch beards.the clewn cut ones are good enough.

  2. Fantastic post. Though I am new at WordPress it’s posts like these that inspire me to write more. I hope you can take some time and go through my blog. It’s new but your critique can help me hone my art too. 🙂

  3. I really like how you’ve put the current trends of the beard with a historical perspective. As with anything that has the possibility of being stereotyped, my only concerns are with the beliefs that get associated with men/women having a beard.

    1. Thanks – thats actually a really good point. Often beards are shown/depicted as a male characteristic but many changing understandings of hirsutism in women over time, and how it has been viewed.

  4. Love this article…i must admit..i love having a beard and honestly it makes me feel super masculine. Luckily I was blessed with good genes and I have no problem growing facial hair that isn’t patchy. I feel like having a beard protects my skin, gives shape to my face and makes me appear more manly. Good stuff 🙂

  5. This was very interesting!

    I have to say, I never thought I could be with a man with a beard, but my husband grew one a few years ago and I actually like it! Without the beard, he looks like a teenager, which makes us look a bit odd together. But with the beard we actually both look like adults, which is nice.

  6. A noticeable drop in sales of razors and shaving foam – I’m glad to hear it. I don’t like it when my husband shaves his beard and mustache. It grows back so quickly that his face is almost instantly sandpapery and that’s no fun at all.

  7. This was great – I have never really thought about the history of beards before but I will say on a personal level I like them and feel they are natural. I’m definitely untested in seeing how the trends continue in the future. Also some ingot I possibly consider for a future post might be “beard competitions” as they definitely reflect a social phenomenon that May or may not be present in certain cultures.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment – I agree, beard competitions are an entirely new phenomenon. It’ll be interesting to see how long they continue and whether interest continues to build.
      All best

  8. I can believe it!!! Never seen so much beards before. Some look great, others horrendous, haha. Love it when hubby grown a beard, but then it starts hurting my face and lips when we kiss and then he rather shave it! Son-in-law looks good too with his.

  9. That was a really interesting read. Personally I always thought the main aspiration of cultivating a big bushy beard was to have somewhere to store pens and loose change, thanks for the education!

  10. I have always viewed it as rather hypocritical that my Christian relatives put such stock in being clean-shaved while every Bible patriarch they venerate wears a full beard with a mustache in every painting I’ve ever seen of them.

  11. Very interesting! I see a lot of male friends now growing beards in emulation of the hipster culture that is so popular now. But hipsters don’t immediately strike me as what we’d traditionally call “masculine.”

  12. The ability to grow a beard is almost as highly admired by males as having big muscles. I think it is interesting to listen to because most women couldn’t care less about facial hair and most I know don’t like too much facial hair. I guess it is similar to us and getting our nails done or growing our hair long. Great post!

  13. the beard is awesome!! were it not for my fiancee being so ticklish and my job not allowing much facial hair I would definitely have a beard myself. Right now I have a small chin strap/Abraham Lincoln thing going on. Beards can come in any shape or size and shaving daily to keep a smooth clean look is just too much work lol. Just my two cents.

  14. I remember the first time I was able to grow a beard. I enjoyed it, as did others, family, friends, lovers, strangers, animals, especially birds, they couldn’t get enough of my beard, and the bird’s nest certainly gave my beard that much desired girth I was searching for.

  15. The best reason to NOT have a beard, I have discovered, is so I can feel the softness of my cats’ fur against my face. I miss that, and can’t wait to shave this brillo pad off.
    I have a full beard, or growth as I call it, as it’s there only because it’s not shaved off. When I say full, I mean overgrown, including the mustache that has grown over my lower lip. What a hassle to eat anything like ribs with bbq sauce, or soup. Or even drink coffee (can’t drink coffee through a straw, just ain’t right).
    I have not gotten a haircut nor trimmed any of my hair–head, beard, mustache–since I fell into the deepest, most devastating depression following the loss of everything I own in storage space #93, on February 8, 2014. The last gift my mother gave me–a priceless afghan she designed and knitted just for me, my own artwork, notes about future projects, my Disney collection, photos, vinyl albums, books, collectibles of all sorts, and a few items just like my mom’s gift that are too priceless to mention, as it hurts to recall them. I am sad every single day about losing my life’s joy, my spirit, my soul, all because a payment arrived 10 minutes too late.
    I just stopped caring about life. So I stopped shaving. I hate this beard. I’ve been told I look like a mountain man. I’m a city boy, damn it, not a hillbilly. Even though some women say they love it, I hate it. I’m not sure when I’ll shave it off and get a haircut–maybe never, as it would indicate I’m through mourning my loss and that’s never going to happen–but I know I would feel human again. And I’d be able to feel my cats.

  16. Fantastic post.

    I’m lucky to be born on this era as I don’t grow beard even though I’m in my 20s. Could have backfired back in the days…

  17. Great post! I had noticed that there are a lot of beards around, but somehow is completely missed the fact that it has become a huge trend. But as with everything, I think people should focus more on what makes them feel and look good rather than try to adapt to something that everyone’s doing.
    Thanks for sharing such interesting insights!

  18. very nice piece of writing,looks some of us love to have beard, I haven’t shaved nor trim my beard yet, I love to have beard not just because it save my skin or it looks great, its just because it is a sunnah(tradition) of my beloved prophet MD(s.a.w).

  19. Fascinating. As a transgendered man, the mark of facial hair is often a critical goal. I transitioned at 40 and I used to shave the night before to create an illusion of a close shave sometime the following day. 14 years later I can grow a beard no problem but the top of my head is another story…

  20. Great blog – very interesting – found this bit particularly fascinating ..”In the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries, so central was the moustache to military regiments that men unable to grow one were expected to wear a false moustache made of goats hair.” One can only wonder if they managed to rid the hair of the goaty smell!!

  21. I had read this very topic earlier this year. I told a couple of guys, who were talking about shaving, about the revelation and they looked at me like I was crazy. At least I know that I’m not the only one who heard of this long after I did.

  22. Very nice post! I am heaving a beard for about ten years now, but always went to a barber for a nice groom. For about a year now I miss out the barber and keep it natural as a sign of grief upon the loss of my grandfather. I was thinking about visiting the barber again because of the mostly negative comments to my looks by people surrounding me (again and again….). The image of the victorian beard is a motivation to keep that beard growing however it wants. Thanks a lot.

  23. Thanks Alan. A well crafted post. I’m on beard No2 – first was student would be anarchist. Now, forty years later – would be relaxed bohemian! Pleased to have found your blog and I look forward to lots more intelligent fare. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

  24. Do you think this “return of the beard” could be connected to the feminist movement of “don’t shave feminine body hair”?

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  26. As a woman I find beards make men look old and less attractive. For me, Beards symbolized Celibacy/Religious Duty & Impotence, not Sexual attraction. I don’t see men with beards being masculine & attractive but going backwards to being a furry ape. When I look at Men today, I feel like I am living in a world of Planet of the Apes. Men in the 1960’s were far more attractive. Only homeless alcoholic transient men had beards back then. Very disappointed!! Thank God Women don’t have their beards downtown or I would be celibate.

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