Since my project on the history of beards was launched last September it has attracted a lot of media attention. It received great coverage across all sorts of platforms, from major online news sites to television and radio news across the world. In so many different ways it’s been wonderful to be given the opportunity to share the research questions, and some of the great stories, along the way, and to speak to so many different audiences. This is the absolute upside of what I do, and the benefit of researching in a subject area perceived as slightly quirky.
One question I’m often asked by journalists is how long I think the current beard trend will last. How long will it be before beards disappear again? My answer has always been consistent. I think beards will be around for some time yet. I don’t see any signs of decline and, indeed, there are reasons to think that they continue to go from strength to strength. In some liminal way they’ve become acceptable; as facial hair has become ubiquitous over the past couple of years it’s ‘otherness’ has perhaps diminished. I think it’s noticeable that whilst beards are still abundant, people seem to be talking about them less. The growth of products for beard care, as well as outlets offering shaving and beard care services, are another strong suggestion that the market expects men to keep their beards for a while longer.
What I have also repeatedly said, however, is that history shows that beard trends don’t last forever. Also, importantly, as we come forward in time, the duration of these trends has become markedly shorter. So, between around 1700 to 1830 men the fashion for men was to be clean shaven, with brief forays into chin whiskers. When the Victorian ‘beard movement’ brought huge patriarch beards back into fashion around 1850, it lasted fully half a century. Moustaches were in vogue for around twenty years at the start of the 20th. But, by the end of the Millennium, facial hair trends had shortened to a few years at most. Hippie beards of the late 60s, for example, came and went. In the 1970s big beards were again in vogue, but largely gone again by the early 80s. Goatee beards made a (thankfully) brief appearance in the 90s.
That is why this current beard trend is in fact so interesting. Beginning around 2013 it has lasted the longest since, probably, the 1970s and has almost become a cultural symbol. It has its own name – the ‘Hipster beard’ – with all the cultural baggage that the term carries, and has almost become a symbol for a particular type of lifestyle. In years to come I think this beard style may well become synonymous with the 2010s.
But, to repeat, history suggests that beard trends are transient. This is what the author of the 1853 text ‘A Plea for Beards’ had to say on the matter:
(Author’s own photograph)
The fact remains the same: at some point, it is likely that men will either change the style of facial hair (maybe shorter beards, moustaches) or that the clean shaven look will return. The relevant phrase there is “AT SOME POINT”! This is VERY different to saying that this beard trend is now over.
Late last year, a major newspaper ran a story which took this element of what I said and printed it in such a way so as to suggest that I predicted the imminent demise of beards…despite the fact that this ran counter to the rest of the article, and did not follow from what I was actually saying. At the time that part of the article made little impact, beyond a couple of disgruntled comments from beard wearers, saying that they’d never part with their whiskers. But, over recent weeks, this story has re-emerged and has now found its way into various prominent newspapers and sites.
Some of the coverage is light hearted, with some even welcoming the end of bushy beards, whenever it arrives. Worse for me, though, is that the story has begun to be embellished by successive authors to the extent that my research is now being cited as the ‘scientific’ basis for the end of beards!!
Taking quotes chopped from an interview with the American news site CNBC, for example, (ironically one in which I took the opportunity to point out the misquotes and clarify that I didn’t think beards were on the way out!), one site this week quotes me as saying that “based on historical patterns and years of data, a major decline in the popularity of beards should happen right around now. That’s right. Now.” Given that I only started my research in September 2015, and it’s purpose is in fact to chart the health and hygiene history of facial hair between 1700-1918, it is a little far fetched to suggest that I will use my ‘years of data’ to predict the future fashions of facial hair.
Another article on the website of a major Australian newspaper quoted me as saying that beards had become unfashionable. This despite my never having spoken to them, much less made the comment! I’ve fielded several requests for interviews this week, all asking for comment on why I think beards are in decline. I’ve had to gently break it to them that I don’t!
I actually think the question of when beards will decline is a very interesting one, along with what will come next. Will moustaches make a comeback? Will men’s faces once again be the ‘slave of cold steel’ as one Victorian anti-shaving text put it. But (let me say it clearly again) I DON’T see beards in decline at the moment.