The continuing popularity of beards over the past two years or so has surprised many. A mere few months after beards first became apparent, several media articles suggested that ‘peak beard’ had already been reached, and that the decline of facial hair was imminent. That was Summer 2012 and, despite repeated claims of its impending demise (some wrongly attributed to me!), the beard is still apparent as we near 2016. Several interesting things have accompanied this ‘trend’. First, it is the most sustained period of facial for around thirty years. Second, the style – the so-called ‘Hipster’ or ‘Shoreditch’ beard – may well prove to be the defining facial hair style of this generation, in a way, say, that ‘designer stubble’ recalls the rampant consumerism of Thatcher’s 80s. Furthermore, where male grooming products for men have catered for removing facial hair, a new market has emerged for beard care, including oils, moustache waxes and even beard moisturisers.
Aside from the issue of ‘how long will it last’, ‘what do beards mean’ is a common question. Indeed, it is a question that has repeatedly been asked through the centuries. The relationship between men and their facial hair is complex, but is usually closely bound up with prevailing ‘ideals’ of masculinity. At times in history the beard has represented a basic component of masculinity and manliness. Will Fisher’s work has shown how facial hair in the Renaissance formed part of medical understandings of gendered bodies, and the function of the four ‘humours’. Viewed as a waste product (in fact a type of excrement) it was seen as resulting from heat in the ‘reins’ – the area including the genitals. A thick beard thus spoke of virility and sexual potency, since it indicated the fires burning below. Not only was the beard held up as an ensign of manhood, it was a highly visible symbol of his ‘natural’ strength and authority.
“Moroni Don Gabriel de la Cueva” by Giovanni Battista Moroni (circa 1525–1578) – http://www.all-art.org/baroque/portrait1.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –
Remarkably similar claims were made for beards in mid-Victorian Britain, when the beard made a spectacular return to favour as the ‘natural’ symbol of a man. Everyone from writers such as Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, to physicians like Mercer Adams, were enthusiastically extolling the virtues of this “badge of manly strength and beauty”. More than this, as Adams argued, a moustache was “nature’s respirator while the hair covering the jaws and throat is intended to afford warmth and protection to the delicate structures in the vicinity, especially the fauces and the larynx”. (A. Mercer Adams, ‘Is Shaving Favourable to Health?: Edinburgh Medical Journal, Dec 1861). Here again, facial hair was closely bound up with themes of masculinity, health, male appearance and conduct.
“Edward Bates – Brady-Handy” by Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.01083. CALL NUMBER: LC-BH82- 4097 <P&P>[P&P]. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Bates_-_Brady-Handy.jpg#/media/File:Edward_Bates_-_Brady-Handy.jpg
The eighteenth century, however, represents something of an anomaly in the relationship between man and his beard. While much of the sixteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries saw men wear at least some sort of facial hair, the eighteenth century has been described as the first truly beardless age in history. The exact reasons for this are unclear but, by 1750 beards, moustaches and whiskers were seriously démodé and, by 1800, the author William Nicholson was able to assert that “the caprice of fashion […] has deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards”.
In many important ways, this flight from the beard seems to run counter to what should have represented the masculine ideal. First, humoural understandings of the beard still prevailed. As such it was, at least technically, still an important component of the man. To shave it off, then, was to remove this important ‘signal’ of masculinity. Secondly, the eighteenth century was a period obsessed with the damaging effects of effeminacy in British men, not least in their ability to fight. Importantly this was not effeminacy, with its modern connotations of homosexuality, but literally becoming more feminine. Anxieties surrounded the feminising effects of Frenchified fashions upon young British men. The extreme form of new fashions was the ‘Macaroni’ – the foppish, bewigged and affected dandy. Even wigs were a source of tension in terms of their effect on male appearance. And yet, shaving the face actually rendered it more smooth and feminine.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps most interesting, however, is the apparent conflict caused by concepts of the ‘natural’. Nature underpinned the enlightenment, and much time and effort was expended in trying to uncover its meanings, and apply this to new ideals. The body was certainly part of this. Straightness in posture and deportment was considered components of the ‘natural body’. The artist Joshua Reynolds lauded the symmetry of perfect nature, suggesting the ‘Serpentine line’ of beauty, and suggesting that nature was the true model. The face was the most public of bodily surfaces, and smoothness, neatness and elegance were prized. But all of this glossed over the fact that the beard was in fact the natural state; shaving was inherently unnatural. Logically, if the beard was natural, why then get rid of it?
There are several potential reasons for the decline of the eighteenth-century beard, each of which highlights the close relationship between facial hair and contemporary ideals of masculinity. Social status certainly played a part. Whilst neatness and elegance were badges of the refined gentleman, facial hair marked out the uncouth rustic, the hermit, or the elderly derelict. This also raises the important issue of control. Just as enlightened masculinity championed rationality and manners, it also emphasised self-control as a key male feature. According to conduct literature of the time, whilst delicate ladies might blush and swoon, a man should remain in control of his senses and be measured in his emotions. The new vogue for shaving, spurred on by newly invented, sharper razors, fits this well, in terms of mastery and control over one’s own body.
Changing aesthetic ideals also fed into the freshly shorn face. The veneration of ancient sculpture, identified by George Mosse as an important element in the construction of manliness, yielded admiration at the smoothness and tactility of the stone, as well as the subjects. The obvious paradox was that many statues of Greek and Roman heroes were bearded, but this did not seem to have an effect. Coupled with this was the so called ‘cult of youth’. To affect a delicate, fey appearance was highly sought after in the later eighteenth century; shaving the face immediately rendered it more youthful.
(Image ‘Statue of a youth in heroic repose – Mostra di Nerone, – from Wikimedia Commons)
More broadly, however, the shaven face almost literally reflected enlightened ideals of openness and enquiry. Shaving opened up the countenance to the world, in turn symbolising a mind open to new possibilities. In fact it was even acknowledged that beards were inherently masculine. What mattered, though, was the ability to be able to grow one, rather than the need to actually display it.
Through history, therefore, beards have been a central issue in the construction of masculinity and sexuality, but there is no simple, linear path to how they have been construed. At some points in time the beard has been the very symbol of sexual potency, authority and power. At others, however, the clean-shaven face has prevailed. In more recent times, indeed, shaving has become part of the grooming routines of men, and still strongly linked to health and hygiene.
One of the downsides of researching a topic like facial hair is that it carries perceptions of quirkiness. How, after all, can something as basic and mundane as the beard tell us anything about history? In fact, though, beards, moustaches, whiskers and beardlessness tell us a very great deal about the ways that masculinity, gender and sexuality have all shifted through time.