Beards, Masculinity and History.

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

“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.

800px-Edward_Bates_-_Brady-Handy

 

“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.

Philip_Dawe,_The_Macaroni._A_Real_Character_at_the_Late_Masquerade_(1773)_-_02

(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.

400px-Statue_of_a_youth,_semi-nude,_in_heroic_pose_(so-called_Britannicus)_-_Mostra_di_Nerone_-_Palatin_hill

(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.

Unhealthy Beards? Denouncing Facial Hair in History

Once again in the past week beards have made the headlines…and for all the wrong reasons. The Independent carried a story titled ‘Do beards really contain as much faeces as a toilet?’. For the Daily Mail the question was ‘how filthy is your beard? ‘Yes’, cried the Huffington Post, ‘our beard might be as dirty as a toilet seat’!

 CAPTION: Portrait of red haired man with beard, hipster, male

CAPTION: Portrait of red haired man with beard, hipster, male

Beard-2

The source of the controversy was a claim apparently made on a Mexican website, that beards can actually harbour more germs than the average toilet. Microbiologist John Golobic was quoted as saying that the ‘degree of uncleanliness’ was such that if the same levels were found in a supply of drinking water it would be turned off. Hipsters, Santa Claus, and other beard wearers, he suggested, should wash their hands frequently. As quickly as the beard was being accused, a rush of pogonophiles emerged to defend it. Many pointed out that the same germs inhabit the skin on the face, and pose no risk to health.

But this latest attack on beards is seemingly part of an emerging trend. Over the past few weeks several articles have appeared to encourage the move back to a clean-shaven look. Back at the start of April, CBS posed the question ‘Are Beards Bad for You’, quoting a New York physician as saying that they harboured bacteria, and advising men to wash their beards regularly. Even in last Wednesday’s Metro, for example, is a (albeit light-hearted) list of ’11 Reasons Beards are Wrong’. These range from the danger of confusing babies to making the wearer look older (or, perish the thought, resemble a Hipster) even to deceiving people and being unhygienic.

Beard

How long this current beard trend will last is a burning issue for journalists. This time last year came a slew of articles all confidently asserting that ‘peak beard’ had been reached; the same claim was being made in the summer of 2013, when the demise of facial topiary was first mooted. So far the beard has proved stubbornly resistant to attack. Indeed, if anything, the anti-pogonotomy trend has continued to grow. There is little evidence of men beginning to shave off their beards. In fact there has been a noticeable rise in products for beard care in the advertisements sections of men’s publications like GQ. It seems that, for the first time in the last few decades, the beard may become more than a passing fad of fashion.

It is interesting to note, though, that, just as there have always been beard trends, so have there always been detractors. There have always been those for whom facial hair is anathema. Often, when beards have apparently been most popular, some have sought to bring about their demise. In fact, peering back through history the parallels with the recent attacks on facial hirsuteness are often striking.

Shakespeare, for example, although a poster boy for the pointy goatee, allowed his characters to vent their spleen upon the hairy face. The character Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing exclaims ‘Lord! I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face: I had rather lie in the woollen’!

Beatrice and Benedick

In the eighteenth century facial hair fell spectacularly from favour. ‘The caprices of fashion’ wrote William Nicholson in 1804, ‘have deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards’. The face of the Georgian Beau Monde was clean-shaven, smooth and elegant, reflecting new ideals about politeness and appearance. To be stubbly was considered vulgar. The Whig politician Charles James Fox was lampooned in satires for having a heavy growth of stubble; in fairness this was a man whose own father had described him as resembling a monkey when he was a baby! How would our perceptions of Cameron, Clegg, Miliband et al be affected if they had appeared on televised debates sporting full Hipster beards? It’s not an attractive thought I confess.

The tax levied on beards by the Russian monarch Peter the Great in the eighteenth century is often cited. Peter was keen to modernise his nation and saw the beard as a symbol of earthy roughness – the exact opposite to the image he wanted to portray of a modern, European nation. This seemingly was not the last tax on facial hair though. In 1907, a report claimed that a member of the New Jersey state legislature had introduced a bill for a graded tax on facial hair. The unnamed politician claimed not only that men with beards had something to hide, but had ‘base and ulterior motives’ for growing them. It was bearded men, he claimed, who had recently carried out a series of notorious murders. What further proof was needed?

Image copyright to Lewis Walpole Library Digital Images
Image copyright to Lewis Walpole Library Digital Images

Perhaps more striking was the graded scale of the tax. For an ‘ordinary beard’ the tax was levied at $1 per year. This was fairly straightforward. But, from then on, things got a bit strange. For those men whose whiskers exceeded six inches long the charge was $2…per inch. A bald man with whiskers was punished to the tune of $5, while goatee beards were clearly high on the undesirable list, coming in at a hefty $10 levy. The final (and rather inexplicable) stipulation was that, if any man sported a ‘red beard’ (i.e. ginger), an extra 20% was chargeable. What happened to the bill (and indeed whether it was ever meant to be a serious piece of legislation) is unclear.

Some feared that the trend for facial hair might lead to the weakening of British moral fibre! In 1853 a barber calling himself ‘Sibthorp Suds’ complained that the “movement for German beards and Cossack Moustachios” would lead to nothing less than a “farewell to the British Constitution”. If this continued, he argued, he and others like him should be entitled to “‘demnification”!

Health and hygiene issues surrounding beards have also long been a bone of contention. In the 1660s the English churchman and historian Thomas Fuller was referring in print to the beard as “that ornamental excrement under the chin”. Sound familiar? Even as the Victorians were in the grip of a ‘beard movement’ in the mid nineteenth century, a raft of claims were being made about how healthy the beard was, as well as being the ultimate symbol of male authority. ‘The Beard that has never been cut is beautiful’ opined one author in ‘The Crayon’ periodical. Not only that, the beard protected men from infections of the nose and throat by trapping bacteria before they could enter the mouth.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

But others were swift to cry down the beard. If facial hair could filter germs, might it not also act as a magnet, which merely collected them around the face, where they could do most damage? Keeping the beard clean was certainly a consideration. In Cardiff in 1870 a barber prosecuted for shaving on a Sunday (against the law!), argued that he was doing a service since a man attending church with a dirty beard was a blackguard.

All of this raises questions about why some people apparently dislike beards so much. They clearly have the power to be extraordinarily divisive. Cleanliness – or otherwise – is clearly one issue. Another is that of the element of hiding, or disguise. Some simply dislike the aesthetics of the beard. It will be interesting to see whether, by 2016, the decline of the beard will have begun. Whenever (indeed if!) this occurs, it will simply be the passing of another episode in the chequered love affair between man and his facial hair.

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.

Beard
Image from: https://gdblogs.shu.ac.uk/b0027028/2013/12/28/what-is-a-beard/

http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/511579/Beard-fashion-shaving-products-sales-drop

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
Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/feb/10/baftas-fashion-clooney-affleck-lawrence

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.

Roundhead
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
Image from: http://www.stgite.org.uk/sgiteclergy1860.html

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.