Beards have variously been held to signal sexual potency, instill fear in enemies, and ward off germs. So why do we keep falling in and out of love with them.
According to the US psychologist Robert Pellegrini, “the male beard communicates a heroic image of the independent, sturdy, and resourceful pioneer, ready, willing and able to do manly things”. He claims that “inside every clean-shaven man there is a beard screaming to be let out”. It could have been written this week but was actually part of his study of beard trends of 1973.
Beards are having a moment. Quite a long moment, as it turns out. Even since summer 2013, when the idea of peak beard was first put forward, this current beard trend has endured. Depending on your point of view, the history of beards could, in fact be seen as a succession of moments. What is happening today is merely the latest in a long line of men’s rocky relationships with facial hair. Sometimes beards are in, sometimes moustaches, less often sideburns and whiskers, and sometimes nothing at all. The difference is that, in the past, the trends lasted for decades, not months. So what is it about the beard that has proved both so enduring and so divisive?
Beards have long been linked to the ways that men feel about themselves at any given point in time. Whilst we all like to think of ourselves as individuals, wearing a beard – or indeed not – is generally influenced by a number of factors, and involves conscious decisions. The beard, for example, was once portrayed as an outward symbol of inner male characteristics. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, beliefs in the four bodily humours meant that beards were regarded as a form of bodily waste. In fact, facial hair was seen as the result of heat rising out of the ‘reins’ – the area that included the genitals! To have a thick beard suggested that lots was going on down there and, therefore, the beard was considered a reliable marker of virility and sexual potency.
The eighteenth century, by contrast, was almost entirely clean-shaven. For some reason, (and it’s not entirely clear why) beards fell dramatically from favour. After decades, centuries perhaps, of beardedness, the new model man was smooth-cheeked and sensuous. This was the age of dandies, fops and massive wigs. It was also the first point in time that men began to shave themselve’s rather than go to a barber, aided by the invention of new, sharper types of steel razor.
Not all were happy, though. In 1789, when beards were at their lowest ebb, a book called Pogonologia was a lone voice in the darkness. It listed bearded heroes through history and claimed that the ‘revolution against beards’ (note the date!) had nearly ended. “You pretty fellows of the present day, Jeremy Jessamy parsons, jolly bucks, and all you with smock faces and weak nerves be dumb with astonishment. I foretell it, you will soon resemble men”. That told them.
Sometimes beard trends occur at times when masculinity has appeared to be under threat. In the mid-nineteenth century, Victorian men were faced by a range of new challenges. On the one hand was the need to adapt to working environments, as massive firms imposed new corporate hierarchies and structures. Perhaps more importantly, though, women were beginning to find a voice and to offer a raft of entirely logical arguments against their continued subjection. How did men respond? By cultivating massive beards! A range of new books emerged telling men that beards were the ultimate, natural male accoutrement. The reason that men, not women were bearded, argued the authors of books like Why Shave?, was that God had given men beards to demonstrate their superiority.
New bearded heroes appeared, from rugged explorers and hunters to prominent politicians and philosophers. Medical reasons for beard wearing were even put forward. In a period obsessed with eradicating germs, some doctors argued that beards filtered out germs before they could get into the nose or throat. A beard became a protector of men.
In nineteenth and early-twentieth century military circles, the moustache was a mark of the fighting man. Burly, mustachioed recruits were often placed deliberately at the front of marching columns to instil fear into enemies. In fact, until 1916, British soldiers were required by regulation to wear a moustache, until Sir Neville Macready, who hated his moustache, repealed the order.
The twentieth century also saw beards, moustaches and whiskers become more fleeting and transient. In the 60s beards were a symbol of dropping out from society; by the 70s even the ‘Joy of Sex’ man had a fulsome crop of facial hair! Celebrity culture has played a part, even since the 1920s, and the internet has almost certainly amplified this. But the emulation of heroes, whether Tudor monarchs or modern day movie stars, has remained a constant motivation.
How long this current beard trend will last, and indeed also what lies behind it, is difficult to say. Perhaps masculinity is under threat now, from changing gender, sexual and emotional boundaries, and the pressures of modern life. It has already outlasted many over the past couple of decades. But however long it is, it will be merely another in a long line of facial hair fashions that have come and gone through time. We can’t avoid it; the way men see themselves at any given point is plainly written on their faces.
Dr Alun Withey will be speaking on Beards, Whiskers And The History Of Pogonotomy at BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead on 1 November, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 7 November at 10.45pm and available for 30 days afterwards on BBC iPlayer. He is a BBC Radio 3 and Arts & Humanities Research Council New Generation Thinker, and Associate Research Fellow, Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter
With Movember on the way, and everyone from Brad Pitt to Patrick Grant sporting them, it’s time to ask if the moustache will ever be more than a charity stunt or ironic styling for hipsters?
November’s fast approaching, a month when, like leaves on railway tracks, moustaches are sent to test us. For the past 11 years, November has become synonymous with Movember, an honourable but pervasive Australian-born campaign aimed at drawing awareness to men’s health issues by encouraging them to grow a moustache for one month only. It’s a visual campaign based on the premise that growing one is so challenging to male vanity it’s only worth doing if a charity is involved. Although we cannot directly blame Movember, the success of the campaign (this year, the campaign is predicted to raise over £345m globally) sits in direct correlation with the waning coolness in moustaches. For the past decade, anyone with a moustache before or after November has risked becoming a punchline.
But perhaps that’s about to change. While almost half (42%) of us believe it is “fashionable for men to have beards”, almost the same number say “they feel pressure from others to keep their facial hair neat and tidy”, a facial kit box ticked only by the moustache.*
The trajectories of moustaches and Movember are now crossing, in a year when facial hair became the aesthetic calling card of hipsters: “I don’t know about this whole hipster association,” explains Travis Garone, one of the original founders of Movember. “All I know is that beards seem to be for cool kids but moustaches are harder to pull off and that’s why we’re sticking with them. They require confidence – they’re more of a statement.” In light of this, there are as yet no plans to co-opt the beard – imagine! – but it still raises a good question. Why did beards become cool, and moustaches not?
Justin Bieber in September 2014. Photograph: Pierre Suu/Getty Images
Despite being defiantly favoured by some men of a certain crowd today, the moustache has been abandoned or at least forgotten in the wake of hipster-bashing. While the beard has since become a byword for an overarching trend of retro-appropriation before peaking, explosively, over the summer – fashion historians should note we are currently chin-deep in Peak Beard – the moustache slipped through the follicular net, lost and forgotten. Celebrities do have them – Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Justin Bieber, even Patrick Grant of The Great Sewing Bee who notably went from beard to tache between series – but they’ve simply not been tarred with the same grooming brush as the beard.
In 2009, American journalist Wesley Morris suggested a correlation between the decline in moustaches and a general, waning masculinity: “You could say that a huge swath of American men have simply misplaced the self-confidence required to wear a single strip of hair on their lips,” he wrote in the Boston Globe, implying that now (or at least in 2009) the only people who succesfully wore moustaches – hipsters – were embarrassments: “It’s facial hair in quotation marks.”
There is some truth in this. Historically, beards are couched within two key subcultures: hipsters (now) and men bubbling with masculinity (then). Moustaches, however, have had a rockier journey. From cowboys, Tom Selleck and Groucho Marx through Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Charlie Chaplin, Poirot, Ron Burgundy, John Waters and Ryan Gosling on set of The Nice Guys, they have no fixed association and no ambassador, or at least not a nice one. Bora Esen, managing director of male barber The Groom Room in Dulwich, south London, thinks this is the problem: “People definitely, subconscioulsy associate them with certain historical figures.” He should know. Of his eight thousand regular clientele, only three have moustaches, “and they’re the old boys”. It was only in the late 1970s and 1980s that they found a semi-permanent home in porn-friendly irony. But even that association backfired: whenever the media ran a negative story about Dov Charney, former chief executive of American Apparel, they used an image of Charney with his tache – this despite the fact that his dates back to 2004 and he only had it for less than nine months. “People were really attached to that image,” he told the New York Times.
Things took a turn for the worse in the late noughties when the moustache was co-opted by Generation Paperchase appearing naff-strategically on mugs, notebooks and temporary finger tattoos, the new – shudder – Keep Calm and Carry On. This isn’t ideal for long-term wearers. Stylist and music consultant Phil Bush first grew his moustache in 2003, coincidentally the year Movember started.Will moustaches ever be as popular as beards? “It complemented my personal style and I needed something to help me stand out.” He has no plans to trim it off – “I’d feel rather naked” – although now he appreciates he is “just another prickly face in the crowd”.
Pop culture aside, perhaps the main sticking point is this comparison between the two. Of course, beards and moustaches can co-exist “but moustaches have definitely suffered because of the increased popularity of the beard,” agrees Esen. “If you’re going to grow something, it’s going to be something which is easy to maintain.” Beards don’t require much grooming, while moustaches are in need of constant upkeep – and this goes against everything modern hipsters stand for. It’s also worth remembering that while beards have the dual effect of keeping one warm while hiding one’s chin, moustaches are almostly completely pointless, serving no purpose other than to reflect the fact that you can grow one.
Clive, a 27-year-old journalist from Peckham, grew his when he was “young, beautiful and fresh-faced but wanted to look older and more mature. Then I got rid of it when I started to look older and wanted to maintain an air of youthful beauty.” Of course this does suggest that they do serve one purpose – to age their wearer (beards have the power to age a man a decade, while moustaches are gentler on this process) and this was certainly a driving factor for Michael Evans, drummer in east-London band Citizens!, who grew his tache in 2010 because of “self-employed procrastination” ie boredom, but is reluctant to shave his off because it would make him look younger.
Of course, none of this helps if you can’t grow one at all: “It requires a thin top lip and a wide philtrum,” explains Esen. “Most people don’t realise that until it’s too late. Also, unlike beards, they don’t suit everyone.” Bieber, who wore one to the fashion weeks, is a case in point. But then for many men, this is the draw: moustache-wearers are the last remaining male subculture, a tribe naturally culled by growth hormones – and hell, we all want what we can’t have.
OK, some facial growths may look like a toilet brush, but that’s as far as it goes.
According to multiple news sites, beards can contain more poo than a toilet
I was curious to read the original study to see what the basis was for the investigation and the actual results.
However, as far as I can tell there was no proper study, no team of microbiologists and no poo in beards. The origin of the story appears to be this segment from a TV news network in New Mexico, which involved a reporter swabbing a “handful” of men’s beards and then sending the swabs to a microbiologist in a lab to culture any microbes present.
The reporter then interviewed the microbiologist, John Golobic, who identified a few of the bacteria present as “enterics”, that is they are bacteria that normally live in the intestines.
“Those are the types of things you’d find in faeces,” he said.
And that’s all. Somehow, from this story other media organisations have managed to get poo in beards.
While it is true that human faeces are partially composed of gut bacteria, it’s not accurate to describe those bacteria on their own as faeces.
Further, even if this was a properly conducted scientific study with a large number of samples and published in a reputable journal, there wouldn’t necessarily be any cause for concern.
Human skin is home to great diversity of microbes, and it’s not unheard of for types of bacteria normally found in the gut, such as E. coli, to be also found on the skin.
So, if the stories aren’t right, are there any actual proper studies into microbes in beards?
I could only find a couple in a short amount of time, but there was one study in the journal Anaesthesia which looked at whether facial hair had any effect on the ability of surgical face masks to prevent transmission of bacteria.
The study found that bearded men shed more bacteria than clean-shaven men. The study did have a relatively small sample size though, with only 10 people in each category.
Another study in the Journal of Hospital Infection examined how facial hair affects the prevalence of potential pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus (golden staph).
It found that having a beard actually reduced the likelihood of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and S. aureus being present on the skin. It also found that hospital workers with beards shed more bacteria than those without beards, supporting the earlier study mentioned.
However, the unbearded workers still shed enough bacteria to emphasise the importance of everyone wearing face coverings for sterile procedures, regardless of your facial hair situation.
So in summary: there is more crap in these stories about poo in beards than there is in beards. So chaps, you can all relax.
For years, the clean-cut man-boy was ruling the runway. Parted hair, waifish waist, skin smooth as a Botoxed three-year-old. Then a gritty crew rolled in and changed the game. With it, the beard invasion began. Whether we’re talking about a thick, irreverent Galifianakis or a jawline-amping mown lawn, a beard is just about the most on-trend accessory you can pull on this season. And while they look great on a beanie-and-cardigan-wearing gang like Fleet Foxes, they’re not just for dudes who dress down. “When a guy wears one with a suit, it’s just like, whoa is that sexy,” GQfashion director Madeleine Weeks explains. “They give you this handsome, don’t-mess-with-me appeal. Just look at Jeff Bridges, Paul Newman, and Cat Stevens (pictured above). All icons who wore them well.” The key is not overanalyzing it. Nothing too manicured or manscaped. Nothing too wild and overgrown. You want to look like you’ve let go.
“Beards show that you’re the independent type and possibly self-employed, seeing as how facial hair is frowned upon in certain uptight conformist corporations: the New York Yankees, for example. Consider Ben Roethlisberger. He made the mistake that many beard wearers commit: He shaved his neck almost up to the chin. Men think this always sharpens the outline of their face and even makes them look thinner. Wrong! This is the worst thing a guy with the slightest weight issue can do. The shaved neck makes you look like you have a double chin.”
Chances are you’re going to need a little sculpting here and there. A little on the cheeks, a little on the neck depending on the kind of look you’re going for. Ideally, you’d leave that all to a pro. A hot shave once a week isn’t realistic for most of us, though. Beard-sensei Nick Wendel from The Blind Barber—esteemed NYC barbershop/speakeasy hybrid—lays down some ground rules for taking matters into your own hands.
DO: “If you want to sculpt super-close, there’s no alternative to a straight razor. Buy one from The Art of Shaving and they’ll tell you everything you could possibly need to know to avoid a Sweeney Todd situation. A number of regular razors come with a single blade on the back for sculpting,”
Don’t: “It seems like a no-brainer, but so many guys treat shaving like a race and end up with nicks. Take the few extra seconds to add water to your shaving cream for an extra-smooth shave, and always go with the grain.”
Do: “Use a hot towel to open the pores before you sculpt and a cold towel—or a cold rinse—to close your pores after. This keeps ingrown hairs, redness, and nicks in check.
Don’t: “Never squeeze ingrown hairs like they’re pimples. Dirt in your nails can lead to infection.”
Do: “When you have an ingrown hair, put a hot towel on your face, disinfect the spot with some alcohol, take a tweezer, and go at it. Grab the hair as close to the base as possible to pull the bulb out. If you yank it from the top, you’ll just split the hair in half, and then you’re screwed.”—As told to Stelios Phili
How to get the perfect fade
Yes, you can use your beard trimmer to get a perfect fade. Dzenad “Geno” Bicic of Geno’s Barberia, in New York’s West Village, breaks it down
• Step one: Buzz it
“Set guard to 3 and buzz your whole beard.”
• Step two: Clean lower neck
“Switch guard to 1 and buzz from your Adam’s apple to two inches below your jaw.”
• Step three: Fade it
“Switch guard to 2 and buzz that remaining two-inch area, finessing and fading the 1 zone into the 3 zone.”
• Step four: Remove strays
“Remove guard (the 0 setting) and buzz below your Adam’s apple and any strays on the sides of your neck.”
In the market for a solid, no-mess trimmer? The built-in vacuum in this Norelco ($60, phillips.com) swallows clipped hairs before they fly all over your bathroom floor. One quirk: This guard operates in millimeters rather than traditional barbershop guard numbers. (Start at 9mm for No. 3.)
The Bearded Truth: Three Myths ,Debunked
New York dermatologist Dr. David Colbert sets us straight on three common beard misconceptions—including that Seinfeld thing about shaving. No, razors don’t turn you into a were-man
Myth #1: Certain foods make your beard grow quicker
“No food or vitamin makes the beard grow faster. However, we do need amino acids or protein in our diet to grow hair. For instance, guys who are anemic often experience beard thinning.”
Myth #2: If you shave more often, your facial hair will get fuller
“Shaving absolutely does not make your hair grow at any different rate. One reason it might seem that way? If you shave often, you’re feeling the prickly sensation of hair growing back more frequently.”
Myth #3: Gray beards are coarser
“If anything, our follicles become smaller as we age. Gray beards are not much different than regular ones, structurally speaking. If a Santa-like beard seems coarse, it’s just because it hasn’t been conditioned properly or is full of split ends. (Yep, you can get those with facial hair, too.)”—As told to Andrew Richdale
Maintaining a Perfect 5 0″clock Shadow
“I have a few friends for whom it is permanently cocktail hour, and it is only because my wife tells me that I look like a bum with a shadow around my smile that I do not have a permanent .25-millimeter beard. The noted artist Jean-Paul Goude got what I believe he calls his pas rasé look by using an electric clipper with a very short head on it. That is the most reliable method.”
And Now a Brief Meditation on Stubble
It’s like you’re too busy. Not that you are, exactly, but that’s the idea. You could shave every day, sure, but that’s ten minutes on the front-end that you’d lose, outright. That’s time you could spend answering email, or the inverse: sitting with your coffee, quietly, device off. You could beat the traffic or catch an earlier train. But again, this isn’t the point; it’s the idea. It’s the fantasy of a social calendar so full it doesn’t have room for a few quick licks of the razor.
Not that you care that much. You don’t. But you like it—no mistaking that. On your better days, you think it makes you look a bit like Patrick Dempsey (yet you’re only vaguely sure who that is). On your worse days, you’re too hung over to care. For the most part, it doesn’t matter, because this isn’t a choice you need to defend. You chose nothing. Beard? No, just didn’t get around to it.Yeah, I know the line. I use it too.
But let’s be honest: You shave on Saturday for a reason. Because by Monday, it’s a thing. And by Friday, it a serious thing. And in those intervening days, you can rub your hand across your cheek and feel the soft resistance of an oncoming beard, the 5 o’clock-the-next-day shadow. Or she can. And she does.* And we don’t really have time to argue.—Mark Byrne
* Or does she? More on that later…
Fact: The hair on your face is not the same as your scalp. So no need to treat it as such with whatever shampoo you have lying around. “All you want is a ‘gentle hair’ conditioner to keep your hair soft.” Martial Vivot from Martial Vivot Salon Pour Hommes in New York explains. He recommends Phyto’s Phytobaume conditioner ($22, sephora.com). Apply it in the shower just like you would the regular stuff. It has special proteins that help you dodge the itchy stage in the beginning. It’ll keep things less bristly as you gain some length. And there’s nothing about it that tastes foul, which, if you’ve got a beard of the “soup strainer” variety, is an important consideration.—A.R.
What a Girl Wants
Your beard will be met with opinions. And no one is going to have more of them than her. Here, two women give their take on the matter
|I don’t remember the episode in which Vinnie Bonitardi first appeared on Blossom but I was probably around 9 or 10, and I do recall experiencing, in an arm-hair-raising way, my first understanding of the word sexy. It took me a few more episodes to figure out why. Vinnie’s hotness had something to do with the leather jacket and the torn Dungarees and the messed up hair, but mostly it had to do with the scruff. What Vinnie had wasn’t even a full beard, but the hint of one, just enough to get the idea that this was a guy who couldn’t be bothered. And, for the love of all clichés, who doesn’t want to win the attention of that guy? David Lascher, the actor who played Vinnie, is now clean shaven and looks like he belongs on the trading floor in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. No matter. When I admire a scruffy Mark Ruffalo or Viggo or even Ryan Gosling, it’s Vinnie Bonitardi I’m really pining for.—Sarah Goldstein||It’s not like I mind the look of beards, especially from a healthy distance of ten electric razors fashioned into some sort of eight-foot-long pole. I understand that a face thatch is a cheap way for men to hide a gamut of imperfections: jowls, acne scars, chin butt, their age. But have you ever seen that vacuum commercial where the camera “penetrates” a seemingly clean carpet? To expose the dust and mites hiding deep between the fabric hairs? I’m attempting a metaphor here. I’ve dallied with a couple bearded men. There’s inevitably food in their chin bibs after a meal. Scraps. Crumbs. Treats for later you might say, if you’re disgusting. The girlfriend of a bearded man can either go full Mother Ape and finger groom, or be at peace with nuzzling a doggie bag. Neither option is desirable.—Lauren Bans|
Know When to Take it All Off
Great as beards are—and we could go on another millennium about how much we dig them—the truth is they’re not for every guy. Specifically they’re not for guys who can’t grow them fully. There’s nothing worse than a dude with a mold-like mess of patches all over his face. And, so, for the follicly-challenged out there, a quick guide to naked face essentials.—A.R.
The Cream: Kyoku’s sake-infused shave cream lands on your face like little grassy clouds. Thick as it is, it won’t clog up your razor, either.
The Blade: The folks at Schick will sing the praises of the Xtreme3’s scented handle. What you’re actually going to dig is its smooth glide, which is made possible by a pre-shave oil strip. The citrus wafting from the handle is basically undetectable.
The After-Shave: Aesop’s hydrating post-shave lotion is lighter than a cream but just thick enough that you still get a good tingle. It also happens to be some of the best-smelling stuff we’ve ever slapped on.