The beard has defied all predictions of its demise

Dr Alun Withey is medical historian, interested in facial hair as part of the history of health and hygiene. Here he takes a look at why the beard continues to be a popular accessory…

2015 has proved to be another year when the beard has stubbornly defied all predictions of its demise.

Facial grooming choices continue to provoke strong opinions. At the one end are advocates, from both sexes, who say that beards are the ultimate symbol of masculinity. At the other are those who can’t seem to bear either the look or feel of an abundant crop of facial hair.

Some trend spotters in the USA some say the beard’s fashion dominance is over, a victim of the rise of the so-called ‘Yuccie’ – (Young Urban Creative for the uninitiated), who sport a streamlined, clean shaven look, rather than a bushy statement beard.

Nevertheless, the beard remains a lively topic for debate…even science has become interested in the beard! A 2013 study explored the question of attractiveness, concluding that the optimum state of facial hair, the one at which women found men most attractive, was one of heavy stubble, rather than a five o’clock shadow or a full beard. Another article by social scientists has charted the effects of facial hair in voters’ estimation of politicians. Could we trust a bearded politician less than a clean-shaven one?!

Another effect has been a whole new market for beard grooming products. Where products to shave off stubble are ubiquitous, new ones have appeared to preserve and even beautify the beard. Everything from oils to pastes, lotions and even a beard moisturiser are finding their way into the ads pages of men’s magazines.

I’m a medical historian, interested in facial hair as part of the history of health and hygiene. Studying facial hair, however, can be challenging. Aside from the relative lack of existing historical research, it is difficult to get past the topic’s innate quirkiness. When I tell people I’m about to embark on a major three-year project of the history of facial hair in Britain, reactions range from genuine interest to the pig snort of suppressed laughter.

And yet it is an entirely serious subject. As unlikely as it might seem, facial hair, beardlessness and shaving, relate to many extremely important historical issues including masculinity, health and hygiene, medicine, and changing notions of the body. The project is funded by the Wellcome Trust, and looks at everything from barber-surgeons’ roles in shaving to razor technologies, and how they influenced decisions to shave. It also explores styles in facial hair and their relationship to masculinity.

Charting the changing understandings of facial hair reveals much about body history. Tudor and Stuart people viewed the body as consisting of four humours. These existed in a delicate balance which, when upset, caused illness. Under this model, facial hair was sometimes seen as a type of waste product but also, more commonly, as an outward symbol of a man’s sexual potency. Heat arising from the ‘reins’ (the area around the lower abdomen and genitals) rose up through the body and manifested itself on the chin. A man’s virility was literally writ large across his face.

Before c.1750 too, shaving was effectively a medical matter, undertaken by medical practitioners – barber-surgeons. From large towns to small villages, men visited barbers for a shave. Only around the late 18th century did they begin to shave themselves using new, sharper razors made of fashionable cast steel.

The changing styles of facial hair over long periods can be revealing, and often linked to specific male stereotypes. In the late 1700s, the ideal male was clean-shaven, with bushy sideburns later making an appearance. This was the age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on revealing nature’s mysteries and throwing all things open to view. Shaving literally opened up the face. After 1850, though, a huge, bushy beard was de rigeur, regarded as the God-given symbol of man’s authority. Was it simply coincidence that Victorian men covered their faces at the same time that bodies were covered up to avoid displaying too much flesh?

Why else have men grown beards? Emulation is important, and men have often looked to heroes for inspiration in appearance. Military regiments have long provided a ready source of rugged masculinity, with which men have wished to identify. Victorian explorers (and even politicians!) once inspired men to cultivate their whiskers. But in the 1960s, beards and long hair were potent symbols of dropping out of society. Here, the new heroes were often musicians. Many other factors have influenced beard-wearing, not least of which is the importance of religious belief.

Over the past thirty years or so, however, the pace of change has quickened noticeably. Once beard trends lasted for decades; now they can appear and disappear in months. That’s why this current period is so interesting. How it started is unclear; certainly it was already on the rise by the time George Clooney and Brad Pitt sported beards at the Baftas a few years ago, and is now in its third year.

Sometimes beard styles become synonymous with particular points in time; this seems to be happening at the moment. This is the age of the ‘lifestyle beard’! The style has been referred to as the ‘Hipster’ or ‘Shoreditch’ beard, and its wearer a new kind of male stereotype…the ‘urban beardsman’! In many ways deliberately altering facial appearance for fashion is nothing new. 17th and 18thc ladies, for example, wore black, silk ‘beauty patches’ to highlight the contrast with their white skin. But is the beard now simply an accessory, as ephemeral and transient as makeup or false eyelashes?

So the remaining question is how long will the beard trend last? History suggests that there will be a flight from the beard at some stage. But there is little to suggest that men are ready to ditch their beards just yet. Indeed, the popularity of events like local and even international beard championships, and their continued appearance in popular culture, suggests they may be around for some time yet.