The beard’s place in history

How often do facial hair and beards get a look in on the media? Sure, there is a welter of people in the media and in public – more than just celebrities – sporting whiskers, beards and the like, yet the subject rarely gets serious consideration. So it was a joy to hear BBC Radio 4’s The Long View of beard history, a fascinating insight into facial hair past and present.

We love a bit of history here at Men Rock, particularly when it covers the subject so dear to our hearts. And we can’t recommend highly enough The Long View, on BBC Radio 4, broadcast last month. Helped by several noteworthy and quoteworthy pundits including our old friend Dr Alun Withey (aka the Beard Professor) and Professor Caroline Cox, the fashion historian, Jonathan Freedland takes a long look at what drove the fashion for beards at various points in history – and at what now fuels the current beard boom.

Although they weren’t the first to venerate the beard, the Victorians probably made the most memorable impact on its history. The programme lets writer Charles Dickens give us the flavour of the times, quoting from his passionate defence of the beard, entitled Why Shave? This was the 1850s, just when facial hair was beginning to find favour with his fellow Victorians:

‘There are misguided men who defile their own beards. Rasp them away as soon as they peep out from beneath the skin, mix them ignominiously with soap suds and cause them to become cast away with the off-scalings of the house. We take pains and trouble to do this and we do it unwillingly, knowing that we deprive our faces of an ornament, more or less suspecting that we take away from ourselves something that has been given to us by nature for our use and our advantage. As indeed we do.

‘Trimmed discreetly’

‘I am no friend to gentlemen who willingly affect external oddity while they are within all dull and commonplace. I am not disposed by carrying a beard myself to “beard” public opinion, but opinion may change. We were not always a nation of shavers.’

Can’t beat the old ones, can you? That last line would make a fine mission statement for modern-day Men Rock!

Aided by the likes of Dickens, beards caught on, men’s faces disappeared behind great bushes and whiskers of every description, and the rest is history. Until Dickens’s own son comes along around 40 years later with a diatribe against the beard, reflecting how the tide of fashion was turning:

‘It is often with beards as to other goals towards which we aspire: the pleasure lies mainly in expectation. Happily, the barber will, in a trice, be able to set his petitioner yet again at the foot of the ladder which he has been so long in scaling. On the whole, it seems unwise to offend the world just for the sake of a little private gratification or pseudo gratification.

‘The private soldier who is dismissed because he will not shave is not deservous of pity. So too, the curate who estranges himself from his vicar because he insists upon not parting with his moustaches.

‘A dimple in the chin should, up to the age of 30 or thereabouts, be pledge of war to the extermination against the beard.’

From hero to zero in under 40 years. Beware you private soldiers and curates!

Nostalgia for masculinity

Interesting light is shed on the hipster-led revival of the beard to its present popularity. Enter fashion historian Professor Caroline Cox who sees the beard as a ‘nostalgia version of masculinity’ caused by the financial recession and the diminution of male dominance.

‘Men are looking back to the beard’, she says. ‘For them it represents manliness. They are looking back to a time when “men were men”.’

It’s a way of ‘surviving symbolically through fashion.’ With reference to the hipster penchant for big beards, plaid shirts and rugged clothing she adds: ‘They (the hipsters) look like they should be in a log cabin in Oregon, about to shoot a moose whereas in fact they’re just going off to do a bit of shopping.’

Oh dear! Is this what we’ve become? Call me old fashioned, but I prefer that Dickens Senior image: ‘Let us have a whisker, beard or moustache, reverently worn and trimmed discreetly and with decency!’

Catch the full podcast at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08zd772.

And don’t forget that we have all the grooming kit and products you need to help you ‘reverently’ wear that beard or moustache.