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The Beard: What Lies Beneath

24/03/2014 16:27 GMT | Updated 21/05/2014 10:59 BST

Is the rising popularity of the beard a reflection of men's role in society today? Like hemlines rising with the onset of votes for women, full on masculine facial hair is making its own break for freedom and has become a 21st century fashion statement. Short ones, long ones and downright weird ones! More and more men are choosing to hide their finer facial characteristics behind a fuzz of follicular finery. I am wondering what lies beneath this trend.

At the recent feminist-fest WOW on the Southbank which took place over the International Women's Day weekend, I noted that the lone man taking part in a panel discussion about the validity of Page 3 in today's modern media landscape, had a distinctive and well-coiffed beard which afforded him very poor protection against some extremely vocal activists! Is the beard a proverbial 'red rag' to the bull of feminism?

Extremely religious men seem to have beards as standard - Jews, Muslims, Greek Orthodox, and more. Is this more than just facial decoration and emblematic of power and masculinity? Does it afford them mystical and ethereal qualities exclusive to their gender?

I have set about my own qualitative research and canvassed several young women of my acquaintance who are very keen on their menfolk sporting a sturdy beard. I associate them with an altogether different type of man: nautical, (Captain Birdseye eat your heart out), religious (as before) and elderly (my late Jewish and academic father-in-law). A beard ages a man and maybe the young men sporting them believe it gives them some sort of gravitas and strength that a smoothly shaven face doesn't. Virility is back in fashion but bring on the aftershave I say!

Then there is the 'almost' beard so beloved of pop stars, male comedians and footballers. Possibly because some of them are so young, they just can't achieve the full on volume of a more mature man. Either way, it has a scruffy appeal that seems to be very alluring to young women.

Father Christmas, Mr Twit and Charles Dickens - three bearded men for idle consideration. Santa's snowy seasonal demeanour hidden from view all year round; Roald Dahl's creation, Mr Twit, with his smelly unkempt 'nest' of a beard; and Dickens with his 'literary motif' which belied his rampant infidelity. They all had something to hide.

Not surprisingly the beard is often the harbinger of evil - Blackbeard the Pirate, Henry VIII, Osama Bin Laden - facial hair is symbolic of dastardly acts. Put on a fake beard and you are immediately cast as the villain!

I took to the worldwideweb for some proper answers and, rather pleasingly, the first website in my search was the everyman's guide to all things beard: www.beards.org, where all manner of beardly wierdly facial hair is pictured, primped and explored! The welcome page states: "...the male beard communicates an heroic image of the independent, sturdy, and resourceful pioneer, ready, willing and able to do manly things."

As if I needed further affirmation of the beard's superpowers Wikipedia opens with: "Over the course of history, men with facial hair have been ascribed various attributes such as wisdom, sexual virility, masculinity, or a higher status."

Yet on a more humble note it goes on to say: "However, beards may at times have also been perceived to be associated with a loss of refinement." Yeah, Mr Twit, take your beard and eat it!

Historically beards have come and gone. In the 15th century, most European men were clean-shaven and in the 16th-century beards were allowed to grow to an amazing length. By the 17th century, beards decreased in urban Western Europe until being clean-shaven gradually become more common again. In 1698, Peter the Great of Russia ordered men to shave off their beards, and in 1705 levied a tax on beards in order to bring Russian society more in line with contemporary Western Europe.

During the early 18th century most higher ranking men were clean-shaven but the beard became de rigour during the 1850s, and was sported by nobility such as Alexander III of Russia, Napoleon III of France and Frederick III of Germany, and many leading statesmen and cultural figures, such as Benjamin Disraeli, the afore mentioned Charles Dickens and Karl Marx. Beards were common to the post-Civil War presidents of the USA and before Abraham Lincoln, no President had ever had a beard; after Lincoln nearly every President had either a beard or a moustache.

By the early 20th century beards were being de-popularised by the advent of new shaving technology and potions. During the 1920s and 1930s goatee beards and moustaches were popularised and even reviled - take Charlie Chaplin's portrayal of Adolf Hitler in his film, 'The Great Dictator'. With the onset of the movies, clean cut masculinity spanned the next three decades and beards were used to portray the elderly, villains, religious sects and academics.

Beards made their comeback with 'beatniks' in the 1950s, and 'hippies' in the1960s in the wake of the the Vietnam War, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and 'Ban the Bomb'. Throughout the 1970s, scruffy facial hair was the calling card of the protest movement, projected through music, fashion and media.

The boom and bust of the 1980s and 1990s saw facial hair grow and recede, and grow again. Today's manifestation is an altogether more organised social statement. The neatly matching integrated moustache and cleanly shaven cheeks, so favoured by metrosexual man has a hint of devilment lurking under the follicles. Whereas a full beard with a completely bald head is both disturbing and baffling! In the meantime there's some smart marketing going on - check out areyoubearface.com for the latest in beard oils...

It is extraordinary to me that something so iconic in terms of masculine imagery should be making such a diverse comeback while some of the preconceptions of masculinity are being challenged so successfully. Personally I prefer a clean shaven man who wears nice aftershave. So it's time to break out the Brut again boys (and girls? That's another story...) and splash it all over!