It can’t have escaped your notice that beards are a really big thing fashionwise. The designer stubble of the 00s has been allowed to blossom and expand until our more fashionable young men look like apprentice Dumbledores and assume exciting names like hipster or lumbersexual.
Whatever your personal feelings about facial hair you have to admit that they can make a statement.
But whatever the current fashion, one has to take into account the incredible history attached to beards and their importance in the expression of both masculinity and status.
In Ancient Egyptian times facial hair, in fact hair anywhere, was associated with barbarity and only slaves, invaders, bandits and ne’er-do-wells had beards.
In ancient Greece a beard was the mark of a man until the Macedonian prince Alexander began his rise to fame. He was blond and presumably his beard growing attempts were less than stellar because suddenly being clean shaven became the height of fashion and beards were for oldies and philosophers.
In Roman times beards went in and out of fashion. Julius Caesar was clean shaven, as was his nephew Augustus. Tiberius was hairy but Caligula was so anxious about the state of his body hair that he made it a capital offence to mention goats in his presence. Even if a beard was chosen it had to be a well kept beard and a razor was part of every man’s personal equipment. A fine example is shown below of a ‘novacila’, which looks a bit as though it could, in a pinch, double as a set of brass knuckles.
Slaves were almost always clean shaven, heads as well, because it was easier to keep them clean, but for the well off they could do pretty much as they pleased. Fashion tended to come down from the heights so images of kings or leaders can often hint as the appearance of the upper echelons of society. Normans were clean shaven. this makes it easy to see who is on which side when reading the Bayeux Tapestry.
Here clean-shaven William, with the distinctive cropped hair style of the Normans, accepts an oath from Harold who has shaved his chin but has luxuriant moustaches.
During the Middle Ages steps were undertaken to understand human health and physiology. Everything needed an explanation and by the 16th century it had been decided that facial hair was a form of excreta, that the male essence was extruded in the form of hair and that to hinder its growth by shaving could be injurious to the health of ‘the male organs’. Beards were so tied up with masculinity that when Sir Francis Drake, who as you can see from the picture below had a little pointy goatee, threatened to ‘singe the King of Spain’s beard’ it took on a whole new Defcon level of aggression.
During the 17th century the male population must have suffered considerable emotional turmoil. James 1st and Charles 1st were both bearded but during the Protectorate there was tension between the knowledge that cleanliness was next to godliness, a rejection of vanity in all its forms and the Biblical prohibition of shaving. But Charles II’s return sorted things out and for the last part of the 17th century and all the 18th smooth cheeks and chins were the norm. Apart from in the case of sailors.
During the 18th century British navies, both military and merchant, expanded hugely. Cleanliness was essential but it was very hard to provide hot water for daily shaving. Bearded sailors with long tarry pigtails became a stereotype that continued well into the 19th century. Perhaps it was the great success of the navy in expanding British influence overseas that encouraged the development of the Beard Movement in mid 19th century Britain. Victoria’s accession ushered in a new more austere appearance, especially in public figures. Beards were associated with artists and radicals, untrustworthy, or sailors and soldiers, low. But by the middle of the century, and the adulation heaped upon the moustachioed and bewhiskered soldiers returning from the Crimea, there was a push to encourage men to come to grips with the glories of facial hair.
People even wrote poems about it:
Well, and so you’ve joined “the movement,”
And have laid out lots of cash
In Macassar oil and bear’s grease
Coaching up your pet moustache.
You look just as though your eyebrows
From above had had a slip,
And in falling down had settled
Snugly on your upper lip.
Let me warn you—with the ladies
You’ll be in a pretty pickle;
For you can have no idea
How those horrid things do tickle…
~A Master of Hearts, “To a Youth with a Moustache,” New and Original Valentines, Serious & Satirical, Sublime & Ridiculous, On All the Ordinary Names, Professions, Trades, Etc., 1857
Many methods were used to control facial fungus. The best known is the straight razor, also known as the cut-throat, but as shaving became more of an art form measures were taken to afford the aesthetically inclined a safer shave with more control. The little item shown below is part of our collection.
It doesn’t look at all like the current style of safety razor and there must be a good reason for it to have been superseded but I am unable to look up the manufacturers because the firewall came down with a stern message saying that razors class was weapons!
Instead enjoy this video of 100 years of hair and facial hairstyles.
Guys are lucky because they get to grow mustaches. I wish I could. It’s like having a little pet for your face. ~Anita Wise