I had intended to write about men’s beards, or rather the barbers behind men’s beards, but as I have touched on the subject of men’s facial fur before, by offering a brief biography of the beard from the Middle Ages into Modernity (here), I wanted instead to think more broadly about the beard’s social significance. Like loos, shoes and watches, beards are barometers of society’s changing values.[i] In my previous post, I suggested that:
[T]he history of the beard reveals much about our desire as humans to be unique, to create a style and look that is all of our own. And yet, the way that the bearded man has been interrogated throughout history also says much about humankind’s tendency to judge and distance itself from what is different.
I should have recognised that the questioning, at times condemnation, that has tended to confront bearded men also reveals something about people’s desire to belong. Standing out because of his hairstyle choice, the bearded man has perhaps always been perceived as something of a non-conformist. The sense of ‘otherness’ that bearded men may feel (and I do, from time to time) has probably increased in direct correlation with the urge to conform, which has grown stronger in the West due to the establishment of democracy. In my previous post, I cited several examples of contemporary consternation concerning men’s facial hair.
Beards of Biblical Proportions
Before the dilution and dissolution of monarchical authority in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, kings and princes were preminent in determining social mores and vogues. As the German sociologist Norbert Elias observed, aristocrats and other prince pleasers who inhabited the royal court adopted styles of behaviour, appearance and raiment that appeased their monarch.[ii] This point is perhaps more apparent within the absolutist court of le roi soleil Louis XIV, but it is no less applicable to the English court at an earlier date.[iii] In 1535, Henry VIII determined that he would grow a beard. In so doing, he changed the facial hair fashion for his male courtiers and, more generally, the English aristocracy. According to the Elizabethan antiquarian John Stow:
[King Henry] commanded all about his court to poll their heads, and to give them example he caused his own hair to be polled, and from henceforth his beard to be knotted and no more shaven.[iv]
There are similar examples of royal fiat in the eleventh century, when England’s newly-arrived French aristocracy wore their hair long to reflect the attitudes of their king, William II. The long hair vogue did not long survive William’s death, as courtiers were encouraged to cut their locks when Henry I ascended in 1100.[v] This was undoutedly a physical signifier of the moral sobriety, and thus better governance, that Henry promised to provide in the coronation charter that he issued to secure his rule; according to clerical chroniclers, the reign of William had been characterised by arbitrary and licentious behaviour, symbolised by shocking sartorial styles and longer hair. What better way for Henry to signify a break with the past than change hairstyles? This was a shrewd move, but it was not new. Charlemagne, famed rightly or wrongly for his handle-bar moustache, wore his hair short to deliberately distinguish himself from his predecessors, the Merovingians, who wore their hair long. Indeed, only members of the Merovingian dynasty were permitted to have long locks, for this was a symbol of their right to rule.[vi] Shorter hair and beards did not always denote decorum and prudence, though. In 1043, alarm was expressed within the German empire because ‘men cut their beards […] and – shameful to behold! – they shorten and deform their garments in a way most vile and execrable.’[vii] Beards, through their Biblical associations, conferred prestige in an age when rulers enjoyed singular authority and appearance was generally expected to demarcate a person’s status. But things were to change.
Dressing for Democracy
The establishment of respresentative institutions and the compromised position that the remaining Western monarchs endured after the eighteenth century could not but reduce their political and moral authority. Consequently, princes no longer played a decisive role in determining societal mores and vogues. The beard seems to have suffered, like a lot of personal signifiers that were popular prior to 1600, because of its associations with monarchical rule; it was deemed too distinctive and individual. Excessive preening was regarded as a manifestation of the moral and political corruption of Europe’s kings and courts. Symbolising the old regime, beards were like rocks obstructing the swelling democratic tide.
Democracy, which championed the twin cults of community and consensus, promoted cohesion and conformity. Qualities prized in individuals were those that enabled them to work better with others. It seems paradoxical that political freedom should promote similitude in style, but an atypical or avant-garde appearance seems to have been increasingly interpreted as a sign of disunity, non-cooperation and alienation from the norm and majority. Facial hair certainly seems to be incompatible with today’s democratic politics. By my reckoning, the last American president to sport facial hair was William Howard Taft (1909-1913). The last British prime minister to have facial hair was Harold Macmillan (1957-1963); most of his immediate predecessors had a moustache. In France, the moustachioed Alain Poher had acted as an interim president in May 1974, following the death of Georges Pompidou. Poher had acted in this capacity before, in 1969, following the death of the last elected and moustachioed president, Charles de Gaulle (1958-69). The last chancellor of Germany to have facial hair was Adolf Hitler (1933-1945). This is despite Germany’s continued fascination with facial hair and various competitions that celebrate bold and beautifully shaped beards. All male members of the Britain’s Cabinet are currently clean-shaven; two male members of America’s Cabinet have moustaches, albeit small ones. In my last post, I remarked upon the public criticism that two Australian politicians received from Prime Minister Julia Gillard for growing beards during parliament’s summer recess.
The Beard Comes Back
The beard is not all bad, however; its present popularity indicates that much. It is interesting, though, that modern men’s facial hair can be broadly grouped into two styles, excessively manicured or excessively unkempt. Francois Verkerk (pictured at the very top) is the epitome and pin-up for the first group and Johnny Harrington (pictured below) is the exemplar and poster-boy for the second group.[viii] The two styles appear very different, but they are alike in playing to the theatrically of facial hair. They both seem excessive and look like parodies of beards worn in the past. But to what end? Before I risk over analysis, it should be said that many men grow beards and moustaches because they see other men with beards and moustaches; they follow a trend. However, I think it is possible to go further.
I am tempted to link the omnipresence of facial hair with Man’s perceived need to assert, or reassert, his masculinity. In previous posts I have suggested that the ubiquity of hat-wearing, cigar-smoking, pocket-square accessioning and jacket and trouser-mismatching men is linked to a crisis in male confidence that has been sparked by a series of compelling articles that claim Man’s role in society, at least the role he currently occupies, is coming to an end. Man’s brawn, ambition, apparent lack of humour and culpability for the banking crisis is all counting against him.[ix] The succession of sartorial trends that we have witnessed so far this year, from pocket squares to boutonnières, headwear to elbow patches, has therefore been part of a (sub)conscious attempt to re-engage with, and redefine, his sexuality. Facial hair is an especially suitable signifier for this endeavour in that it is a unique and obvious mark of masculinity. Interestingly, though, the two broad styles of facial hair are overtly playful, even moderately amusing. Man is therefore being assertive in reclaiming a symbol of his masculinity that the democratised West has seemingly condemned, whilst being somewhat disarming, even self-depreciating, by opting for facial hair that is excessive, either because of the conspicuous amount of wax or the conspicuous absence of it. This is quite a cunning ploy, for the beard is here communicating on two levels. On the one hand, it powerfully recalls older associations of male power because it has become an uncommon sight in modern society. On other hand and through the way that it is styled, the beard demonstrates the softer qualities that society now demands of Men. In this sense, the beard is not merely a barometer of societal values, it can be read as a polyvalent signifier of Man’s fluctuating fortunes.
For readers who were expecting, and would have preferred, a post about barbers, here are a few history-related barber facts to sate your fury:
- Virtually all of England’s medieval monarchs appear to have had beards. We know the names of some of their barbers: Henry III’s (1216-72) barber was Richard. His son and successor, Edward I (1272-1307), had barbers called Stephen and Walter.
- In 1256, royal orders provided instructions for the decoration of Henry III’s wardrobe, which was described as the place ‘where [the king] was accustomed to have his head washed.’[x] Presumably, this was also the place where his hair was cut and his beard was trimmed.
- During his trial, King Charles I’s beard grew long. Parliament refused to pay the royal barber and the King wouldn’t let anyone else near him with a blade. (After being found guilty, Charles was beheaded on 30 January 1649.)
[i] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000), 52, 65-68, 170-76.
[ii] N. Elias, The Civilising Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, tr. E. Jephcott (London, 1994).
[iii] N. Elias, The Court Society, tr. E. Jephcott (New York, 1983); P. Burke, The Fabrication of Louis XIV (New Haven and London, 1992).
[iv] A. Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court (London, 2001), 366.
[v] C.W. Hollister, Henry I (New Haven and London, 2001), 331.
[vi] P.E. Dutton, ‘Charlemagne’s Mustache’, Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (Basingstoke, 2004), 3-42.
[vii] C.S. Jaeger, The Origins of Courtliness: Civilising Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideas, 939-1210 (Philadelphia, 1985), 179.
[viii] W. Pavia, ‘From a kitchen fitter in Milton Keynes, to a catwalk sensation’, The Times (Wednesday, 27 February 2013), 4-5.
[ix] L. Gratton, ‘Make room at the top’, Financial Times (4/5 May, 2013), 8; F. Angelini & J. Gillespie, ‘By George, he’s got it!’, The Sunday Times (5 May, 2013), 20; E. Mill, We don’t make men like we used to’, The Sunday Times (19 May, 2013), 4; S. Armstrong, ‘How to make men a laughing stock’, The Sunday Times: Culture Magazine (19 May, 2013), 14-15.
[x] B.L. Wild, The Wardrobe Accounts of Henry III (Loughborough, 2012), xi.