Beards In Politics

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Johnny

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.

Barber Factoids

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.)

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[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.

Hair today and … tomorrow

The Beard. A meandering history.

In 17 days’ time it will be Movember. Over the thirty days that follow, male ‘celebrities’, want-to-be-rebels and barely pubescent teenaged boys will give their facial follicles free rein to raise awareness of, and funds to support, prostate and testicular cancer initiatives.[i] This is a serious business. Last year, Movember raised £22 million within the UK alone.[ii]

I sport a beard 24/7, 365, so cannot participate directly in this hair-growing fest – calls to invert the Movember concept and remove my beard in a sponsored shave are tantamount to heresy and fall on deaf ears – but this does not mean the month will pass me by. In fact, it has led to a good deal of pondering.  If you think about it, a change of hairstyle, the growing or removal of facial hair, is perhaps one of the easiest and quickest ways that we can dramatically change our appearance. The way we choose to coiffure our locks is in many ways limitless. We may perceive our hair as being detached from us, but it is a living part of our bodies. Consequently, as existing hairstyles grow out, so we can visit the barber and get a new style cut. And if it is true that first impressions count, it surely follows that the way we cut and comb the hair on our heads and faces forms a large part of how people initially perceive us. It could also be said that hairstyles are cultural markers. If I were to view half a dozen photographs of people and had to guess the decade in which they had been snapped, the hairstyles of the people in the images would probably play a significant part in my deductions. Be it a mullet, a centre parting, a perm, a French crop, a goatee or a handle bar moustache, the various styles of head and facial hair reflect changes in society as much as an individual’s whim.[iii]

In medieval times…

Throughout history, the beard has attracted particular comment. As a historian, it seems appropriate that I view the evolution of the beard over the longue durée. If you were to visit to Westminster Abbey, London, and amble around the high altar, you would see the tombs of many of England’s medieval monarchs: Henry III, Edward III, Henry IV, to name but a few. All of the royal tombs are decorated with an effigy, a life-sized representation of the deceased king, invariably covered in silver-gilt and decorated with gems. The design and execution of the effigies differ, but all the kings have beards. This is not artistic license. For to have a beard as a medieval king was a sign of knowledge and wisdom. There is a rather nice fourteenth-century English chronicle account that makes this point well. It describes the changing appearance of Edward I’s beard as follows:

His looks were enhanced by a beard which in adolescence turned from a silvery colour to gold, became black when he reached manhood and in old age changed from grey to the whiteness of a swan.[iv]

As Longshank’s beard changed colour, so, we are told, did he appear wiser and more regal. The association between bearded men and wisdom comes, in this instance, from Christianity. The Book of Leviticus (21:5) states that priests should refrain from shaving the edges of their beards. Leviticus also gives helpful instructions on beard trimming: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” (19:27). The Judiac and Islamic faiths also condone the growth of facial hair and provide similar instructions on beard clipping. In Christianity most of the Old Testament figures are depicted with beards. Images of Christ as a man almost always show him bearded. This echoes pagan iconography, where the older gods were depicted with facial hair.[v]

In the Middle Ages, to have a fully grown beard was a clear indication of maturity and with it, experience, knowledge of the world and in some cases physical prowess. The idea that a man’s facial hair represented positive character attributes goes back further, though, to classical and pagan times. Assyrian warriors wore their beards curled and woven with gold.[vi] Indeed, so important was the beard as a symbol of status in various cultures of old that lawcodes laid down hefty financial punishments if another person pulled or, much worse, cut a man’s beard without his consent.

But the beard was not universally welcomed. In the Eastern Roman Empire, perhaps better known as Byzantium, the beard was regarded with slightly more suspicion. The beard was still thought to represent worldliness, but not always in a good way. In the politically insecure and bloody sphere of the Byzantine emperors, worldliness could imply moral corruption. This seems to have been one of the reasons why the emperor hid behind a circle of eunuchs when changing his ceremonial robes during in religious ceremonies within the great church of Hagia Sophia.[vii] Eunuchs were boys that had been castrated before puberty. They were therefore unable to grow facial hair. In the ceremonies within the Emperor’s great church, the eunuchs’ youthful appearance symbolised a purity of character, which their bearded counterparts lacked.

…& modern times…

These few examples show how the beard has been regarded as a signifier of character traits. Put more simply, the beard was a useful way to pigeon hole men: a personal decision to grow facial hair came to be seen as an outward manifestation of a man’s inner qualities, or lack of them. From this position, it was perhaps a relatively short step to use the beard as a device of social segregation and exclusion. Staying in the medieval period, but journeying south to Sicily, Frederick II decreed that Jews in his kingdom should wear distinctive clothing, similar to prostitutes. Male Jews were commanded to grow beards.[viii] These discriminatory actions died hard and survived into modern times. In occupied Europe during the Second World War, there were occasions when Jewish men had their beards cut in public by Nazi soldiers, to humiliate them. Such intolerance is still prevalent today.[ix] In 2009, the Indian Supreme Court rejected the plea of a young Muslim boy who was expelled from a Christian school because he refused to shave his beard, on religious grounds. According to reports, the presiding judge decreed that India was secularist. He also associated the boy’s beard with terrorism and extreme violence.[x] In a less cruel, but no less telling example of how the beard has periodically been adopted as a device of exclusion in modern times, consider Hollywood films. The villain, or the guy that we should be on our guard against, is often bearded. Think of Home Alone, where the young and annoying Macauley Caulkin is scared of his bearded neighbour; Hans Gruber in Die Hard or Johnnie Torrance in Stanley Kubrik’s The Shining.

…to the present

Presently, I am happy to report that the beard is enjoying something of a renaissance. Be it well manicured or au naturel, the beard is ubiquitous in fashion magazines and on catwalks across the globe. Commonplace the beard may now be, but this has not stopped speculation about the motives and character of men who shun the daily shave.

Earlier this year, the beleaguered Aussie Prime Minister Julia Gillard expressed her disapproval of two male colleagues who grew beards during the summer recess. In parliamentary question time, no less, Gillard said the growing of the beards showed ‘very poor judgement’.[xi] Recently, I read a column in which Harriet Walker, fashion writer for The Independent and columnist for AnOther magazine, advised speakers participating in a conference to remove their suit jacket if any man in the audience was bearded.[xii] Walker gave no explanation for this curious sartorial tip. I assume she was implying that somebody with a beard is likely to be laid back and thus more inclined to take offence at being addressed by a sober suited gent (or lass) looking too authoritative. How Walker would react to my beard and three-piece suits, I’m not sure.

I have had experiences of people assuming certain things about my character, presumably based on the fact that I am bearded. On one occasion, in Covent Garden, I was accosted by a young guy eager for me to set up a direct debit for his particular charity. In the barrage of questions that served as his introduction, I was asked if I were a French musician. I can only assume that my beard made me appear sufficiently ‘arty’, although how I looked either musical or French, I’ve no idea.[xiii] Speculations about my musical abilities and nationality are, however, much more welcome than comments from people who claim my beard ages me by about five years.

As a bearded man, I suppose I am naturally curious about how I am perceived with it. I am also interested, as a historian, in how the beard has been viewed in different cultures and across different time periods. Indeed, the study of hair is now becoming a burgeoning area of historical research. More significantly, I think the story of the beard reveals something illuminating about human nature, which is as interesting as it is sobering.

Reflections on the beard

On the one hand, the 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 choose to focus on the beard, but other things could very easily be substituted for it in my argument: people who dress in a non-conformist way, people who express challenging political views, or people who choose a lifestyle that is different from the majority of their peers. Like the beard, they all reveal the difficulties that humans can face when they try to live at one with themselves in a society that is bound by mutual duties and obligations, by expectations and by long-established and unquestioned customs.

A brief and meandering history of facial hair therefore goes some way towards showing the dangers that are inherent in placing too much store in first impressions. There is, I think, much virtue in stepping back from snap judgements, resisting social conventions that dictate how we should perceive one another and, instead, approach what we encounter in a more critical and reflective frame of mind. There is also a great deal of virtue, comfort and joy to be derived from living at one with yourself within your community.

With that in mind, whilst I have always rejected suggestions to cut my beard during Movember, perhaps I should seize the opportunity to shun the twice-weekly trim and let my beard grow out over the next thirty days? I really have no excuses … G.B. Kent Moustache combs and Penhaligon’s Moustache wax are available from the Movember store and the cause needs no justification.


[ii] Movember: Global Annual Report 2011, 59. Accessible at: http://uk.movember.com/about/annual-reports.

[iii] P.E. Dutton, ‘Charlemagne’s Mustache’, in idem, Charlemagne’s Mustache and other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (New York, 2004), 3-4.

[iv] Discussed in, A. Gransden, Historical Writing in England c.550 to c.1307 (London, 1974), 506.

[v] J. Laver, A Concise History of Costume (Norwich, 1969), 33.

[vi] Ibid., 15.

[vii] E. Piltz, ‘Middle Byzantine Court Costume’, Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204, ed. H. Maguire (Washington, 1997), 38-39.

[viii] D. Abulafia, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor (Oxford, 1988), 143.

[xii] H. Walker, ‘Listen to the suit: the well-tailored art of persuasion’, The Guide to Hosting a Better Conference: a Monocle Survey, 25. A supplement issued with Monocle, 40:4 (February, 2011).

[xiii] I did not set-up the direct debit.