As the world’s oldest barbershop, the stylists of Trueffit & Hill have seen more than their fare share of facial hair fashions over the years. From soul patches to twirly moustaches and from gargantuan sideburns to that time we all studded our beards with green jellybeans (okay, maybe that was just me), the bristly history of hirsute faces is one of endless shaping and tweaking.
But this story of male grooming is much older than you might think. “All cavemen had facial hair but by 100,000 BC, men were tattooing, filing their teeth and plucking their hair with clamshells,” says Allan Peterkin, a University of Toronto professor and author of One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair.
It took the Egyptians to comb some refinement into the matted mess, he adds, noting they also weaved in the idea of face fuzz as status symbol. “Their royal beards were usually square-shaped and were longer than those of non-aristocrats – size mattered. They were also lavishly braided, painted, dusted with gold, oiled and perfumed.”
While his own whiskers are slightly less elaborate – short stubble in summer and a full beard in winter – Peterkin, who also penned One Thousand Mustaches and The Bearded Gentleman, found that monarchs, the clergy or other “power figures” have often led historic follicle fashions.
But the armed forces also have a richly pileous past, according to historian Christopher Oldstone-Moore, who authored Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair.
“The military moustache began 200 years ago when cavalrymen across Europe adopted the awesome black moustache of the Hungarian Hussars,” he says. “Armies required officers and enlisted men to wear them to look fearsome – and if you were hairless, you had to get a fake one.”
The long-established union of whiskers and social hierarchy, though, was snipped in the 1800s, he confirms. “Great nineteenth-century beards – Lincoln, Darwin, Marx – were the look of democracy. This is when political rights were being conferred on the basis of manhood; a good reason for men to say with their hair that they were just as good as any other!”
Fashion is fickle, though, and this “freedom beard” (as I alone call it) fell out during the early 1900s. But the democratization of bristles had firmly taken root. For Peterkin, that meant postwar pockets of “quirky growth: 1950s beatnik goatees; bushy rebellious ‘60s beards; and Magnum, P.I. moustaches in the 1970s.”
According to Oldstone-Moore, who recently shaved off his own “scraggly” beard for the summer, today’s hairy golden age – with its diverse looks from many eras – indicates that social customs are being questioned anew. “Men are again growing beards to declare the reality of masculinity, their identity and a sense of personal independence.”
But are there any historic looks he’d love to see revived? The stylish Van Dykes of the early 1600s is a favorite, he says. “But nothing matches the 1890s German fad for spiky, upturned moustaches. Developed by Kaiser Wilhelm II, it required a great deal of work, including special lotions and a nighttime trainer strapped to the face to hold it in place.”
Peterkin time travels even further for his preferred revival. “The Assyrians, Phoenicians, Sumerians and Persians adorned and shaped their facial hair with dyes, paints, gold and colourful powders. I'd love to see more of this beard décor.”
Whatever trends take hold, Oldstone-Moore believes there’s plenty of growth left in the current golden age. “Unlike the past, we have a very diverse and segmented culture, with different groups adopting different styles. My test is politics and business. When businessmen and politicians adopt beards, we know we are in a true beard movement.”
- By John Lee John is a British-born travel and feature writer. His work has appeared in more than 150 print and online outlets around the world, from the Boston Globe to BBC.com and from the Guardian to Qantas: The Australian Way magazine.
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