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Beards, Business and a History of Facial Hair in the Workplace

Beards, Business and a History of Facial Hair in the Workplace



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By Lucy Newton / The Conversation

Recording the human face in art is a long-held tradition, from the Roman Bust to the 15th century Dutch painting. The portrait signals power, prestige and wealth. Corporations have also used portraits to depict their leaders. For example, UK retail banks have been collecting images of their founders and chairmen since the 18th century. These paintings remain on proud display in London head offices.

For a company, the portrait provides a public face and identity to an impersonal institution. But portraits can also reveal interesting trends and attitudes towards appearances. Research I carried out on portraits with my colleague Victoria Barnes revealed some interesting results.

Beards and banks

One article published in the journal Enterprise and Society analyzed the commissioning of bank managers portraits in the early 19th century. The research showed that, from a very early stage, newly formed joint-stock banks realized the value of such art works and used them to successful create a corporate identity and signal their place in the market.

Another article, published in the Journal of Management and Organisational History , examined how Lloyds Bank began collecting portraits of past bank chairmen in the 1960s and put them on display in their head offices. One thing that stood out to us in this research is the changing patterns in men’s facial whiskers over the decades. Recent fashion has embraced all forms of facial hair, but it has not always been so well accepted.

Beards were an important part of the Viking warrior uniform. ( alexmina / Adobe Stock)

Beards and battle

Ancient Egyptians believed shaving was associated with cleanliness. Greeks were proud of their beards, which symbolized authority and wisdom. Roman whiskers tended to be less luxurious and neater, while Vikings sported large beards and moustaches, their fearsome appearance adding to their formidable reputation in combat. Conversely, later armies often discouraged facial hair as beards could be seized in battle by the enemy to incapacitate a soldier.

Beards thrived in the UK in the Medieval and Tudor periods. Most of Elizabeth I’s key advisers have beards in their portraits. Charles I (1600-1649) famously sported a small and neatly trimmed beard, combined with a moustache. His whiskers may have been famed but they did not prevent his execution. Then, the late 17th and 18th century witnessed the return of the clean shave in Europe, providing abundant work for barbers.

Charles I in Three Positions by Sir Anthony van Dyck, 1635–36.

In the early 19th century, beards returned with a flourish. But they were associated with left-wing, anti-capitalist revolutionaries. Just picture Karl Marx.

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Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, authors of the Communist Manifesto. ( / )

Fashions changed again from the 1850s. As revolutions across Europe were extinguished, in Britain the Victorians enthusiastically embraced beards and muttonchops – big long side burns that connect with a moustache. For them, the beard signaled power, masculinity and status. This was an age when British trade, commerce and industry were in the ascendance. Masculinity was therefore on display during a period of supreme confidence and economic success. This really was a time of “peak beard”.

Beards and business

Within companies, the beard has a mixed history, usually depending on contemporary fashions. From 1850 to 1900, British businessmen usually had some form of facial hair. Visit the halls of many UK institutions with a history back to the 19th century and you’ll see a line of portraits of men with beards.
The Edwardians at the turn of the 20th century, in contrast, rejected the full facial hair of their forebears and adopted the moustache. At a practical level, those fighting in World War I shaved off their beards to ensure their gas masks fitted properly. But they often retained their moustaches. The preference for a smooth shave with only a moustache followed thereafter during a period of mixed economic fortunes for British business, interrupted by two world wars and disrupted by the loss of Empire.

As successive generations attempted to move away from the one before them, the beard found favor again in the hippy-influenced 1960s and 1970s. The Beatles led this trend. Facial hair fell out of fashion in the 1980s and 1990s, when trustworthiness in business was signaled by a clean shave. Indeed, companies such as HSBC even had a “clean shave” policy at this time, according to archivists I’ve spoken to there. This was an era of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and free-market capitalism. And, of course, more women were visible in both politics and business.

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Charles Geach (1808-1854), founder of the Birmingham and Midland Bank, sporting some serious side burns. HBSC Group Archives, 1850. J. Partridge., Author provided

Reflecting the face of corporations, company portraits reflect trends in the appearance of businessmen and women. More recently they also reflect changes in the way that companies project their identity. They are no longer merely a procession of middle-aged, white, senior male managers with beards, as seen in the portraits of 19th-century bankers. Banks now display images that are more diverse – of people from various levels of the company, of women and different ethnicities. Thus, the company portrait survives but reflects progression in the society in which it is embedded.

Changing fashions in facial hair also opens opportunities for business. Barbers’ services and beard products allow men to groom in style. This reinforces the growing trend for men to spend more time and money on their appearance, a trend which shows no sign of abating. A growing popularity of beards is, obviously, less good for those producing razors.

Facial hair has traditionally signaled masculinity. As 21st-century businesses are, of course, gender diverse, facial hair will never be the essential work accessory, but rather a style choice and positive vehicle for charity fundraising through initiatives including Movember and Decembeard.

After recent research in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology found that all women questioned preferred men with facial hair, there may be more than just a business case for men to keep their whiskers. Whatever the motivation for hair growth, it looks like the beard will always be with us.


Study: Most Accept Workplace Facial Hair, But There's A 'Mustache Ceiling'

The online survey of 1,109 Americans ran from October 2013 to November 2013. The results show an overwhelming number of people support facial hair in the workplace, but those who sport 'staches still face some hurdles.

Some 71% of Americans surveyed said they work with a "Mustached American male or female" at least once per week, and more than 45% work daily with someone who has general facial hair.

Respondents viewed their mustached colleagues as those that word hard, play hard, and drink hard. And 41% witnessed these co-workers exhibiting "vast displays of upper body strength."

Most importantly, 92% of Americans surveyed believe mustaches are appropriate for the workplace.

“The finding defies current facially hairless social ideals and signals a tipping point for the current shaving-normative culture," AMI CEO Adam Paul Causgrove said.

Interestingly, only 30% of respondents said they reported to a supervisor with facial hair at work, which Causgrove sites as evidence of a "mustache ceiling." Despite growing tolerance of — and even support for — facial hair in the workplace, many leaders around the world still have smooth faces.

The gap between the amount of unshaven employees and those higher in companies remains unclear, but AMI hypothesizes that the phenomenon may be related to what researchers call the "ESPN factor." The network's on-air talent is typically clean-shaven, and ESPN continues to be one of "the most rabidly consumed information sources of today’s male ages 21 to 48," according to the report.

AMI is the world’s only facial hair advocacy and research organization with more than 800 global chapters. It claims to be "the bravest organization in the history of mankind behind only the U.S. Military and the post-Jim Henson Muppets."

“Our job is far from over,” Causgrove said. “We will fight this issue, and we believe it is only a matter of time before a sexually dynamic Mustached American lifestyle proliferate popular culture as it did in the ‘70s and ‘80s."


A history of beards in the workplace

"Facial hair for the past century has been thought to reflect a suspicious streak of individuality and defiance," says Christopher Oldstone-Moore, a history lecturer at Ohio's Wright State University.

The author of The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain argues that shaving has been "the norm" since the 17th Century.

In some jobs, employees are required to keep their faces bristle-free for practical reasons - firemen's beards, for instance, might be in danger of breaking the seal on their oxygen masks.

More commonly, though, opposition to beards is a complex social and psychological phenomenon.

"Politicians, public servants and businessmen - and apparently journalists - risk their reputations if they abandon the razor," says Oldstone-Moore.

"Thomas Dewey, candidate for US president in 1944 and 1948 constantly fended off criticism of his moustache, and no candidate for high office had dared facial hair since then."

Beard-wearers who choose not to shave for religious, aesthetic or medical reasons have done battle with their disapproving employers in the courts multiple times over the years.

"There's a long history in our civilisation of anxiety about facial hair, and hair in general, as being unhygienic: hairs will fall into the chocolate and soil the food," says Oldstone-Moore.

Even in the case of firemen, the waters are muddy. "The mask argument is in part a tool to be used for a larger argument, which is it's just not uniform, it's not respectable, it's not proper, for disciplined professional men to have facial hair. That's the bottom line."

Nonetheless, US courts have ruled in favour of fire departments attempting to ban beards on their employees.

A 1976 US Supreme Court decision upheld a New York police department's imposition of "pretty strict hair rules, including a ban on beards and limits on moustaches", Oldstone-Moore adds.

In the legal profession too, Oldstone-Moore attests. "You can see, going centuries back, a strong disposition against facial hair," he says, with the integrity of bearded lawyers being openly called into question.

At the pinnacle of British politics, moustaches - with their military associations - remained acceptable until Harold Macmillan's day, but "beards have been verboten in the 20th century".

Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher reportedly said that she "wouldn't tolerate any minister of mine wearing a beard", and senior Labour MPs Stephen Byers, Alastair Darling, Peter Mandelson and Geoff Hoon were all shorn of their facial hair at the dawn of the new Labour era.

After Labour pollster Phillip Gould discovered that voters find facial hair a turn off in 2000, he advised Labour's London mayoral candidate Frank Dobson to shave too.

The former secretary of state for health claimed to have replied: "Get stuffed." He never again served in high office, although bearded ministers David Blunkett and Robin Cook slipped through the net.

The newly-bearded BBC presenter Jeremy Paxman said he had experienced pogonophobia, or an irrational fear of beards.

His colleague Michael Buerk relates in his memoirs that he once returned from holiday with a full beard, of which he was "tremendously proud", but was strongly encouraged by his editor to lop it off for fear of distracting viewers. "I gave in, reasonably gracefully," he recalled.

"Unless you're lucky enough to be Uncle Albert on Only Fools and Horses, Demis Roussos or Abu Hamza, the BBC is generally as pogonophobic as the late-lamented Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha [who outlawed beards in the 1970s]," Paxman has said.

The Beard Liberation Front, which describes itself as an informal network of beard-wearers, has demanded action.

It urged BBC bosses to "carry out a beard audit of BBC staff to make sure that there are no areas where beards are entirely absent without good reason".

"Beard awareness seminars", and new "guidelines about the use of pogonophobic language" were also needed, it added.

But Oldstone-Moore claims the notion that men are free to choose their facial stylings is a "fallacy".

He concludes: "It is commonplace in the American and European press during the last 40 years to say that we are living in a time when people are free to adopt any facial hair they wish.

"Sure, if you can withstand constant inquisitions and ridicule."


Clippings from the Magazine

Ram Singh Chauhan of India is the proud owner of the world's longest moustache, officially recorded by Guinness World Records as 4.29m (14ft) long. But what is the secret of his success, ask Rupa Jha and Bethan Jinkinson.

Lucinda Hawksley is the author of Moustaches, Whiskers and Beards, published by the National Portrait Gallery last month. She is a great-great-great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.


A history of beards in the workplace

"Facial hair for the past century has been thought to reflect a suspicious streak of individuality and defiance," says Christopher Oldstone-Moore, a history lecturer at Ohio's Wright State University.

The author of The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain argues that shaving has been "the norm" since the 17th Century.

In some jobs, employees are required to keep their faces bristle-free for practical reasons - firemen's beards, for instance, might be in danger of breaking the seal on their oxygen masks.

More commonly, though, opposition to beards is a complex social and psychological phenomenon.

"Politicians, public servants and businessmen - and apparently journalists - risk their reputations if they abandon the razor," says Oldstone-Moore.

"Thomas Dewey, candidate for US president in 1944 and 1948 constantly fended off criticism of his moustache, and no candidate for high office had dared facial hair since then."

Beard-wearers who choose not to shave for religious, aesthetic or medical reasons have done battle with their disapproving employers in the courts multiple times over the years.

"There's a long history in our civilisation of anxiety about facial hair, and hair in general, as being unhygienic: hairs will fall into the chocolate and soil the food," says Oldstone-Moore.

Even in the case of firemen, the waters are muddy. "The mask argument is in part a tool to be used for a larger argument, which is it's just not uniform, it's not respectable, it's not proper, for disciplined professional men to have facial hair. That's the bottom line."

Nonetheless, US courts have ruled in favour of fire departments attempting to ban beards on their employees.

A 1976 US Supreme Court decision upheld a New York police department's imposition of "pretty strict hair rules, including a ban on beards and limits on moustaches", Oldstone-Moore adds.

In the legal profession too, Oldstone-Moore attests. "You can see, going centuries back, a strong disposition against facial hair," he says, with the integrity of bearded lawyers being openly called into question.

At the pinnacle of British politics, moustaches - with their military associations - remained acceptable until Harold Macmillan's day, but "beards have been verboten in the 20th century".

Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher reportedly said that she "wouldn't tolerate any minister of mine wearing a beard", and senior Labour MPs Stephen Byers, Alastair Darling, Peter Mandelson and Geoff Hoon were all shorn of their facial hair at the dawn of the new Labour era.

After Labour pollster Phillip Gould discovered that voters find facial hair a turn off in 2000, he advised Labour's London mayoral candidate Frank Dobson to shave too.

The former secretary of state for health claimed to have replied: "Get stuffed." He never again served in high office, although bearded ministers David Blunkett and Robin Cook slipped through the net.

The newly-bearded BBC presenter Jeremy Paxman said he had experienced pogonophobia, or an irrational fear of beards.

His colleague Michael Buerk relates in his memoirs that he once returned from holiday with a full beard, of which he was "tremendously proud", but was strongly encouraged by his editor to lop it off for fear of distracting viewers. "I gave in, reasonably gracefully," he recalled.

"Unless you're lucky enough to be Uncle Albert on Only Fools and Horses, Demis Roussos or Abu Hamza, the BBC is generally as pogonophobic as the late-lamented Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha [who outlawed beards in the 1970s]," Paxman has said.

The Beard Liberation Front, which describes itself as an informal network of beard-wearers, has demanded action.

It urged BBC bosses to "carry out a beard audit of BBC staff to make sure that there are no areas where beards are entirely absent without good reason".

"Beard awareness seminars", and new "guidelines about the use of pogonophobic language" were also needed, it added.

But Oldstone-Moore claims the notion that men are free to choose their facial stylings is a "fallacy".

He concludes: "It is commonplace in the American and European press during the last 40 years to say that we are living in a time when people are free to adopt any facial hair they wish.

"Sure, if you can withstand constant inquisitions and ridicule."


The Facts of Facial Hair at Work

Barber Angelo Ruscetta gives Steve Nordeen, owner of the 18|8 Redmond franchise, a straight-razor shave. Photo by Rachel Coward

Men have been wearing beards since the beginning of humanity, but facial hair in the workplace hasn’t been the norm. The last president to sport whiskers in the Oval Office was William Howard Taft in 1913. For the majority of the 20th century, businessmen in America were clean shaven. That was the case until the late 1960s, when the hippie era inspired many to grow beards. The tech industry has long supported facial freedom when Steve Wozniak developed the first Apple computer in 1976, his jaw line was buried under fuzz.

But facial hair still can have negative connotations sometimes beards are associated with uncleanliness. So where’s the hairy line between a groomed beard and a scraggly mess? We went searching for an expert to deliver the facts.

Angelo Ruscetta is a barber at Redmond’s 18|8 salon. Ruscetta has been a barber for over 10 years and hasn’t seen the skin on his chin for longer than that. Styling facial hair is in his blood. His grandfather, also named Angelo, was a barber in Pico, Italy, before migrating to the United States in 1921.

Here are Ruscetta’s tried-and-true tips for keeping your facial hair well-groomed.

Keep It Clean
Ruscetta says the most important thing about maintaining a beard is keeping it polished. You should get a cleanup shave every time you get your hair cut or every two weeks, whichever is more frequent. The hair under your chin or on the back of your neck, which are difficult to notice, can grow unevenly if you don’t visit your barber regularly.

Let It Blend
A distinct cut between your hair and your beard is a bad look, Ruscetta says. To keep it looking natural, your beard should flow into your hairline. “Movie stars and rock stars don’t have blunt lines. Everything’s smooth, you know? It’s all about clean lines and making everything blend,” he said.

Get a Quality Shave
The best shave you can get is from a straight razor at a barber shop. The difference between a clipper or safety razor and a straight razor is the difference between a Twinkie and Italian tiramisu. The straight razor cuts extremely close to the skin, leaving cheeks and chins soft. Some men don’t have to shave as often when they get a straight-razor shave. A barber who uses warm towels and products to protect your skin is key. A healthy beard isn’t just about the hair — it’s also about the skin below it.

If You Do Shave at Home
If you shave on the regular from home, it’s best to do so right after you take a shower, because the steam in the bathroom can relax your skin. Or, warm up a towel in the microwave and lay it on your face beforehand. To avoid razor burn, follow the grain of the hair. Shave oil also can lubricate the skin. Some men shave with only the oil. Ruscetta recommends Griff’s shaving oil, cream, and aftershave. If you have sensitive skin, try a nonalcohol aftershave cream.


A hairy question: When is a beard a no-no?

BELOVED by hipsters and history professors alike, beards are adored by some and hated by others – but can you ban them from your workplace?

BELOVED by hipsters and history professors alike, beards are adored by some and hated by others – but can you ban them from your workplace?

While it might seem a trivial question to some, at least two recent cases have shown that some employees believe wearing a beard is worth taking their bosses to court.

Such was the case for James Felton, a goatee-sporting underground truck driver working at BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam uranium mine in the north of South Australia (James Felton v BHP Billiton (2015)).

Mr Felton was dismissed on the basis of his repeated refusal to follow a company direction to present to work clean-shaven, in accordance with a policy that the company was applying more rigorously in 2014.

Since he had started with the company six years prior, Mr Felton had sported a goatee beard of about 100mm in length and a moustache, which the Fair Work Commission heard he considered as a personal attribute.

Safety concern

BHP Billiton had asked him to shave so that it could conduct a respirator fit test for personal protective equipment (PPE) being introduced to prevent exposure to potentially dangerous dusts.

The presence of facial hair meant the respirator masks could not secure a good fit against the skin – rendering them useless.

After repeated refusals, he was dismissed from his role and not required to work out his notice, with the company saying his decision was a breach of its code of conduct and contract of employment.

In court, Mr Felton argued he had been unfairly dismissed, saying that the company had not consulted effectively, and that he had offered to purchase different PPE that would allow him to retain his beard.

But Fair Work Commissioner Peter Hampton said that any failure to observe its consultation obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act in relation to the roll-out of the policy did not mean that the policy was invalid or irrelevant.

He also said that allowing employees to bring their own PPE to work would not be “a workable and appropriate approach” to business at the Olympic Dam site, saying this approach “had the real capacity to undermine the integrity of the policy.”

“The policy itself is, in my view, a reasonable and appropriate one given the circumstances of the operations of BHP Billiton and the potential hazards in the mine,” Commissioner Hampton said.

“The interests of the protection of safety and health become more important than personal preference and a desire to obtain an appearance, even one held so strongly by Mr Felton.”

A chin-stroking exercise

The above case demonstrated that an employer will be able to regulate an employee’s personal appearance where it is creating a genuine safety issue.

But as an employer you are warned that if a workplace policy has a disproportionate impact on a particular group of people within the business, you may need to consider whether you are subjecting those people to discrimination.

The Discrimination chapter in the Employment Law Practical Handbook says that companies can argue that an exemption applies to any discriminatory conduct they carry out for the purposes of protecting safety and/or property.

Victoria is one of two States in which a company can discriminate to set reasonable standards for dress, appearance and behaviour in the workplace, while it is also the only State to ban discrimination based on a person’s physical features.

When the matter does not revolve around safety, it will inevitably be a question of whether or not the direction around beards and their style is a reasonable one – considering the nature of your business, among other things.

It is unlikely that asking a person who has a beard for religious, cultural or medical reasons to shave would be considered a reasonable direction.

The long beard of the law …

WA Police recently announced it would be joining its colleagues in NSW, Queensland, SA and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in permitting officers to grow beards – but only in what the AFP called the “King George V style” – no goatees, mutton chops, soul patches or patterns – with whiskers no shorter than 8mm and no longer than 20mm.

And beards must be grown while on leave or otherwise absent, and the area around the cheeks and neck must be clean shaven.

Most importantly, no beard is allowed if an officer is attached to a specialist team that requires the use of a gas mask.

Victorian police officers do not enjoy this luxury, following the Supreme Court of Victoria’s decision in Kuyken v Chief Commissioner of Police (2015), which upheld a decision of then-Chief Commissioner Ken Lay to ban the wearing of beards, including goatees, among police officers.

Unfortunately for Senior Constable Michael Kuyken, who spent more than three years fighting to retain his goatee, the Supreme Court found that changes made to the Police and Emergency Management Legislation Amendment Act 2012 gave the Chief Commissioner the right to impose grooming standards.

This was even if the standards were discriminatory… or infringed upon the human right to have equal and effective protection against discrimination, the decision said.

More information on discrimination, including a list of the other exemptions that make discrimination lawful and a step-by-step guide on how to avoid discrimination while recruiting can be found in the Discrimination chapter in the Employment Law Practical Handbook.


Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair by Christopher Oldstone-Moore review

Is a fashion for beards just a fashion? Or does it say something about gender politics, youth versus maturity and novelty versus tradition?

Time for the chop … what does your beard say about you? Photograph: Joseph Ford

Time for the chop … what does your beard say about you? Photograph: Joseph Ford

Last modified on Mon 2 Jul 2018 15.00 BST

A fter you get a new haircut, you quickly tire of people informing you that you have a new haircut in that respect, having a conspicuous beard, as I do, can be like having a new haircut every day of the year. Some people like to assert that modern beards are novelty conversation pieces for men who have nothing more interesting to say for themselves. But I assure you I would rather take a lifelong vow of silence than make small talk about my beard one more time.

And I mean that in a cultural as well as in a social setting. Remarkably, Christopher Oldstone-Moore’s Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair isn’t even the first history of beards to come out this century. I haven’t read Allan Peterkin’s One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair, from 2002, but it must at least get credit for prescience. Meanwhile, the review you’re now reading is by my count the 16th article about beards that the Guardian will have published this year (even though “peak beard” was reached either in 2013, according to the Guardian, or in 2014, also according to the Guardian). It would be hypocrisy for me to suggest that this newspaper is covering the beard phenomenon with greater diligence than is absolutely necessary. But when you carry your analysis of a subject so very far beyond what that subject can actually withstand, what you are verging on is a kind of hypergraphia.

For Oldstone-Moore, however, beards repay our fixation. “Considering facial hair,” he argues, is a way of “tracking and explaining” the “mutability and variety of ideas of manhood within a given period, and across time”. So presumably what we can expect paragraph by paragraph is fun trivia about beards, and what we can expect chapter by chapter is the sort of substantive insight into “ideas of manhood” that only beards can provide.

A book such as this needs to deliver on both levels. I’m not quite sure it delivers on either. We learn that in 1860 an 11-year-old girl called Grace Bedell wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln encouraging him to grow a beard because “you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.” Lincoln took her advice. The following year, on his inauguration tour, he met Grace in her hometown. “Look at my whiskers,” he told her. “I have been growing them for you.” Isn’t that a lovely story? Yes, it is. Are there enough stories of that quality to keep the average reader entertained for 300 pages? No, there are not.

But what about “ideas of manhood”? Much depends here on how persuasive you find the entailments that Oldstone-Moore draws between historical circumstances and barbal fashions. Some of these are a bit feeble. Here’s the Enlightenment: “Only a few years before Newton’s [Principia Mathematica] appeared, King Louis XIV of France and his court abandoned their pencil-thin mustaches, the last remnants of the Renaissance beard movement. The turn to reason and the razor were not directly linked, nor were they mere coincidences. As the mastery of nature now seemed more necessary and possible, it was fitting that authoritative masculinity was being redefined as a matter of refinement and education.” What causal structure is being proposed by a word like “fitting”? Or is it not so much a causal structure as just, you know, a vibe?

Other case studies, starting in Sumerian times, are more robust. The problem is they still mostly feel like rationalisations post hoc. In a mirror universe where, on the contrary, European men had grown bushy beards during the Enlightenment, Oldstone-Moore would no doubt highlight Locke over Newton: “As individual will and natural rights now seemed more necessary and possible,” he would say, “it was fitting that authoritative masculinity was being redefined as a matter of authenticity and self-realisation.”

In his introduction, he insists that “changes in facial hair are never simply a matter of fashion”. But this book can be reminiscent of the most irksome sort of fashion criticism, where if this season’s Chanel collection is rather austere, it’s because of the recession, but if this season’s Chanel collection is rather lavish, it’s because of the recession. To say that is not to dismiss the entire project of cultural history. History from strange angles can often be far more intimate and memorable than the conventional approach. It’s just that the link between beards and any real meaning, any consequential tendency, has almost always been so fickle and tenuous and arbitrary. If you need an explanation for shaving and not-shaving in a given period, an analogy with team colours will get you 90% of the way there. If one team wears blue, the other team will wear red. All the research in this very thorough book still cannot outbalance this common-sense rule.

Ned Beauman, with his beard. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

In 1925, a Chicago Tribune reporter stood on a street corner asking about the decline of moustaches. “Right now everybody wants to look young and keep looking young,” one man told him, “and we all like to have everybody else looking young and feel young. And that’s a good sign.” Here, it does feel as if we may have found out something new about America in the jazz age, something that we could not have found out quite so lucidly unless Oldstone-Moore had gone to the trouble of combing through the beard archives.

And yet how can we know that the street-corner respondent was not himself contriving a glib theory to fit the facts already established? Because one thing this book shows us is that people have always made too much of beards. For a curmudgeon like me, it’s tempting to assume that no other age but our own could have expended so many column inches on a triviality of grooming. But Oldstone-Moore refutes that by cataloguing some of the piffle that accompanied the beard debates of the second half of the 19th century. “The natural and appropriate spheres of man and woman, respectively, are plainly indicated by the hirsute, bristling image of the one and the less-protected face of the other,” claimed the American magazine Every Saturday in 1871.

Oldstone-Moore attributes this sort of rhetoric to an uneasiness about masculinity as “men’s work moved from fields and workshops to offices and factories” and woman slowly gained in status and visibility. That I do buy. What I will take away from Oldstone-Moore’s book is an argument not stated outright in the text but nevertheless contained within it: that beards are something people like to chatter about and legislate over as a sort of displacement activity when they find it too awkward or confusing to address the issues that actually matter. When the historians of the future look back on the attention our culture lavished on a trend for facial hair, I hope they ask themselves: just what were we so desperate to distract ourselves from?


The Racially Fraught History of the American Beard

“Washes and razors for foofoos," scoffed Walt Whitman. But the story of 19th-century facial hair is more tangled than modern nostalgists may realize.

Let me declare what many already know: 2013 was a landmark year for men’s facial hair. From flamboyant beards to the proliferation of “old-fashioned” shops, evidence of the trend abounds, embracing groups as diverse as the Boston Red Sox, the men of Movember, and the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty. In dens of hipsterdom, one can hardly throw a PBR without hitting a waxed moustache. And the online craft marketplace Etsy now sells a limitless variety of wares imprinted with images of mustaches, from wine glasses to electrical outlets.

This is not the first time in recent memory that American men have sprouted facial hair in great numbers. The 1960s bristled with sideburns and beards—pared down, in the 1970s, to the decade’s iconic mustache. But one characteristic distinguishes this revival from previous ones: Today’s facial-hair enthusiasts share an affection for the ornate practices of the 1800s—the exuberant beards and ostentatious moustaches, as well as the elegance and “manliness” of the shops where those styles were cultivated.

What follows is the lost story of American facial hair. Like countless other histories, it is rife with contradictions. It begins with white Americans at the time of the Revolution who derided barbering as the work of “inferiors.” It continues with black entrepreneurs who turned it into a source of wealth and prestige. And it concludes with the advent of the beard—a fashion born out of desperation but transformed into a symbol of masculine authority and white supremacy.

It may seem strange that barbering, which required practitioners to hold razors to their customers’ throats, was dominated by men of color in Revolutionary America. But the reasons for this were simple. Before the American Revolution, free white workers were few and their labor was expensive—especially in the southern colonies. So slaveholders in need of grooming often turned to their enslaved workforces.

"A Barber's Shop at Richmond, Virginia," from The Illustrated London News, March 9, 1861

After the Revolution, a different set of factors compelled African-Americans to work as barbers. In a new country that prized personal independence, service work seemed abhorrent to many white citizens. At the same time, the Revolution caused many Americans to rethink the morality of slavery, which led to emancipation in the Northern states and waves of manumission in the South.

Thus, thousands of former slaves—many with experience as valets, manservants, and barbers—were foisted upon a market that offered them little in the way of employment, apart from dangerous jobs in manual labor and demanding positions in household service. One of the few jobs that presented even faint hopes for prosperity was barbering. Not surprisingly, it was open almost exclusively to men.

Barbering was hard work. High-end barbers labored long hours and mastered a range of skills from shaving, cutting, and styling to making and marketing hair and body products. Barbers also typically made and repaired wigs. Even after elites abandoned the powdered wigs of the colonial era around 1800, barbers continued to do a healthy business in toupees as well as false whiskers, although they now fitted these in discreet side rooms. They even groomed the dead.

But barbers’ most difficult work was cultural in nature. Especially in the upscale venues for which African-American barbers were best known, customers demanded a high level of gentility from their surroundings. Thus, barbers were also expected to excel as interior decorators. The best of these shops were what historian Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr., author of Knights of the Razor, a painstaking history of African-American barbers, called “first-class.” And they looked much as their modern imitators reimagine them.

Barbers cultivated personae to match these surroundings. Refined in dress and graceful in movement, the best offered practical instruction in the gentlemanly arts. They were also expert conversationalists, engaging and entertaining their customers while they worked. A Salem, Massachusetts, barber, according to the Salem Gazette, was “the essence of good-nature … [His] conversation consists of what Wordsworth calls ‘personal talk.’ He deals with men, not principles. Every flying bit of news, every anecdote, and in fact, every good thing said by the leading wits of the day, seems to come right through his shop window, and to stick to him, like burs to a boy’s jacket.”

Not every interaction was so amiable. If barbers’ embodiment of gentlemanliness was too seamless, their knowledge of politics too extensive, or their jokes too pointed, customers might accuse them of overstepping racial boundaries—with potentially disastrous consequences. A Nashville, Tennessee, barber, for instance, found himself sharply rebuked by a customer when he had the temerity to ask about a piece of legislation his customers were discussing. Chances are, he didn’t make the same mistake again.

But appearance and conversation were just the tip of the iceberg. One of the barbers’ most vexing tasks involved maintaining order in their segregated workplaces. While the gentility of many shops helped restrain customers’ worst behavior, lapses were frequent. In moments like these, white patrons might squabble over politics, grow belligerent when “full of drink and insolence,” or even light each other’s hair on fire.

Keeping the peace required the lightest of touches. The laws of white supremacy—both written and unwritten—effectively forbade men of color from giving orders to customers or physically restraining them. Besides, many barbers understood the cruel reality that customers’ ability to flagrantly disrespect them was part of the space’s appeal.

But perhaps barbers’ most difficult challenge was the simple intimacy of the shop: the physical closeness of barber and patron. Here, men of color listened in on the schemes and foibles of the American elite, keeping their secrets in confidence.

Little did his customers suspect that Natchez, Mississippi, barber William Johnson was studiously recording the rumors that permeated his shop—from vicious acts of violence to white citizens’ gambling losses and marital infidelities. Johnson’s diary even refers to a moment of unexpected intimacy between two townsmen: “Mr [Blank],” Johnson confided, “attempted to suck Mr [Blank]s El panio.” Just as Johnson had intended, no one discovered this record until long after he had died.

That barbers successfully navigated these situations speaks to their discretion and grace—though many of America’s most-influential free people of color often proved harsh critics. Frederick Douglass, for example, wrote a scathing critique of the tonsorial profession in an 1853 edition of Frederick Douglass’ Paper: “To shave half a dozen faces in the morning and sleep or play the guitar in the afternoon – all this may be easy, but is it noble, is it manly, and does it improve and elevate us?”

Despite these criticisms, a number of 19th-century barbers parlayed their work into economic independence, and in a few cases, investments that brought them extraordinary wealth. In a number of U.S. cities, African-American barbers ranked among the richest and most powerful members of the free black community. By 1879, James Thomas, a former St. Louis barber who had become a real estate mogul, possessed an estate worth $400,000 (some $10 million in contemporary terms), making him the richest man of color in Missouri. His friend and neighbor, another former barber named Cyprian Clamorgan, was similarly affluent, penning a paean to black wealth and respectability entitled The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis.

Barbers were also figures of considerable influence. Despite Douglass’s criticisms, barbers occupied positions of authority in African-American organizations. They accounted for 13 of 45 delegates to Ohio’s 1852 African-American state convention. Boston barber John Smith welcomed Massachusetts antislavery Senator Charles Sumner into his shop. And countless others played humbler but crucial roles in churches and community organizations.

But barbers did more than that. They made the barbershop an iconic American space, with an appeal that, as historian Quincy T. Mills documents, endures to the present. Thus, when we think of the “old-fashioned” shop, we ought to recall the likes of James Thomas, Cyprian Clamorgan, William Johnson, and thousands of others—men who, despite fearsome limitations, shaped an American institution and left their mark, quite literally, on the men who patronized their shops.

White men’s fondness for their black barbers didn’t last. The reasons were varied: The temperance movement and the evangelical religious revivals of the “Second Great Awakening” caused many customers to frown upon the barbershop’s liquor-fueled conviviality.

An 1846 lithograph promoting the temperance movement (Nathaniel Currier/Library of Congress)

A series of urban public health crises also had dire consequences for the shop. Sanitation in American cities remained haphazard to say the least. In New York City, for instance, monstrous pigs continued to bear responsibility for garbage disposal throughout the early 19th century. Not surprisingly, cities were ravaged by epidemics, making many Americans newly cautious about interpersonal touch. Health writers D. G. Brinton and George H. Napheys advised men to shave themselves, for “it is not pleasant to be lathered with the brush which the minute before has been rubbed on the face of we don’t know whom.”

The most important explanation for whites’ anxiety about the shop, however, involved black barbers’ growing wealth. For many, the success of leading African-American barbers seemed to threaten the social order. As white customers were shaved by men with fortunes worth many thousands of dollars, some must have wondered who was serving whom.

But the real problem ran deeper. During the 19th century, intellectuals increasingly subscribed to pseudo-scientific theories of race. Some even believed that people of different races had been the result of separate acts of creation. The German biologist Karl Vogt called whites and blacks “two extreme human types” and wrote that people of African descent “remind us irresistibly of the ape.” All of this helped buttress notions of African-Americans as primitive and intrinsically violent.

White fears were further fed by a string of slave rebellions, from present-day Haiti to Nat Turner’s Virginia. For many whites, these seemed to confirm not the injustice of slavery but blacks’ “innate” propensity for violence. As a result, some white customers began to cast a wary eye on their barbers, who commanded resources and occupied positions of authority within their communities. Few seemed better poised to lead an insurrection.

These fears were made powerfully manifest in American fiction, where the figure of the murderous black barber became a fixture during the 19th century. Among the character’s more vivid appearances was a little-known 1847 vignette entitled “A Narrow Escape,” in which a wandering sailor enters an Alabama barbershop and watches helplessly as the shop’s barber slashes the throat of a customer. But the figure also appeared in better-known works of fiction, including Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno.

The results of these fears were dramatic. Between the turn of the century and 1850, American elites abandoned black-owned barbershops in considerable numbers. In major American cities, the number of barbers relative to the populations they served declined dramatically, as demand for their services plummeted. Ambitious young African-American men began to view barbering as a dead-end career.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the social spectrum, immigrant barbers—many of them Germans—catered to a growing population of working-class customers: men too poor, and in many cases too resentful of black barbers’ success, to patronize the best black-owned barbershops. Thus, while whites, according to Douglas Bristol, constituted a mere 20 percent of Philadelphia’s barbers in 1850, by 1860 they represented a near majority. A handful of elite black barbers continued to prosper, but the days when African-Americans dominated the trade were coming to an end.

At the same time black barbers were falling out of favor, many elite white men were radically changing their views on grooming. Where the enlightened 18th century had favored a civilized, clean-shaven look, men of the mid-19th century preferred the untamed appearance of the rugged conqueror. But while facial hair ultimately became a potent symbol of mastery, it didn’t start out that way. If anything, men first adopted beards in a desperate attempt to alleviate the painfulness of their morning toilet.

Without the assistance of their former barbers, shavers had to contend with the 19th-century straight razor. A delicate and temperamental tool, its paper-thin blade required regular, careful maintenance. Even the simplest misstep could ruin it, turning the morning shave into a tug-of-war between men and their facial hair. Still, this was preferable to the alternatives. Men were known to die of tetanus after using an ill-kept blade—Henry David Thoreau’s brother John was one of them. And many lived in fear of cutting their own throats.

Even those who mastered the razor faced other trials. Despite the proliferation of pamphlets on the subject, straight-razor shaving remained a craft secret, largely confined to barbers. And home-shavers lacked many of the materials necessary for a comfortable shave—from clean water and good lighting to quality accoutrements like creams, oils, and brushes.

So it should come as little surprise that many men began avoiding shaving. Between 1800 and 1810, a mere 23 percent of grooming-related articles featured complaints of painful shaving. By the 1840s, that figure had ballooned to 45 percent. What had once been a mere annoyance turned into a veritable scourge. It was time for radical solution: Men eschewed razors in numbers and embarked, for the first time in centuries, on an era of beard-wearing.

In an 1853 Punch magazine sketch satirizing the "beard movement," an old lady is approached by helpful railway guards and "concludes she is attacked by Brigands."

The beards of the mid-1800s were different from earlier styles of facial hair, including the mutton chops sported by Presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren. They were more unruly than the waxed mustaches and “wreath beards” of the 1820s, trends that had been inspired by the French aristocrat Count d’Orsay. Mid-19th-century facial hair was big and robust, reflecting a near-total independence from scissors and razor.

At first, these untamed beards proved controversial. Many Americans continued to harbor 18th-century fears that beards marked maniacs, fanatics, and dissimulators. But by the late antebellum period, they were more widely accepted, thanks partly to a strenuous public relations campaign that reimagined the beard as a symbol of white, masculine supremacy.

A 21-part series in Boston’s Daily Evening Transcript, published in late 1856, was typical of such efforts. In these wide-ranging articles, pro-beard polemicists argued that the beard represented a rugged and robust ideal of manhood, proving white Americans’ dominion over “lesser” men and “inferior” races. The pseudonymous “Lynn Bard,” for instance, claimed that men took up shaving “when they began to be effeminate, or when they became slaves.” Ancient Britain’s manly Anglo-Saxons, he claimed, “wore their beards before the conquest and it is related as a wanton act of tyranny, that William the Conqueror compelled the people to shave but some abandoned their country” rather than submit.” (Incidentally, Victorian Englishmen were going through a beard revival of their own at that time, though for different reasons.)

An anonymous “lady on beards,” writing in an 1856 issue of the New York Tribune, made the case even more succinctly. The “bearded races,” she proclaimed, “are the conquering races.” And in “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman transformed the case for beards into poetry: “Washes and razors for foofoos … for me freckles and a bristling beard.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the
Seneca Falls convention
(Library of Congress)

These appeals were especially persuasive at a time when America was in an active period of exploration and invasion, ranging from the U.S.-Mexican War to the ongoing Indian relocation and genocide. These projects were aimed primarily at peoples whom white Americans believed to be incapable of growing facial hair.

But the “manly appendage,” as one commenter grandly called the beard, also served a number of important functions closer to home. As historian Sarah Gold McBride contends, beards were one response to a growing women’s rights movement, typified by the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Faced with threats to their prerogative, men grew beards “to codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.” The 19th-century beard may have sprouted from a fear of razors and a distaste for black barber shops. But it grew into a symbol that set white American men apart from smooth-faced foreigners as well as powerful women at home.

This may not be the story bewhiskered moderns would like to hear. It’s easy to imagine the 19th-beard and barbershop revival as an homage to a quaint, innocent fashion trend. But today’s revival presents a chance to redeem the legacy of facial hair with a more complete understanding of the men who shaped it—a better grasp of what to keep and what to cut.


Your Beard Is Saying a Lot More Than You Think

The history of civilization as we know it has been humankind's struggle to overcome nature, to assert order where entropy rules. But, as Christopher Oldstone-Moore writes in his book Of Beards and Men, each of us play out a microcosm of that struggle every morning in our personal grooming decisions. The question at hand&mdashto grow a beard or to shave&mdashnot only tells us a lot about ourselves as individuals, but also, writ large, about our culture as a whole. "The history of men is literally written on their faces," he writes.

While the surfeit of attention paid in recent years to a seeming bearded resurgence headed up by the world's hipsters, athletes, and celebrities might lead one to believe that we're living through one of the seismic facial hair realignments Oldstone-Moore identifies, we're not quite there yet. A "smooth face is still very much the norm," he writes. You need look no further than the pages of publications like this one, with recurring features about how to get the best shave, to recognize how in thrall we've become to the cultivation of our facial geography. A beard, then, is still a signifier of outsider status, no matter how many trend pieces you might read.

It's periods like the time of the Roman emperor Hadrian, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the 19th Century that he points to as truly beard-centric eras, and in investigating the genesis of each movement throughout the book, he peeks behind the beard to lay out the political, religious, evolutionary, and broader cultural import of what seems on the surface like a largely ornamental matter of personal style.

I spoke with Oldstone-Moore, a lecturer in history at Wright State University, about what beards can tell us about manliness throughout history, and about ourselves today.

Esquire: You write that "the history of men is written on their faces." Explain that a little.

Christopher Oldstone-Moore: The idea is that that facial hair can be seen as an index to changing ideas over time of what it means to be a man. Over time these kind of shifts are uncommon they're big shifts that happen periodically throughout history.

You talk about four distinct beard periods throughout history. What are they?

Well, you get shaving established as a norm by Alexander the Great, [which continued] in the Greek Hellenistic period. And then you have a first beard movement in the 2nd Century under Emperor Hadrian, who was the leader of the Roman world at the time, and so he grew a beard and established a new standard. Very deliberately. It was absolutely an intentional statement about himself and true manliness. And then you have, in the Middle Ages, kings and knights favoring beards, particularly in the middle of the Middle Ages. And then in the Renaissance they come back again, in the 1500s. That's the third beard movement. And then finally one more time in the late 19th Century that we're all familiar with.

These are sort of reactionary: pushing back against the prior norm, right? Beards would be seen as a way of differentiating yourself from the previous era where shaving might've been the status quo?

In part that's true. It's not that it's just reacting to shaving as such, but it's reacting to the cultural associations of shaving. Or even more precisely, it's attempting to redefine manliness in a different way than the previous era did. One of the things I say is that shaving is actually the norm and it's preeminent throughout the history of western civilization since Alexander, so that's why it makes sense to talk about beard movements, because there are particular times in history when men have decided collectively to throw off that norm of shaving and adopt a different approach to expressing manliness. My next effort then was to try to figure out why they did that at that particular time.

Was that the first evidence we have of people shaving? Were there cavemen scraping the hair off their faces with rocks?

Probably! Shaving goes back before Alexander, I'm just saying that he established it as a norm for western civilization. But earlier civilizations, notably the Egyptians, were big into shaving. All the noble Egyptians shaved not only their faces but often their heads as well. And then they wore artificial hair. Pretty much like the 18th Century, for us that's exactly what we did. We shaved our faces and our heads and put on all this fake wiggery. Ancient Mesopotamians, notably the Sumerians, went through many centuries of shaving. The main inspiration seems to be that the priests were the first to shave. Priestliness was associated with holiness and cleanliness and being ready to present to the gods. But as you say, shaving goes right back to the beginning of civilization, which means the beginning of historical records. So it could be that cavemen trimmed, or possibly shaved, if they had a ritual reason to do so. But we don't know.

Why does facial hair figure so prominently in religion, especially the Abrahamic religions? Do you have a sense of where that comes from?

Well, certainly in the case of Judaism, there are actual statements, regulations in Leviticus. And there's something similar, although not in the Quran, but there's some similar kind of religious statement in the Hadith for Islam that seems to indicate what the appropriate management of facial hair is, which is a beard. But I think the body and ritual are always very important to the discipline of the self, and orienting yourself correctly to please the divine powers. Right back to the beginning of civilization you see people thinking that the removal of hair is a kind of purification, the removal of the animal self. That's the way I see it. Very much like what Alexander was doing: trying to elevate your manhood and your personhood to a higher plane.

By the same token, allowing it to grow would be aligning yourself with the more animalistic?

Yeah, but they wouldn't say animalistic they would say natural. Exactly right. I think that's one of my bigger conclusions, is that all the four beard movements that I mentioned in some way are an attempt to reorientate manliness toward nature, or the natural. For example, it's very explicit in the first beard movement, because Hadrian was following the teachings of Stoic philosophy. The Stoics were explicitly&mdashin fact all the philosophers&mdashwere in favor of beards as a sign of following the rule of nature. The laws of nature. That was part of philosophy at the time. The key to wisdom really was to understand and follow the rules of nature. So Hadrian was deliberately doing that, he was thinking, "I'm going to be a wise emperor, and I'm going to be wise because I follow the rules of nature." And he indicated that by growing his beard, and everybody followed suit.

What I'm curious about is, why shaving in the first place? People talk about beards being an active decision a man makes: "Why do you have a beard?" It seems to me it's weird to not have a beard.

Your point is very well taken because it precisely indicates what I was saying in that we treat shaving as the norm, as if it weren't a decision. But of course it is a decision, as you say. But, it's so established in our culture that that's the norm that we don't think of it as a decision. But it really was Alexander the Great who did it and made the decision as it were. What he did at the time sort of established it as a higher form of manliness that men can aspire to. And for him, personally, it meant, and for the elite Greek men of the time, it meant a higher level of manliness&mdashcloser to the gods than ordinary manliness.

And this was because the gods were often depicted as being clean-shaven?

Yes, exactly. It was this youthful, eternal immortality kind of idea. And you still hear that today in the 21st Century, or [back in the] 20th Century especially. You shave and it makes you look younger, more vital, energetic. Athletes, at least in the past, not only did they shave their faces but their body hair as well, to show their muscles, but also to make them look young. So that's part of it. But the other thing is that shaving seems to suggest that you are a refined and cultivated person who has transcended your natural animal aspect. So it ties it with sort of being a higher-level man in the sense of being civilized.

Is there something to be said for having the luxury to be able to shave? Does that suggest a sort of class distinction? Whereas someone who might be more of a physical laborer type throughout history wouldn't have had the time to spend on such a frivolous activity.

Yes and no. That's an interesting thing because on the one level these shaving and beard trends transcend class, they do not show strong class differentiation. For example, in the 19th Century, men of all classes, rural and urban, were adopting beards. Or not, when the 20th Century came. So it's a gender thing rather than a class thing. On the other hand, it's appropriate to say in terms of differentiation, because of course wealthy men can do a better job of it, so they can always look clean and freshly shaved, whereas working men are more typically going to have scruff, because they can't quite maintain that shave quite as well. Also [the wealthy] can get better haircuts and that kind of thing, so they can always look a little better and differentiate their class that way.

How would you characterize the current beard moment? I have a big beard myself. It seems to me there's three stereotypical reactions to people having a beard now: You're either a hipster, a redneck, or a "terrorist." I can't tell you how many times people have asked me if I'm joining ISIS with this beard. Do those three options ring true to your sense?

Then there are religious beards too as you mentioned throw that into the pile. I think we're at a moment, once again like in other beard movements, where men are rethinking what it is to be a man, and how to represent oneself. And of course our society is so much more divided than societies in the past. We don't have a single cultural authority like a king or emperor. There's no body or group that defines masculinity for everybody. What that means is there are a wide range of different approaches. But I do think, like other beard movements, we are rethinking masculinity. And gender in general is kind of up for grabs, being redefined in lots of ways. I think it makes sense that men would at least consider the possibility of facial hair as a way to think about the nature of manhood. It is a reorientation, again, toward the natural. At least as a starting point for the whole idea of what is a man. Especially when so many people are questioning that.

To refine that a little further, in my last chapter, I talk about the notion of autonomy, the freedom to make decisions for yourself. And I think that for a lot of men that's got to be an important piece of what it means to be a man today, or maybe just a human being. But for men in particular, "How am I an autonomous being who has my own choices to make?" One of the ways to show you have personal choice is to have some facial hair, and move away from the older expectations, and the corporate expectations, of shaving. I always argue that the first people who grow beards are the people who can. Because there are still lots of rules and demands made on people that you can't have a beard. So the first thing it shows is that you're your own man, and I think men are interested in that.

As a freelance journalist, nobody really cares what I look like.

Exactly! You're your own man, literally. A free agent.

And that's probably where the whole thing with the hipster comes in. In broad strokes, it's a signifier that I'm not beholden to the corporate work world.

Exactly. And I'll add one more thing to that: It's an urban thing. Lumbersexuals too, that I saw in New York a lot. These are urban men, and urban men have always had a little bit of a problem with their masculinity, right? You're disconnected from nature when you're in the city, and when you have a job like you and I do, that deals with computers and words. So it's a challenge for men to find: "What is nature to me? How do I connect with my natural masculinity." So it's quite obvious with the Lumbersexuals: "We're going to dress like we are in nature, like we cut down trees, and we're going to grow handsome long beards." And that's a way for them to at least symbolically connect to the natural world.

For all that, there's something of a pushback to the artifice of it, I guess. Assuming a role that isn't yours. I've seen a lot memes online criticizing urban guys with beards as being poseurs in a way. From that, there have been a lot of studies, and there seem to be mixed results as to whether or not beards are perceived as favorable or not when you look at them. Where are we on that? Is there any consensus?

No! I think I end that first chapter signaling that the consensus is that women want it both ways. It's hard to fall down on one side or the other. And that's maybe one of the reasons that stubble is popular, because it's a little bit of one but not the other. I don't know if that's nature speaking or our times, but I do think women, in particular, are of two minds, and they split all the time. If you walk down the street and ask women that's what you're going to get: "Oh, I really just don't like beards." Or you get others who say, "I like beards." Or you get women, I just had one tell me yesterday, "Well, it depends on the man." But that's not saying anything about it. I think it's because the beard is masculine, and women are of two minds about masculinity. They're attracted to it, but they're not if it means it's someone who is trying to dominate them or be superior in some way.

I think that's how it plays out in politics. I wrote something for The Wall Street Journal that came out recently, and I was talking about politics, and how women are very suspicious, I think, and have been for a long time, about bearded men in politics. They're not quite sure what their motives are. I think they're just not sure about the assertiveness of masculinity. It's something they are attracted to, but worry about.

I can't even think of who our last bearded president was.

Bearded, it was Benjamin Harrison in the 1890s. Taft had a mustache until he left office in 1912. So that was the end of that. In the book, I talk about Thomas Dewey, who ran for president in 1944 and 1948, and lost narrowly to Truman in 1948. I argue that Dewey had a mustache that hurt him, it really did, in a close election. Women voters in particular did not look favorably on the way he looked.

That's so strange.

It comes to that thing I was just mentioning: the trust factor. Was he a willful, aggressive kind of guy? Not the kind of guy they like or trust? And then Truman was a sunnier guy, kind of like the Jimmy Carter: big smile, very affable, someone that you feel more comfortable with.

On the opposite side, there's also something sort of funny about a beard, isn't there? We see that in politics. For some reason it was funny when Al Gore grew a beard.

Right. I think it's what somebody called "shaveism." I think it's the assertion of this assumption that shaving is normal, and that makes wearing a beard abnormal in some way. Particularly a person like Al Gore who's always been clean shaven, and suddenly grows a beard, and there's a suspicion: What's he trying to prove? There was all that discussion that he was trying to be an alpha male, because he wasn't, you know? And it comes with this posuer thing. And that comes with another thing, although I haven't able to assess it, that women will say: "Oh a beard is meant to cover something up. It's a mask."

Where do you come down on the Darwinesque debate about the beard as evolutionarily functional versus ornamental. Or is it neither?

It's hard to decide because I think they both might be at play simultaneously. There's a lot of evidence for the ornamental. That is to say, beards are an advertisement of health. But that feeds right into the weapon side, because if you're an impressive-looking male it's going to be intimidating to your rivals as well as being a sign to a sexual partner that you're good-quality mating material. So I think that the ornament rule can play both ways, and that's probably why it's had such a powerful effect.

I notice you have a beard yourself. Why is that?

I like to think, like a lot of men, that I kind of go back and forth. I've had beards on and off thought my adult life. I reflect beard history: I'm normally shaved but I go through long periods where I wear a beard. Part of it is I like the change, but in this case of course, I have an added incentive, because I'm writing about it and I think it's appropriate to walk the walk here. It's not just because of the book though. My biggest problem is my beard isn't naturally great, it's not the curly shapely king, it's more of an Abraham Lincoln wispy thing. It's a little hard to control and make it look good. My wife is tolerant, but she will say, "You could use a little more trimming here and there." But I'm working with it.


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