More than mere facial hair: why the beard is a social marker for our era

When cultural historians come to look back on the present era, there is every chance that 2013 will be seen as the year of the beard.

The Boston Red Sox, thickly bristled to a man, unexpectedly won the baseball World Series title. Movember continued to attract thousands of charity supporters willing to grow a moustache, producing every imaginable variation from wispy bum fluff to perky toothbrush.

Meanwhile, BBC presenter Jeremy Paxman's decision to grow a neat grey beard generated as much comment as might have been expected if he had started tap-dancing or knitting on screen.

Deeply rooted

Since then, facial hair has continued to root itself deeply in the public imagination. Hipsters train their beards into shapes that look less like natural outgrowths than portable modern sculptures. Trend-spotters analyse the precise length of David Beckham's stubble like fortune-tellers poring over tea leaves.

When Shakespeare's Bottom offered an enthusiastic inventory of beards ("your straw-colour beard, your orange-tawny beard, your purple in grain beard"), it was intended as satire; today it might be viewed as a dream of metrosexual life. According to historian Christopher Oldstone-Moore, this is more than a matter of facial fashion. Beards and moustaches reflect important cultural models of masculinity; they tell us about politics as well as aesthetics.

More than a mere aesthetic

These are (appropriately, perhaps) rather fuzzy ideas, but Oldstone-Moore takes them extremely seriously in his new book, Of Beards and Men: the Revealing History of Facial Hair (University of Chicago Press).

His first chapter, a rapid survey of the evolutionary reasons for growing beards and the cultural reasons for shaving them off again, begins with the grand claim that "civilisation is at war with nature". Later he explains that Stalin's and Hitler's "mutual commitment to power and moustaches was not a simple coincidence", and "an analysis of moustaches might have alerted the western allies to the real possibility of German-Soviet agreement". Well, maybe.

More plausibly, Oldstone-Moore argues that "beard history is like a mosaic: the image becomes sharper the further back one stands", and in tracing cultural attitudes from Ancient Egypt to the present day he draws out some fascinating patterns.

To conform, or not to conform

For example, beards and moustaches have long been seen as badges of belonging, from the club called Zur Haaren ("To Hairiness"), founded in 16th-century Basel, to the carefully groomed models of masculinity that became popular on the Seventies gay scene.

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They have also frequently been treated as public displays of rebellion, whether on the faces of Romantic revolutionaries like the "great strapping lads with long hair, beards, and moustaches" who construct barricades in Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables, or figures like John Lennon, who marked his shift from teen heart-throb to cultural guru by swapping his perky mop top for lank tresses and a tangled beard.

Even something as simple as a moustache can behave like an extra signature of personality. A moustache can signal leadership, as with Kaiser Wilhelm II's waxed and upturned points, which made him look as if he was wearing a pair of spiked helmets on his face, or equally esprit de corps, as with several generations of cavalry officers, some of whom had to paint on their fiercely disciplined look with black wax. It can be the trademark of a dashing sex symbol (Clark Gable) or a shabby clown (Charlie Chaplin).

A matter of manly hygiene

Other cultural meanings are more historically specific. For example, during the second half of the 19th century, a beard was usually seen as an emblem of manly good health: "Washes and razors for foofoos", as Walt Whitman explained in Leaves of Grass, "for me freckles and a bristling beard".

Yet within a few decades the opposite argument had taken hold, with a French scientist in 1907 reporting that a woman's lips kissed by a bearded man had become polluted with food particles, tuberculosis bacteria, and the hair from a spider's leg.

Even in this swirl of examples, certain individuals stand out from the crowd. The beardless Alexander the Great won his epoch-defining battle at Gaugamela by ordering his soldiers to shave. By contrast, images of Jesus started to acquire beards several hundred years after his death, once artists decided that this was the easiest way of making him look less like a smooth-chinned angel and more like a vulnerable human being.

Gender bender

More recently, the Austrian performance artist Conchita Wurst won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest while wearing a sequinned evening dress and a thick dark beard, playfully messing up gender boundaries.

Oldstone-Moore is also good at retrieving smaller clippings of cultural history, such as Tarzan's decision to define his identity as Lord of the Apes by shaving, or the fact that voters tend not to elect bearded politicians, presumably because they worry that someone whose face cannot be seen clearly may have something to hide.

Inevitably there are blanks in Oldstone-Moore's argument, and he gets into a particular tangle when dealing with the mysteries of cricket, declaring that "sports fans loved [W.G.] Grace's ability to fight off any sort and speed of bowls", especially when he "played in the hallowed turf of Lord's Cricket Grounds". But otherwise this scholarly and entertaining book does a fine job of showing that facial hair is itself something of a cultural blank - a little screen on to which we project all manner of fantasies and fears.

The Telegraph, London

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