Sunday, February 5

Are you a beard guy? Tim Dowling on the trend that will never end | Men’s facial hair


ANDvery morning I wake up slightly surprised that I still have a beard. It’s been there on my face for more than a decade, but I still don’t think of myself as being in any way committed to it. That’s because nothing about a beard involves commitment; I got it by doing nothing, and I could get rid of it tomorrow. Mostly, I don’t think about it.

But when I do stop to consider it, I have to wonder how many favors it’s doing to me. It certainly makes me look older, although shaving it off wouldn’t necessarily make me look younger: the face beneath hasn’t stopped aging, and the last time I saw it – briefly, last summer – I was shocked by the settled weight of my expression. So the beard came back, only grayer this time. Which is better? A beard takes months to fill in. How could you even begin to compare the two looks, one against the other?

For years I tried to have a beard without being a beard guy; I got rid of it for work and passport photos. I didn’t want to be considered part of the fashion for beards that was well under way by the time I stopped shaving, or to become unrecognizable without one, the way some people are without their glasses. Above all, I didn’t want to decide.

Privately, though, I’m beginning to ask myself the question some trend-spotters have been asking for a while: after all this time, why is the beard still here?

Through history facial hair fashions have emerged and receded: beards were out for most of the 18th century, very much in for the second half of the 19th, and out again by the dawn of the 20th. Their return in the 1960s and early 70s was short-lived; the tide went out pretty quickly. If you had asked me in 1985, I’d have said the beard was extinct. Then again, I’d have said the same thing about the hat.

The latest vogue for beard-wearing began around the 2008 recession, and was initially dismissed as a niche pursuit, a hipster thing. The death of the beard has been announced many times since.

The first time the Guardian heralded the arrival of “peak beard” – the point after which the fashion would tail off – was in July 2013. My colleague Emine Saner cited what was then considered the beard’s high-water mark: the 2013 Oscars, when Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper and Paul Rudd all had beards. The hipster fashion had gone mainstream – even Jeremy Paxman grew a beard that year – so naturally it was on the way out.

The peak of peak beard reports actually came a year later, in spring 2014, with a study from the University of New South Wales called “Negative frequency-dependent preferences and variation in male facial hair”. It appeared to show that beards were an advantage in sexual selection when their prevalence was low, but that ubiquity made them less attractive. “The bigger the trend gets, the weaker the preference for beards and the tide will go out again,” Robert Brooks, one of the authors, said at the time. “We may well be at peak beard.”

Yet, despite these pronouncements, the beard endured. In 2017, YouGov research showed that between 2011 and 2016, the proportion of British men sporting some facial hair had risen from 37% to 42%. Razor sales continued to slide. The hipster came and went, but the beard persisted.

Any signs of the beard finally fading were obscured by the pandemic. Underneath the masks, beards were everywhere. At first this was a little depressing: the beards seemed to be an outward manifestation of nothing mattering any more. But men were also liberated from societal expectations, and free to try something new. BBC weatherman Tomasz Schafernaker caused a stir when he decided to keep his long hair and beard post-lockdown. So has our attitude shifted permanently?

Celebrity beards picture panel
All Celebrity pictures by Getty Images

“The beard used to be a signifier of having let go,” says Teo van den Broeke, GQ’s style and grooming director. “If someone had a beard in a film, unless they were working in the great outdoors, they’d really given up. I don’t think that’s the case any more.”

Before we consider why the beard doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, we should ask where it came from. The post-recession fashion for facial hair has certain parallels with the Victorian “beard movement”, which ended a clean-shaven era that had lasted more than a century. “Beards and mustaches are rising on every side of us,” read an 1853 newspaper article, “and we seem in a fair way of being as hairy as our ancestors.” What suddenly changed?

“In the 1850s it was to do with fears among men about what was happening to masculinity,” says Dr Alun Withey, author of Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England 1650-1900. “Think of the Industrial Revolution: there’s lots of guys having to work together in new ways and new places: offices, factories. There are calls by women for more rights and more power, and there’s a feeling in the air that manliness is being diminished.” In search of some kind of timeless expression of masculinity, men didn’t have to look far – soldiers returning from Crimea, along with a new breed of Victorian explorer, offered a ready symbol of male heroism: a massive beard.

At the time, promoters offered pseudoscientific justifications – beards were healthy; they acted as a natural filter, protecting the wearer’s throat, lungs and even teeth. But the fashion grew out of a collective male insecurity that periodically reasserts itself.

“You could argue that, in a way, we’re looking at similar concerns today,” says Withey. In fluid times, men tend to anchor themselves with pretty obvious symbols. Alongside the hipster beard came a fashion for utilitarian workwear. Men who tooled at social media startups began dressing like lumberjacks.

“The movement was a bit aligned with normcore, I guess,” says van den Broeke. “Really caring about individual products and being a bit nerdy about them: the Red Wing boot, or a certain type of selvedge denim made in Japan.”

The Victorian beard movement began to dissipate in the 1870s, but facial hair didn’t disappear; it diversified. In late-19th-century America, streetcar tickets were printed with illustrations of five male faces: clean-shaven, side-whiskered, moustachioed, goateeed and fully bearded. Conductors clipped the face most closely resembling the passenger to prevent the ticket being passed on.

“I often see a period of ridicule, quickly followed by a market,” says Withey. “You get the initial thing of: why are they doing this? Why do they want to look like animals? Then as it becomes more popular, it becomes: I wonder if we could sell them this?” In the early 20th century the Gillette safety razor – and its massive advertising campaign – sold men a culture of daily shaving as a marker of masculinity.

The unruliness of the 21st-century hipster beard may have been its point, but it, too, was tamed by marketing. When sales of shaving products slumped, brands looked elsewhere. “Suddenly, there were a lot of beard oils and waxes and all that kind of stuff,” says van den Broeke. “And this whole arises in barbers focused on beard management. That, for me, was the moment the beard became less a slovenly thing, and more like a Furby or a Tamagotchi, something you have to look after.”

I first grew a beard in late 2011, after I got punched in the street by a stranger and had a rectangular wound above my top lip; the imprint, I think, of a ring. I couldn’t really shave until it healed, and after three weeks I’d passed the point of dishevelment into something that resembled intent. I’d never tried to grow a beard before – believe it or not, I don’t get punched in the face that often – and I was surprised by the success of it. Above all, it cost me nothing, not even effort. I had discovered the point where sloth meets affectation, and I was happy there.

There was, I should also point out, not an ounce of daring in my decision. In 2011, on the advancing slopes of peak beard, having facial hair made you almost invisible. It attracted very little comment. Even my wife hardly seemed to notice the change. In those early weeks only my youngest son, then about 12, mentioned it.

“Dad,” he said. “Are you actually trying to grow an actual beard?”

“I don’t know,” I said, stroking the chin part, a mannerism I’d been rehearsing in secret. “How do I look with it?”

“You look like a freak,” he said. “You look like a hippy from the 1980s.”

“Hippies are from the 60s,” I said.

“Whatever,” he said.

Within a few years I was being given beard oil for Christmas, and had to accept that friends and family had begun to think of me as a bearded person. I also learned that a beard required maintenance. At the very least you’ve got to keep cutting out a mouth hole so you can eat. I’ve shaved it off in disgust a few times in the past five years – sometimes the straggly feeling gets to be too much, especially in summer – but it always grows back. The routine of shaving just seems so oppressive and, these days, unnecessary. Beards are still normal, so who cares?

But how does this all end? Is the demise of the beard, so long predicted, just round the corner, or have cultural trends now become atomized to the extent that we’ll be obliged to live with all of them, simultaneously, in perpetuity?

Van den Broeke is willing to bet that the beard has finally lost its relevance. “There are far fewer beardy looks than before. Everyone is very clean-shaven,” he says. “It kind of aligns with the more 80s flamboyant haircuts. There are a lot of mullets around. They don’t work with beards.”

Whitely more or less agrees. “If history tells us anything, it’s that at some point it’ll change,” he says. “It may be that we go back to clean-shaven, and there’s another facial hair movement further down the line. But this stuff is seldom for ever.”

We may even see something akin to the retreat of the Victorian beard: a diversification into specialist forms – mustaches, goatees, long, wide sideboards.

Every time I’ve trimmed my beard since the start of lockdown (I use dog clippers; they’re heavy duty, and nowhere do the instructions say “dogs only”) I’ve thought about getting rid of it. It is grayer than ever, and possibly less flattering than whatever it was now hiding. Despite my best efforts, a decision was looming. “They say that facial hair is makeup for men; I think there’s a certain truth in that,” says van den Broeke. “You don’t have to commit to it forever.”

Tim Dowling with Oran Lasocki, head barber Mühle barbershop. Photograph: Louis Siroy/The Guardian

“That’s the nice thing about beards, they’re slightly prosthetic,” says Alun Withy. “I often think if you’ve made the decision to shave a full beard off, try a couple of styles on the way. Give yourself a brilliant biker’s mustache.”

At the Muhle barbershop in London, Oran Lasocki is patiently scraping a vertical line down the center of my chin with a straight razor, while I lie back and keep very, very still. The beard is going and the style I’m trying on the way is half-and-half.

Afterward Oran wraps my face in a hot towel, but it only feels hot on one side. He applies some kind of balm, which only stings on one side. Then, with very little ceremony, he tilts the chair upright.

What I see in the mirror is deeply disturbing. It’s impossible to gauge how much volume a beard adds to your face until you’ve viewed yourself in cross-section – one side bushy, the other pale and diminished. There is no point in asking which side looks better, or younger. The overwhelming picture is one of freakish contrast: half mountain man, half turtle. Thank God for mask mandates, I think, on my way home.


www.theguardian.com

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