A beard is a collection of hair that grows on the chin and cheeks of humans and some non human animals. Only adult males in human population are able to grow a beard (what a pity some fools prefer shaving it off). From an evolutionary viewpoint the beard is a part of the broader category of androgenic hair. It is a vestigial traitfrom a time when humans had hair on their face and entire body like the hair on gorillas. The evolutionary loss of hair is pronounced in some populations such as indigenous Americans and some east Asian populations, who have less facial hair, whereas peoples of Mediterranean European or South Asian ancestry and the Ainu have more facial hair.
In most of the world beards are seen as central to a man’s virility, exemplifying such virtues as wisdom, strength and high social status.
No one can deny the fact that history has a special space for beards. The ancient Semitic civilization situated on the western, coastal part of the Fertile Crescent and centered on the coastline of modern Lebanon gave great attention to the hair and beard. The beard has mostly a strong resemblance to that affected by the Assyrians, familiar from their sculptures. It is arranged in three, four, or five rows of small tight curls, and extends from ear to ear around the cheeks and chin. Sometimes, however, in lieu of the many rows, there is one row only, the beard falling in tresses, which are curled at the extremity. Even the Mesopotamian men of Semitic origin (Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Chaldeans) devoted great care to oiling and dressing their beards, using tongs and curling irons to create elaborate ringlets and tiered patterns.The highest ranking Ancient Egyptians grew hair on their chins which was often dyed or hennaed (reddish brown) and sometimes plaited with interwoven gold thread. A metal false beard, or postiche, which was a sign of sovereignty, was worn by queens and kings. This was held in place by a ribbon tied over the head and attached to a gold chin strap, a fashion existing from about 3000 to 1580 BC. The earliest clue in India comes from the figure of the bearded priest of Mohenjodaro. The figure has a designer beard (either plaited or coloured in streaks), but NO moustache. The Indus Valley Civilisation carried out a brisk trade with Mesopotamia and would have well been aware of the facial hair styles fancied abroad. This style appears to be uniquely Indian.
The Indus Valley Civilisation carried out a brisk trade with Mesopotamia and would have well been aware of the facial hair styles fancied abroad. This style appears to be uniquely Indian.
From the accounts of the earliest eyewitnesses, Alexander the Great’s men, we know a fair bit about the facial hair style in 326 BCE. It was the same as that of the priest king of Mohenjodaro.
They frequently comb, but seldom cut, the hair of their head. The beard of the chin they never cut at all, but they shave off the hair from the rest of the face, so that it looks polished – a fashion statement that existed well before the Amish and the Salafist Muslims claimed it as a signature style. The beards were dyed with a variety of colours.
In Ancient India, the beard was allowed to grow long, a symbol of dignity and of wisdom, especially by ascetics (sadhu). The nations in the east generally treated their beards with great care and veneration, and the punishment for licentiousness and adultery was to have the beard of the offending parties publicly cut off. Emperors Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka-the Great,who lived in this period of time, may well have continued to look like the priest king of Mohenjodaro.
Can we dare conjecture that they drew their bloodline from the people of the Indus Valley Civilization? Given that there was a close relationship with Persia and trade with Egypt, the signature style first established in Mohenjodaro remained the signature style of the Mauryan empire.
Confucius held that the human body was a gift from one’s parents to which no alterations should be made. Aside from abstaining from body modifications such as tattoos, Confucians were also discouraged from cutting their hair, fingernails or beards. To what extent people could actually comply with this ideal depended on their profession; farmers or soldiers probably would not have grown a long beard because it would interfere with their work.
Most of the clay soldiers in the Terracotta Army have mustasches or goatees but shaved cheeks, which was likely the fashion of the Qin dynasty.
The Iranians were fond of long beards, and almost all the Iranian kings had a beard. In Travels by Adam Olearius, a king commands his steward’s head to be cut off and then remarks, “What a pity it was, that a man possessing such fine mustachios, should have been executed.” Men in the Achaemenid era wore long beards, with warriors adorning theirs with jewelry. Men also commonly wore beards during the Safavid and Qajar eras.
Did the wearing of facial hair aid intensive thinking? Greek intellectuals would certainly think so.
The ancient Greeks regarded the beard as a badge or sign of virility; in the Homeric epics, it had almost sanctified significance, and a common form of entreaty was to touch the beard of the person addressed. It was shaven only as a sign of mourning; it was then instead often left untrimmed. A smooth face was regarded as a sign of effeminacy. The Spartans punished cowards by shaving off a portion of their beards. From the earliest times, however, the shaving of the upper lip was not uncommon. Greek beards were also frequently curled with tongs.
From Medival to the present day beard transformation:
Since around 2012, it seems, men have once again rekindled a love for their facial hair. While the popularity of some beards such as the lumberjack might be waning, there are signs that other styles are beginning to gain ground. Recently the goatee, rarely seen out in public since the 1990s, has made something of a comeback. Meanwhile the elegant Van Dyke beard, popular among Stuart monarchs, is enjoying something of a revival, along with waxed moustaches. Indeed, a whole industry has sprung up to cater for men who want ‘product’ to pamper their whiskers, with a dazzling array of beard oils, conditioners, combs and trimmers.
But by no means were beards always popular. From around 1700, hair completely disappeared from men’s faces all across Europe. Amid new aesthetic ideas about male appearance, facial hair had become associated with a rough, rustic stereotype, which went against the smooth, shorn skin of the ‘polite’ gentleman. This neat, streamlined appearance lasted the best part of 150 years. So unpopular was the beard, in fact, that an 1834 book The Toilette of Health stated that an “unshorn chin has a degenerating aspect, and is only, if at all, excusable in the lowest labourer and mechanic”. Instead it was shaving that represented manly attributes, as it required patience, fortitude and stoicism in the face of discomfort. A morning shave, so the Toilette of Health argued, put a gentleman “in a frame of mind favourable to his moral improvement”.
In the Medieval Europe, a beard displayed a knight’s virility and honour. The Castilian knight El Cid is described in The Lay of the Cid as “the one with the flowery beard”. Holding somebody else’s beard was a serious offence that had to be righted in a duel.
While most noblemen and knights were bearded, the Catholic clergy were generally required to be clean-shaven. This was understood as a symbol of their celibacy.
Most Chinese emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) appear with beards or mustaches in portraits. The exceptions are the Jianwen and Tianqi emperors, probably due to their youth – both died in their early 20’s.
In the 15th century, most European men were clean-shaven. 16th-century beards were allowed to grow to an amazing length (see the portraits of John Knox, Bishop Gardiner, Cardinal Pole and Thomas Cranmer). Some beards of this time were the Spanish spade beard, the English square cut beard, the forked beard, and the stiletto beard. In 1587 Francis Drake claimed, in a figure of speech, to have singed the King of Spain’s beard.
During the Chinese Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the ruling Manchu minority were either clean-shaven or at most wore mustaches, in contrast to the Han majority who still wore beards in keeping with the Confucian ideal.
In the beginning of the 17th century, the size of beards decreased in urban circles of Western Europe. In the second half of the century, being clean-shaven gradually become more common again, so much so that in 1698, Peter the Great of Russia ordered men to shave off their beards, and in 1705 levied a tax on beards in order to bring Russian society more in line with contemporary Western Europe.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, men would apparently keep mustaches but shave the hair on their chins. The prophet Muhammad encouraged his followers to do the opposite, long chin hair but trimmed mustaches, to signify their break with the old religion. This style of beard subsequently spread along with Islam during the Muslim expansion in the Middle Ages.
Nevertheless, there were a few attempts to bring about the return of facial hair. The early 1800s saw a trend for side-whiskers, which became extremely popular – so popular, in fact, that some canny traders began to peddle false whiskers to men who wanted an instant fix. One report even suggested that women were training their locks down their faces and tying them under their chins, to imitate their hirsute husbands.
But it was the period from the mid-19th century that proved to be a golden age for facial hair. From the early 1850s, full, thick beards quickly became an essential accoutrement to the visage of the gentleman. Why, though, did men apparently turn to the beard with such enthusiasm at this precise point in time?
Consequently, beards were adopted by many leaders, such as Alexander III of Russia, Napoleon III of France and Frederick III of Germany, as well as many leading statesmen and cultural figures, such as Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Dickens, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Karl Marx, and Giuseppe Verdi. This trend can be recognised in the United States of America, where the shift can be seen amongst the post-Civil War presidents. Before Abraham Lincoln, no President had a beard; after Lincoln until Woodrow Wilson, every President except Andrew Johnson and William McKinley had either a beard or a moustache.
The beard became linked in this period with notions of masculinity and male courage. The resulting popularity has contributed to the stereotypical Victorian male figure in the popular mind, the stern figure clothed in black whose gravitas is added to by a heavy beard.
The reappearance of the beard occurred during something of a crisis of masculinity, and of fears about the quality and fighting spirit of British men. Some believed that years of relatively ‘soft’ living and comfort had enervated the British male, leaving him in no condition to respond to the ever-troubling French military threat. The constraints of both home and workplace had served to confine numbers of Victorian men indoors for much of the time, creating a tension between ideas about the male body as being perfectly evolved for work outside in harsh elements, and to conquer wild nature, versus the reality of a life largely spent inside an office or factory. Advocates of a more physical model of manliness looking for an ideal sign or emblem of masculinity upon which they could hang their ideas found the perfect example in the beard. Here was something that was easily and cheaply adopted, and theoretically open to nearly all men. But to convince doubters of the absolute necessity of the beard, supporters needed to come up with hard evidence.
Aesthetically, for example, it was claimed that only a beard lent a man’s face its full gravity and majesty. For Dr Mercer Adams of the Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, the beard was nothing less than the “badge of manly strength and beauty”. In older men it also conveyed the impression of wisdom and a lifetime of experience. “When half a hundred winters have blown their snows and sleets upon it,” opined the anonymous author of the 1859 article “The Beard”, published in The Crayon [a journal devoted to the graphic arts and the literature related to them] “how venerable does the patriarch look?”
Perhaps the most common claims made in support of the beard, however, related to health. This was an era of growing concerns with air quality and dusty and dirty industrial environments. The beard was held up as “nature’s respirator”: a natural filter that could trap dust and germs before they could cause damage. In 1854, the Committee on Industrial Pathology on Trades Which Affect the Eyes recommended that workers “who are exposed to the influence of dust, grit, chips, splinters &c” would do well to grow beards, not only to “arrest the particles of dust and grit” but also because the beard acted as “a tonic influence… to the nerves of the face and eyes” and generally improved health and comfort. It was even supposed that the beard had a direct link to the health of the eyes, as evidenced by the fact that pulling the hairs of a man’s beard caused his eyes to water.
A range of other health claims was made. The beard was argued to prevent toothache, by capturing and warming the air around the mouth. It also supposedly protected the face from extremes of weather and cold, preventing damage from sunburn, cold winds and frost. In addition, a beard was said to keep the throat warm, which in turn prevented respiratory ailments and protected the voice. Anyone whose job involved public speaking, including clergymen, were encouraged to grow a beard for the sake of their vocal chords.
But some played upon the discomfort and inconvenience of shaving, arguing that submitting yourself to the tyranny of the barber was a dangerous act. As the anonymous author of “On Shaving” in the Weekly Mail newspaper put it in December 1891, “there can be nothing more helpless than a man under a barber’s hands”. Meanwhile, a letter to the Workman’s Times the same year cited evidence from a “medical writer” who had scrutinised a shaved chin under a microscope and “discovered that the chin resembled a piece of raw beef”. “No!” railed the correspondent, “decidedly I shall not get shaved!”
There were also financial objections to the practice of shaving, often relating to the supposed working time lost. An 1861 article in no less a publication than the British Medical Journal suggested that the American economy lost an aggregate of 36 millionworking days in an average year, simply from the time spent shaving!
By the last decade of the 1800s, the great Victorian beard movement had largely run out of steam. While plenty of men still sported them, and publications still trumpeted the supposed benefits of the beard, the dawn of the 20th century brought a return to a more clean-shaven chin, with a preference for the moustache.
How, then, does today’s beard trend compare? If the Victorians had identifiable influences upon their facial appearance, what sorts of motivations might be leading contemporary men back to beards? Individual men might argue that they simply want a change; want to see themselves with a bearded face; can’t be bothered to shave or, simply, that they like a beard. But in aggregate today, just as in the 19th century, these decisions often betray broader trends or concerns.
In fact, surprising as it might seem, there are some interesting comparisons to be drawn. First is the issue of masculinity, and challenges to traditional male roles. For the Victorians these included industrialisation, urbanisation and tensions in gender roles. Yet in many ways today’s men face similar issues and perhaps, sub-consciously, threats. In today’s fashion-conscious and globalised society, the pressure upon men (and women) to conform to bodily ideals is increasing. Idealised role models are everywhere, from city street advertising to the deluge of imagery on the Internet.
Gender certainly continues to be a big issue. For Victorian men this was brought about by calls by women for more empowerment. Today, gender is far more fluid than in the 19th century, with new categories of gender and the increasing blurring of the previously solid boundaries between male and female bodies. Beards have long been a potent symbol of the male body, but equally one that can be subverted.
Surprisingly, even health claims still continue to surround beards. For example, a recent report by the University of Queensland found that beards could play a role in preventing skin cancer, since they are particularly effective at filtering UV rays from sunlight.
Prominent figures who were young men in the Victorian period (like Sigmund Freud), most men who retained facial hair during the 1920s and 1930s limited themselves to a moustache or a goatee (such as with Marcel Proust, Albert Einstein, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin).
Facial hair has progressively grown out of fashion in Western societies, as evidenced by the rare number of Western leaders to grow facial hair since the 1930s. The last US president to wear a mustache was William Howard Taft, who served from 1909 to 1913). Leaders in other parts of the world continue to wear facial hair. The Prime Minister of India rocks a neat beard himself.
Whatever the reasons may be – and there are almost certainly many – the beard is seemingly here to stay, at least for the time being. As we look back at a past ‘age of the beard’, we might consider whether future generations may come to regard the 2010s as another?