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The Everlasting Beard

Once a daring style statement, the beard has – due to its ubiquity in 2014 – quickly become a run-of-the-mill facial hair option. Hirsute models like Ricki Hall and Chris Millington defined the look of long, stylised beards with black leather jackets and inked sleeves, resulting in a beard-y boom that had every self-respecting brand’s shop window and/or lookbook featuring at least one hairy-faced model.

According to the US psychologist Robert Pellegrini, "the male beard communicates an heroic image of the independent, sturdy, and resourceful pioneer, ready, willing and able to do manly things". He claims that "inside every clean-shaven man there is a beard screaming to be let out". It could have been written this week but was actually part of his study of beard trends of 1973. Beards are having a moment. Quite a long moment, as it turns out. Even since summer 2013, when the idea of peak beard was first put forward, this current beard trend has endured. Depending on your point of view, the history of beards could in fact be seen as a succession of moments. What is happening today is merely the latest in a long line of men's rocky relationships with facial hair. Sometimes beards are in, sometimes moustaches, less often sideburns and whiskers, and sometimes nothing at all. The difference is that, in the past, the trends lasted for decades, not months. So what is it about the beard that has proved both so enduring and so divisive?

Beards have long been linked to the ways that men feel about themselves at any given point in time. Whilst we all like to think of ourselves as individuals, wearing a beard – or indeed not – is generally influenced by a number of factors, and involves conscious decisions. The beard, for example, was once portrayed as an outward symbol of inner male characteristics. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, beliefs in the four bodily humours meant that beards were regarded as a form of bodily waste. In fact, facial hair was seen as the result of heat rising out of the ‘reins’ – the area that included the genitals! To have a thick beard suggested that lots was going on down there and, therefore, the beard was considered a reliable marker of virility and sexual potency. I hope you are taking notes...

Throughout the 18th century the beard disappered. It seems that the beard trends occur at times when masculinity has appeared to be under threat. So how did men respond when women began to find a voice in the mid-nineteenth century? By cultivating massive beards. The twentieth century also saw beards, moustaches and whiskers become more fleeting and transient. In the 60s beards were a symbol of dropping out from society; by the 70s even the ‘Joy of Sex’ man had a fulsome crop of facial hair. Celebrity culture has played a part, even since the 1920s, and the internet has almost certainly amplified this. But the emulation of heroes, whether Tudor monarchs or modern day movie stars, has remained a constant motivation. 

How long this current beard trend will last, and indeed also what lies behind it, is difficult to say. Perhaps masculinity is under threat now, from changing gender, sexual and emotional boundaries, and the pressures of modern life. But, like all eye-catching style statements, its popularity has prompted the loss of its once cool status. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a beard but I am looking forward to a whole new world of grooming trends in 2015.