The age of the neo-dandy has drawn to a close. Tweed is out. The moustache has twirled its last. The beard is dead, and we are but mourners at its wake. At least, that is what the streets of London would seem to suggest. So many naked chins thrust into the wind like the jutting prows of gleaming icebreakers, forging their smooth passage along busy footpaths. But have we crested the hairy hill once and for all, is it plain-shaving from here on out?
As tides and seasons change, so too does the business of facial hair. The most recent resurgence in the popularity of the beard can trace its origins to the organic coffee shops and art studios of Manhattan in the mid-to-late 2000s, where a newly emerging and style-conscious counterculture – soon to be labelled ‘hipsters’, though the term predates them by decades – was busily reappropriating anything and everything that popular opinion had discarded as outdated or unfashionable. In ransacking the history books of style, bald-lipped young men had happened upon the ornate pre-war beards of late-Victorian expeditionists and adopted them as their own.
The freewheeling, anything-goes spirit of previous decades had been allowed to run amok with facial hair, distorting the once proud reputation of the moustache until it morphed, irretrievably, into the brushy emblem of the porn star and the toppled despot, a fate from which it still has not completely recovered. But by 2010, the beard had been safely reclaimed.
In more recent years the nouveau-hirsute have factionalised into a number of beardy sub-groups, and the most enduring of these tribes is the (unfortunately labelled) lumbersexual. Whereas the overly affected bow-ties, penny farthings and smoking pipes of the ancestral hipster trend burned fast and bright, they betrayed only a rudimentary (and mercilessly ridiculed) interest in style. The more socially agreeable appearance of the lumbersexual, on the other hand, slips neatly into mainstream avenues of fashion, taking up residence alongside the longstanding and trend-immune beards of bikers, bears (not the animal, but the gay tribe) and the generally unkempt. Uniformed in wool-lined denim coats, the ankle-supporting Timberlands needed to traverse the untamed wilderness (though thousands of miles from it) and downy-soft flannel shirts, the rugged style speaks to a subconscious desire to return to the more honest and uncomplicated physical toil of our imagined forefathers.
The beard is a clear rejection, however superficial, of the comforts and trappings of urban living, an attempt to look like you hail from someplace where there are no commuter trains, mobile phones and Macbooks Air, but roaring waterfalls, campfires and mountain lions
Here, the beard evokes the raw masculine romance of a life of axe-sharpening, bear-wrestling (not the gay tribe, but the animal) and wood-chopping. It is a clear rejection, however superficial, of the comforts and trappings of urban living, an attempt to look like you hail from someplace where there are no commuter trains, mobile phones and Macbooks Air, but roaring waterfalls, campfires and mountain lions. To appear misplaced is to appear distinguished, but this is a carefully managed aura. And here lies the contradiction at the heart of the beard: at first glance it may look wild, but it is usually meticulously curated, given lustre and strength by a careful grooming regimen of oils, balms, lotions and creams. Like pigeons, these beards appear suddenly, fully grown, and as if from nowhere.
“The trend of beard-wearing comes and goes,” says Graham Fish, founder of men’s grooming brand men-ü. He claims that the beard’s waning popularity goes hand in hand with an increased attention to proper skincare. “It was around the end of the 1700s when surgical blades became available and people became fascinated by smooth skin. You then had a brief phase in the Victorian period when polar and tropical explorers wore heavy beards as an outward display of their masculinity.
“Now we’re living through a resurgence in the beard’s popularity, but it’s tapering off quickly. If you look at it over the course of the last half a century, it’s generally been on the decline. Beards are a fad, as any fashion historian will tell you.”
If the beard is dead, then this is far from its first funeral. The beard died a death in the trenches of World War One. For reasons of uniformity, discipline and hygiene (and apocryphally, to ensure gas masks would form a tight seal against the face) soldiers were required to be clean shaven at all times, with one notable exception.
Until it was repealed in 1916, British Army uniform regulations stated that “the hair of the head will be kept short. The chin and the under lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip.” Shaving off a moustache was a disciplinary offence.
If you have a beard, says one study, you’re 63 per cent more likely to win a staring contest against a beardless man. You’re also perceived as less cheerful, but more generous, confident and sincere.
At the same time King Camp Gillette was providing American troops with his new invention, the safety razor, which rapidly accelerated the beard’s demise by eradicating the need for sharpening and maintaining a blade, allowing men to “be their own barbers”. Returning soldiers brought with them a newfound shaving habit, and were easily differentiated from those who hadn’t served. The beard became synonymous with the feckless layabout, the hobo, the hippy and the draft dodger. It was suddenly unclean. The beard was tainted.
We entered the era of the shorn statesman, a time in which we still find ourselves today despite the beard’s apparent resurrection. To wear a beard in public office is to appear outmoded, or worse, untrustworthy, and to this day (with a most notable exception in the leadership of the Labour Party) there are vanishingly few hairy cheeks in British politics.
The studies bear this out: people perceive men with beards to be more dominant and aggressive and, while a beard is associated with power and authority, it is friendliness and approachability that win elections. Dig into the piles of academic beard studies and you’ll find a set of increasingly strange observations. If you have a beard, says one study, you’re 63 per cent more likely to win a staring contest against a beardless man. You’re also perceived as less cheerful, but more generous, confident and sincere. Whether you like it or not your beard is talking about you, not behind your back but right in front of your chin.
“Recent research suggests that men with beards are seen as older, more aggressive, and more dominant, but not more attractive” says Dr Rob Burriss, a psychologist at Basel University whose research focuses on human attraction. “This suggests that straight men grow beards to intimidate their same-sex rivals, and not because they think facial hair will impress the ladies.”
The beard could be a signal of male competitive ability, a self-inflicted handicap in combat because it can easily be grabbed on to.
This isn't to say that bearded men are less successful with women. “Other research has shown that stronger and more dominant men enjoy what biologists call ‘enhanced reproductive success’, that is, they have more sex partners. This could be because dominant men scare other men away, leaving women a limited pool to choose from.”
The relatively recent field of beard psychology is riddled with obscure and pseudo-scientific explanations as to its origins. Depending on who you ask, the beard could be a signal of male competitive ability, a self-inflicted handicap in combat because it can easily be grabbed on to, and so a signifier of a confidence in one’s own strength despite a disadvantage. This “one hand behind my back” theory of beards sounds pleasing at first, but has tenuous basis in evolutionary history. So, do beards give men an evolutionary advantage?
“Maybe,” says Dr. Burriss. “But we could also flip the question around and ask whether a lack of facial hair gives women an advantage. Beards grow under the influence of testosterone. During the evolution of our species, men may have preferred feminine women with relatively sparse facial hair, until at last women lost their beards completely.”
Fashion plays a role too, of course, and hairstyles follow roughly predictable peaks and troughs. If the beard is dead, it won’t be for long. “Beard historians have found that facial hair fashions are cyclical,” says Burriss. “They reach a peak before fading out. There might be an advantage to standing out from the crowd. The females of many species, even fish and birds, prefer males who look distinctive rather than dull.”
Hold on, beard historians? “They exist,” says Burriss.
The oldest barbershop in the world, Truefitt & Hill was established in 1805 and is barber and wigmaker (historically, of course) to the royals. Within snipping distance of Buckingham Palace, the oak-panelled shop keeps good company at its quietly regal St James’s Street address, bordered as it is by a boutique tobacconist, assorted gentlemen’s clubs and a superyacht sales room.
Gino Russo has been shaving faces here for eight years. His appearance is pleasingly ironic for a man who cuts hair, his own head shaved smooth and only a light stubble adorning his face. Trustworthiness, as it happens, is also an important quality in those who hold cut-throat razors to your neck.
The small shop has two rooms and just a handful of chairs. When I arrive they are occupied by various pinstripe-suited, silver-haired men receiving trims, or tilted way back in their seat, their faces swaddled in hot, lime-scented towels. Around them the barbers work quickly and efficiently, like skilled machinists, heating up blades, discreetly snipping rogue ear hairs, and gliding razors up, down and around the contours and grains of their client’s faces. “We’ve had generations of men coming here,” Russo tells me. “One of our clients has been coming to Truefitt & Hill for almost 70 years, since he was a boy.”
The reasons for beards are myriad, a messy patchwork of explanations that draw from every corner of the psyche, and defy summary. We wear beards to stand out, to intimidate, because we’re too lazy to shave every day, or because we’re afraid of looking like children.
This convergence point of the past and present of London’s hair is the ideal vantage point to observe the beard’s changing popularity, and it appears Russo is not convinced the beard is going anywhere soon. “Beards are as popular as they have ever been,” says Russo as he sets to work. “Most of our clients at Truefitt & Hill are clean shaven, especially the older men. The younger men are more inclined to grow beards, and that isn’t changing.”
And why do you think that is? I ask, somehow optimistic that Russo holds the key to truly understanding beards, that he alone could divine some underlying truth of man’s on-again, off-again relationship with facial hair. He pauses, then turns to look at me in the mirror as if about to say something deeply profound. “Fashion?” He shrugs. “Who can say?”
Perhaps it’s wishful thinking to expect to discover a grand unifying theory of beards in this place. The reasons for beards are myriad, a messy patchwork of explanations that draw from every corner of the psyche, and defy summary. We wear beards to stand out, to intimidate, because we’re too lazy to shave every day, or because we’re afraid of looking like children.
In a YouGov survey of bearded men for City A.M. Magazine, 36 per cent say that laziness is the main reason they have a beard. A quarter say it’s simply habit. And 17 per cent claim it’s to appear more attractive.
But the number of men with facial hair is, in fact, higher than ever. Only 51 per cent of men in the UK are now clean shaven, down from 55 per cent last year. And five o’clock shadows aren’t inflating the figures – of those with facial hair, half sport a full beard and moustache.
“Certainly some men want to look older,” Russo says, thoughtfully. “I had three boys come in, aged 14, 15 and 16, asking for a wet shave so that their beards would grow in more quickly. They were applying to colleges and wanted to be taken seriously.”
The barber gestures to the glinting cut-throat razor laid on the table, and offers me a shave. I rub my stubble and, for the first time, consider the reason for my own facial hair, which is for no more complex a reason than that I look like a stubbed toe without one. I decide to keep it.