Just over a year ago, I grew a beard. Only a small one, with a modest moustache. What you might call a Goatee. Small coverage of chin; slight elongation of length past the corners of the mouth. As it grew, I cultivated its shape and decided to go for a pointy look to compliment the shape of my face. Pointy. It was now a Van Dyke. As its form became more defined through careful and painstakingly long periods of clipping, I began to receive comments in the workplace.
“Well, look at the ‘cavalier’ way you wear that moustache.”
“Ah yes…” I replied, “I see what you did there. Very good.” I groaned on the inside yet nevertheless smiled politely so as not to appear rude and to appreciate my colleagues’ clever word-play skills.
I found another pair of work mates smiling as they chatted, gazing over at me on a work’s night out. In due course, they came to me apologizing for giggling like naughty schoolgirls but they had decided that I looked like Sir Francis Drake. Again I smiled. “Mmm, yes, ladies… I have a pointy beard.”
You can see a pattern forming.
“Yes your Majesty.” Another colleague announced one day. I screwed up my brow and shook my head in silent question.
“ You look like that old king… the one on the big penny… you know King Edward or whatever.”
“You mean King George the second.” I replied. She then got herself into a huff because I had corrected her poor historical knowledge.
At least, in all three instances, I was being compared to people that held an air of grandeur and good standing: Royalist supporters, a Vice Admiral of the Elizabethan fleet and a King of England. It wasn’t, ‘you look like Charles Darwin’ or ‘you look like a king Edward’ (potato) or ‘you look like that fellow that won Eurovision that time’. There was another remark I shall return to later…
It interested me that my modest face thatch could be compared to three totally different characters from three totally different periods of history, separated by four centuries, all with moustaches of length and well trimmed pointy beards. We know pop-culture and mainstream fashions have gone round and round throughout the 20th and 21st century. But historically, how has the beard and moustache evolved? What facial cuts and curls have nurtured to set us apart, to imply wealth or status or to attract a mate?
Of course, the simple cavemen had beards… they had no choice. Full, bushy and wild. Thereafter, throughout the ages, well trimmed facial hair became a symbol of wealth, social position and power.
In Ancient Greece the rich curled their beards with hot irons into ringlets and tight curls to show they had the time and slaves to do it. In Sparta a beard was a sign of strength. Warriors who showed cowardice in battle had them shaved off. Alexander the Great forbade his soldiers to have beards as they could be pulled by the enemy in battle. The Romans brought their clean-shaven faces to our shores and soon persuaded the hairy Britons to follow suit. The knights of the Middle Ages showed virility and courage in possessing a full beard, only to be taxed much later by King Henry VIII, who hypocritically had a beard throughout his adulthood. The ‘beard tax’ was carried on by his daughter Elizabeth the First, who just didn’t like them.
The early 18th century saw a prolonged period of smooth chins for those aspiring to fashion, which changed in the mid-1850s. Again, beards were seen to be a sign of courage and manliness as our soldiers returned from the Crimean War with their unruly, unkempt beards. Heroes have beards, they shouted from the soapboxes. These large, shaggy beards caught on in America due to our friends over the pond being rather taken by our fashion magazines and the ongoing distrust of the ‘safety razor’ invented in the 1770s. A vast variety of styles were conjured during the Industrial Revolution of the Victorian face rug, with styles such as ‘The Sideburns’, ‘The Mutton Chops’ and ‘The Chinstrap.’
The early 20th century was distinctly hairless and the decline of the beard and moustache was threefold. Firstly, Mr. Gillette invented the disposable safety razorblade. Secondly, health and safety regulations began to change, banning beards for those who worked with machinery. Thirdly, doctors began to discover the existence of harmful bacteria. In 1902, a Dr Park who worked for the New York Board of Health banned those who worked in the dairy industry to have beards. He stated: “There is a real menace to the milk if the dairyman is bearded… The beard, particularly when damp, may become an ideal germ-carrier.”
Also both World Wars saw very few gentlemen sustain any facial hair, as gas masks needed skin contact to work efficiently. Only one very distinctive moustache remains iconic of the mid 20th century – that worn by a certain German dictator.
The Beatniks of the 50s, the Beatles of the late 60s and the Hippies of the 70s lead us to where we are now. The new, modern, full, thick beard and moustache. Bushy and wild. Caveman style!
Yet, the vintage chap who looks back to create a discerning look today, may choose from a variety of styles instead of following the mainstream fashion. But choose wisely. Know your style. Don’t let your work colleagues liken you to Poirot when you are obviously sporting a Dali. Do not tolerate cries of “Klingon” while you cultivate your Lemmy. Wax your Handlebars with pride. Flaunt your Benjamin Disraeli. Show the world your Wyatt Earp wings. Promenade your soup catcher.
Finally, I shall return to the remark I pertained to earlier from another work colleague.
“Oh wow! I love your beard!” She exclaimed.
“Oh thank you.”
“I love a Dick Van Dyke on a man.”
My response to that chaps, is another story.
Online research sources:
BBC News, Huffington Post, Wikipedia, Askmen, Gentleman’s Gazzette