Beards are in…revisited
by Shel Haber
Beards Are In was the title of a long article in The New York Times. In response, the online magazine GQ pointed out that Beards are now officially uncool because The New York Times has called them a trend.
In his GQ article, Scott Christian pointed out that Times trends stories are like a quantum physics paradox, where, by examining the existence of something, they cause it to no longer exist.
Since the dawn of time, beards have been in. Men have used beards to keep warm, for protection against blows to the face, to intimidate other males and to attract ladies.
The ancient Egyptians, over thousands of years, grew hair on their chins, often dyed with henna. As a sign of sovereignty, both queens and kings of Egypt wore a false metal beard with a gold chin strap. It wasn’t until the invasion of Egypt by the Greeks under Alexander the Great that shaving became popular.
In Greece itself before Alexander, the ancient Greeks regarded the beard as a sign of virility; most Greek gods sported beards. Greek philosophers had extremely long beards as a sign of both their profession and their wisdom. Trojan war heroes wore beards into battle. A smooth face was regarded as a effeminate. The Spartans punished cowards by shaving off a portion of their beards.
Around 345 BC Alexander the Great ordered his soldiers to shave; he claimed that enemies could grab a beard in battle, using it as a handle.
Ancient civilizations all treated the beard with veneration. In Mesopotamia, men devoted great care to oiling and dressing their beards, using curling irons to create elaborate ringlets and tiered patterns. In India, the beard was grown very long, a symbol of wisdom and dignity. Men judged to be immoral were publicly shorn of their beards. Such was their regard for the beard that a man could pledge it in payment of a debt.
For hundreds of years of their early history, all Roman men grew beards. Around 200 BC the hero, Scipio Africanus, was the first Roman who shaved his beard. Shaving became the rage and a clean shaven face became the mark of being Roman—not Greek or barbarian.
In the Middle Ages, a knight in armor used his beard to protect his face from the hard metal armor, so fashion switched back to facial hair. Beards were said to display a knight’s virility and honor. Grabbing a knight’s beard was a serious personal insult that could only be undone with a duel, usually to the death.
In 1535 a tax on beards was passed by England’s Henry VIII. Although Henry continued to sport a beard, he happily collected the tax money. In 1698, Peter I of Russia ordered his courtiers to cut off their beards. He proclaimed beards to be a ridiculous ornament.
During the early 18th century most men, particularly upper class men, went clean-shaven. There was, however, a dramatic shift in the beard’s popularity during the 1850s, when beards again became very popular.
About 1914, during WW1, all the armies ordered their combat solders to shave, because a gas mask could not be fitted snugly over a beard. So the newly-invented gas mask made the newly-invented safety razor a success. The Gilette Company got a huge contract to supply safety razors to all American troops. After the war the returning soldiers were encouraged to keep their razors and most continued shaving and bought millions of blades.
For decades the only men who wore whiskers tended to be old, scholarly, members of religious groups or some sort of revolutionaries. By the 1950s the counter- culture, the beatniks and hippies, reintroduced facial hair. The trend to beards in America subsided in the mid-1980s.
Starting in 2010, the beard of choice was and still is, not a beard but a two-day shadow.
It is estimated today that worldwide, 55% of all men have beards.
Shel Haber is co-founder and co-publisher of The Nyack Villager. He wears a beard.