Movember may have been and gone but facial hair is flourishing and beards are back in fashion, discovers Ruth Walker
WALT banned them at Disney. Alexander the Great feared they would be a disadvantage in battle. And in 18th-century Russia, Peter the Great considered them so backward, he declared all his countrymen, with the exception of clergy and peasants, must pay a tax if they kept them. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t much of a fan either.
Beards. Never mind the referendum, religion or fracking – it’s facial furniture that divides our great nation. And, as Movember slips seamlessly into Decembeard, the country is looking even more hirsute than usual. It seems men are reclaiming their follicles as a symbol of power and fertility, freeing themselves from the tyranny of the razor, shaking off decades – nay, centuries – of oppression declaring that behind every successful man is a smooth chin. Well, no more.
“It’s also about authenticity,” says Jonathan Pryce, the Glasgow street style blogger who is about to publish his second book in the 100 Beards, 100 Days project. “If you look at fashion, all men’s trends are about being as masculine as possible. Ten years ago David Beckham and metrosexuality were the height of popularity in men’s fashion. That was also around the time when flashy handbags, spending lots of money and a very extravagant lifestyle was acceptable.
“Now it’s not. So, for instance, Levi’s has its vintage range, there’s hardware on clothes, a lot of workwear, lumberjack shirts – all authentic, genuine, masculine traits.”
The movement, he believes, can be laid at the door of Movember, the charity that encourages men to grow a moustache during November, raising awareness of men’s health issues. “When it tailed off, a lot of guys just thought, ‘I might as well try keeping it’. But the serious reason is that it’s to do with the recession. It’s seen as a bad thing to be extravagant so how do you show style? Grow a beard. It’s free and it’s also very personal.”
Beards, it’s true, come in all shapes, sizes – and varying degrees of gingerness. Poor Gareth Malone. The boyish choirmaster must have thought growing a beard would stop him being constantly referred to as a “boyish choirmaster”. He is 37 after all. But the neatly clipped, Irn Bru-hued chin-covering has caused an uproar. Apparently viewers don’t like it very much. He is said to be a bit touchy on the subject.
Jeremy Paxman can, I’m sure, sympathise. When the political pitbull returned from his holidays this summer sporting salt and pepper fuzz, it led to newspaper comment pieces and nearly broke Twitter.
Among the many beards Pryce has photographed, from London to Glasgow to Paris, Miami, Milan and New York, there was the one belonging to dapper, Edinburgh-born tailor Patrick Grant, the editor of New York Times style magazine Bruce Pask, Dan Ripwood, style director of Men’s Health magazine, and Tinie Tempah.
Hang on a minute, I say, Tempah doesn’t have a beard.
“It is quite short,” concedes Pryce. “That’s also quite a splitting point with some people. When I photographed guys with beards that could be determined as thick stubble, I’d get a lot of comments saying, ‘That’s not a real beard’.
“I think it’s friendly competitiveness, but there is definitely competition. I was walking the other day with a very big guy with a very big beard and there were two other very big bearded guys who walked past us. They nudged each other, looked at each other and smiled, then looked at the guy and smiled at him. He said, ‘I get that all the time. I get people who stop in me in pubs to have a chat about beards’. There’s a real community.”
In Scotland, that community’s formal name is the Glasgow Beard and Moustache Club, a group of disparate characters who have little in common apart for their fondness for facial hair. Founding members are Davie Easton (long, dark beard flecked with a distinguished grey), John Cuthbert (recently cropped beard and bigger-than-life-size tattoo of Taggart on his back); Lewis Simister (ginger mane – full, glossy, wavy); Tim Stables (dark, neatly cropped); and Gregor Miller (a moustache man with fledgling chin fuzz). All found each other through social media and officially met for the first time in May.
“Since then it’s just been getting pretty outrageous,” says Stables. “We’ve had a few dudes from Edinburgh, one guy came from Elgin, another from Stirling.”
From that first meeting of ten like-minded gentlemen, they have grown to be 117 strong, with 1,600 likes of Facebook. Hell, you don’t even need a beard to join. “We have women members,” says Cuthbert. “Americans, quite a few Europeans, a couple of kids as well.”
And while it’s all good, clean fun, beards, it seems, are a serious business. “Very much so,” says Cuthbert, who can barely remember the last time he saw his chin. “I’ve had a beard pretty much since I was 14. I was the boy who went and got the alcohol for the whole school. I started shaving in second year. Then when I was in sixth year I got tattooed – I stuck out like a sore thumb.
“I’ve recently trimmed it way down and that was very hard to take. It had to be done while semi-inebriated because it was that tough. I had to do it in stages as well – I had a large goatee for one day then just had to steel myself.
“I work in a high-falutin management role, believe it or not, and have to deal with clients and customers on a daily basis and it wasn’t looking as professional as it perhaps could have done.”
“It was looking awesome,” counters Simister. However, not everyone agreed. “It was implied,” says Cuthbert, “that it had to be taken care of.”
“I haven’t come across any discrimination personally,” says Stables, “but it’s in the same category as tattoos at the moment. It’s becoming more acceptable but it still very much depends on the person. There are people I know who can’t have one because of their job.
“I have a colleague at work who f****** hates my beard,” he adds. “She thinks I look unclean, that I’m messy because of it, apparently I moult everywhere.”
“I do,” admits Cuthbert. “If you empty my keyboard out at work and shake it, there are some choice short and curlies in there.”
“I went to McDonald’s on my birthday and I was slightly tipsy,” says Easton, “and some random drunk guy flicked the beard and threatened me because I was a ‘Muslim’.”
Still, at least the ladies like them, right? A study found that, while women were less likely to consider men with full beards attractive, the same women said they thought bearded chaps were more powerful, older and worthy of respect.
“I didn’t actually have a full beard until the lady I’m going to marry said I’d look good with one,” says Stables.
“My missus hates mine,” says Simister. “She says there’s more hair from my beard in her hairbrush than there is from her.”
“It might be in my head,” adds Miller, “but I’ve been ill a lot more since I got rid of mine.”
“It’s a filter,” agrees Stables.
“I had my first cold this year, after I shaved,” confirms Cuthbert.
“You know, I can’t remember the last time I had a cold,” says Stables, I can’t help but feel a little smugly.
Jonathan Pryce grew his first beard last year. “I kept it for the 100 days,” he says, “it was good and I photographed it – but the day after, I shaved it off. I’d photographed so many great beards and mine paled in comparison. It was also itchy and annoyed me.”
That itchy period only lasts two or three weeks, insists Simister. All it takes is a combination of good skincare, staying hydrated and good, old-fashioned patience. “Good things come to those who itch. The hair grows out of the follicle, it starts to soften up, then you just take care of it with shampoo, conditioner, oils, and it’s just a beard; it doesn’t itch at all.”
“Or you could just man up and deal with it,” suggests Cuthbert.
However, all admit that having a beard isn’t the lazy option it seems. “The longer I grew my beard, the more time I was taking in the shower,” says Cuthbert, “and the more product I was buying.”
“It’s a cliché,” says Simister, “but you end up with food in it, so it needs cleaned and groomed. And you need to take care of split ends, ingrown hairs – it takes a lot of work.”
And it looks as though it is here to stay – at least for another couple of years, according to Pryce. “I think as a mainstream trend it will last a while yet. But we’ve reached a plateau. I already know guys who have had a beard for a long time and are kind of resentful about the fact that it has become a trend so have shaved it off in protest.”
• The longest beard recorded on a living male was in 1997, and attached to the chin of Shamsher Singh of India. His beard measured six feet.
• The longest female beard belonged to Vivian Wheeler of Illinois, who grew a full beard after her mother died in 1990. The longest strand was 11 inches.
• Pogonophobia is the abnormal fear of beards and symptoms can include shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea and general feelings of dread.
• In the Middle Ages, touching another man’s beard was grounds for a duel.
• Ninety eight per cent of Forbes Rich List men are clean-shaven.
• Lands End to John O’Groats swimmer Sean Conway grew his beard to protect his face from jellyfish stings.
• Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard is quoted as saying he gets much of his strength from his beard.
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“I’ve never had a full beard, largely because God hasn’t given me the facility to grow one. I always fancied one of those Para Handy, fisherman beards. I’d wear a big, chunky, cable-knit sweater and have this huge bit of fluff.
But all I can get is a decent bit of growth. And basically, because I’ve always been a bit heavy, I felt it gave me a jawline. When Boy George was a bit heavier, he used to paint his chin black. It was a bit like that. I just felt being clean-shaven never suited me.
Then I changed my agent and he said, ‘If you are wanting to transfer what you’ve done in Scotland to England, the audience you’re reaching expects someone who’s made an effort. It’s not to say all beards are scruffy. If you had a proper beard that was all manicured and everything, that would be fine, but you look a bit Stig of the Dumpish. And if your aspiration is to do something like Daybreak or This Morning, look at the people who are on that – they don’t have growth. Bottom line.’
It’s the same on national radio – you’d be really surprised. Even at comedy gigs, my agent said, ‘I want you clean-shaven, I don’t want you performing in jeans’.
Now I’m being taken much more seriously. It makes sense. Especially with the Christmas gigs I’m doing, if people are being charged £30, £35 for the ticket, they’ve made an effort on their Christmas night out, so you’d hope the entertainment would reflect that sentiment.”
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“Before I grew the beard I always had designer stubble. I’ve normally gone a bit more unshaven for Christmas and things like that, but this is the first time I’ve actually had a full beard as opposed to long stubble. I just felt I could do it so I might as well try it, at least once.
The reaction has been pretty varied. Lots of people seem to like it, then there are a few friends who I don’t see that often who don’t particularly like it. They just say, ‘Get rid of it’. It’s pretty simple. They don’t beat around the bush. Or the beard.
But when I looked at the modelling websites, there were very few beards like mine. There were the designer stubble guys, then there were the guys with the big beards and the tattoos who are quite out there, but there was no one with a gentlemanly look where the beard is just a feature as opposed to a statement.
I’ve done a few photo shoots since, and it seems like I’ve got more work with it, on the understanding that it’s easier to shave off a beard than it is to grow one in a couple of days.
I was thinking of taking it off for New Year and having a fresh start for 2014, then growing it back in a slightly smaller state. Some people say it’s laziness, but there’s quite a lot of maintaining that goes into keeping the beard; there’s quite a bit of commitment involved.”