Future of beards on a razor’s edge

A beard courtesy of the Beard and Moustache Club, Glasgow.  Picture: Robert Perry
A beard courtesy of the Beard and Moustache Club, Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
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FROM macho, to Paxo, to no-no – the trend for facial hair has reached ‘peak beard’, says Dani Garavelli

It started on the streets of Brooklyn. Some time in the mid-Noughties, hipsters in the boho districts of Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick began teaming an armful of tattoos with a chinful of whiskers to create a kind of biker-meets-hippy carpenter vibe. It didn’t take long before celebrities got in on the act and soon the red carpets were packed with men sporting bushy beards that that would have made Tolstoy bristle with resentment.

There were, admittedly, grades of bushiness, from Ryan Gosling’s pencil thin chin-strap and moustache all the way through to Tom ­Hardy’s crazy hobo number. Some, inspired by George Clooney, rocked a salt’n’pepper look, while James McAvoy dared the world to mock him for being ginger.

But whatever the shape or shade of the facial foliage, it seemed a man was no longer fully dressed without a beard.

By the time the trend had spread enough for Buzzfeed to compile a list of the 51 Hottest Bearded Men in Hollywood, whiskers were ubiquitous. What began with coffee-shop barristas and 20-something IT guys had infiltrated the mainstream. Bearded models – Ricki Hall, Billy Huxley and Scot Chris Millington – had ­accrued tens of thousands of devoted Instagram followers and men started turning up at upmarket barber shops clutching photos from the Asos ­website and asking for their face fuzz to be shaped in their image.

So popular has the hirsute look become that it is even ­being showcased by that touchstone of contemporary taste, John Lewis, with heavily-bearded Johnny Harrington and Paraskevas Boubourakas fronting their recent menswear campaigns.

Now, however, evolutionary biologists at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, say we have reached “peak beard” and that facial hair is on its way out. Apparently short of things to do, they set up an experiment which involved showing men and women a series of images of bearded and clean-shaven men. The study, published in the Royal Society Publishing’s Biology Letters, found that the more images of clean-shaven men they were shown, the more appealing they found beards and vice versa. From this they deduced that human beings, like animals, are subject to “negative frequency-­dependent sexual selection” and are programmed to find rare traits attractive. Which is another way of saying that once the entire line-up of One Direction and middle-aged comedians such as Frankie Boyle ditch their shavers, the “moment” has definitely passed.

To be fair, there were augurs. When Jeremy Paxman appeared unshaven on Newsnight on 12 August 2013 – a date that has gone down in history – the reaction was immediate. Within hours his beard had its own Twitter ­account and Paxman was the focus of the kind of furore that last shook the corporation when Jackie Bird wore that gold top with the plunging neckline on the Hogmanay Live show in 2001. Having accused the of institutional pognophobia, and opened his heart about the burden of being a poster boy for British beardies, the fashion futurist manqué shaved it off in January, declaring the look to be “so last year”.

It is to be hoped, however, that when he brings his own-man show, Paxo, to the Edinburgh Fringe – a show, we are told, includes a segment on Beard-gate – he will reflect on his own part in the fad’s downfall. After all – as Ellis Cashmore, professor in culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University, points out –when a middle-aged, establish­ment figure like Paxo takes to wearing facial hair outside the privacy of his own home, it stops being a symbol of cool and rebellion and becomes “consistent with conventionality, orthodoxy and accepted standards”. In other words, a no-no for anyone ­under 30.

According to Cashmore: “When Paxman appeared on Newsnight in an open-neck shirt, he immediately sent a generation of men searching for their ties, and, if they didn’t own any, their dad’s”.

The only thing that could have sounded the death knell for beards more clearly than an endorsement from the presenter, Cashmore says, is if David Cameron, himself, had decided to cultivate one. Cameron may so far have resisted the temptation, but over in the US, the New York Times has blamed White House press secretary Jay Carney for sparking a similar backlash. When he appeared on the briefing podium with a (reasonably conservative) beard at the beginning of the year, the paper reported that he was greeted with “audible gasps”. “To the Brooklyn set, it [was] an echo of that post-’60s moment when long hair migrated from the muddy fields of Woodstock to crew-cut turf like country music and the National Football League,” it continued. “To the culture at large, the whiskered chin suddenly looks as ­divorced from its rebel origins as the Jolly Roger flag on a Pittsburgh Pirates beer koozie.”

Away from the world of politics and the media, there were other signs ordinary people might be tiring of the obsession with looking like man’s man Ernest Hemingway while eating mung beans and tending roof gardens (or fixing computers). The most acerbic came from blogger Nicki ­Daniels, who blamed such “poseurs” for “spoiling her beard fetish”. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved a man with a beard. To me, they meant strength, power, MANLINESS. Someone who could protect me,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, you guys have turned it into a fashion statement. The beard has turned into the padded bra of masculinity. Sure it looks sexy, but whatcha got under there? There’s a whole generation running around looking like lumberjacks and most of you can’t change a f***ing tyre.”

The 21st century fad for ­facial hair has taken hold, she suggests, because it is the only means by which men, stripped of their hunter-gatherer role and stuck behind counters and desks, can assert their ­masculinity.

If past research is anything to go by, the trend for facial hair is unlikely to be driven by its appeal to women. Though David Gourlay, graduate stylist at Ruffians barbers in Edinburgh, insists his Michael Fassbender-style growth, is a babe-magnet, survey after survey has found the majority of the opposite sex prefers a clean shave or three-day stubble to the fully-fledged Serpico.

Psychologists suggest a beard is to men what make-up is to women: a mask to hide behind, armour to protect them (hence some men will grow beards when bereaved). Facial hair is also said to add eight years to youngish looking men, giving them gravitas (although if this is so, why hasn’t left-wing pundit Owen Jones grown one yet?). But whether worn by hipsters or hauliers, actors or athletes, and whether intensively groomed or left to go grow so wild they could house two owls, a hen, four larks and a wren, beards are a statement of identity aimed as much at other men as at the opposite sex.

Like hats and long hair, they have gone in and out fashion throughout history. As long ago as 100,000BC, men were so keen to rid themselves of their bristles, they used flints to scrape their faces clean, yet for the Greeks, beards were a symbol of wisdom and knowledge. With their perceived links to potency, they have been associated with a warrior spirit, yet Alexander the Great insisted his men shave so no-one could pull their beards in hand-to-hand combat, and in the First World War soldiers had to be clean-shaven so they could pull on gas masks.

During their most recent resurgence, it has been the sheer variety of styles that has astounded: there is the goatee (Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage and Leonardo Di Caprio); the mutton chops (Paul Weller and Bradley Wiggins); the chin-strap (Robert Downey jnr); the soul patch, which involves a little triangle of hair just below the bottom lip (Colin Farrell); and the full monty (Jon Hamm, whose beard was last year said to have deserved an Emmy of its own). But the classic 21st century beardy style is one that rejects overgrooming and looks like a cross between a bird’s nest and a burst sofa. Joaquin Phoenix may have been having a laugh when he allowed his facial hair to grow to Mr Twit-like proportions, but others followed suit, with Hardy, Pitt and Hugh Jackman all sprouting face foliage that made them look more like ­vagrants than hipsters.

As the craze tightened its grip, hair transplant specialists began to see an upsurge in the number of follicly-challenged men wanting bald patches on their chin and lips filled in, a procedure that costs upwards of £2,500.

Where once beards were seen as the easy option (just don’t bother shaving), maintaining your chin topiary can now prove so demanding it is easier to outsource the job to a stylist. “We started to see an increase in the number of men coming in for a beard-trim about six months ago,” says Gourlay.

“They had been growing them for a while and they were getting a bit straggly and so they wanted to have them shaped. Most of them had been looking at the Asos site [which has sections devoted to the upkeep of beards] and going for the squared-off look worn by most of the ­models.”

As Cashmore points out, the beard fad has also seen a reconfiguration of the male grooming market: sales of razors have plummeted, while the market for facial hair-related products such as moustache combs, trimmers and wax and beard oils and tonics has burgeoned.

“We advise people to get oil to keep their beard clean and to tame it, and we sell a fair amount of moustache wax because, since the Great Gatsby came out, quite a lot of men are curling up their moustaches at the end like old gentlemen,” Gourlay says.

It sounds like a lot of work. However, if the scientists at NSW University are right, we have reached saturation point and the clean-shave will soon be back with a vengeance. Some celebrities are ahead of the curve. Ben Affleck, who was at the vanguard of the beard movement, shaved his off before last year’s Oscars (though he grew it back for this year’s). Mandy Patinkin (Saul from Homeland) took a razor to his chin the second the series had finished. And to the relief of those who hate all of Pitt’s myriad hairy looks, he was recently photographed whisker-free (although he insists he only shaved because a new role required it).

It’s hardly a sea-change, but it’s a start. For those men who have spent months clipping and pruning to produce the perfect specimen, the news will come as a disappointment. But for all us pognophobes who have viewed the rise of bushy beards with a Roald Dahl-like distaste, a bright new dawn of smooth chins and the scent of Old Spice beckons.