For the first time in my life, I’m fashionable. Bearded men are back in style. How to shave a beard styles.
My credentials in this department are impeccable. I was last clean-shaven on the morning of my father’s funeral nearly 30 years ago, in October 1989, in St Joseph’s Church in Medford, Massachusetts.
Before you ask: there’s no deep significance attached to my decision to give up shaving. I wasn’t trying to hide my grief behind a mask of facial hair and I wasn’t spiralling into a depressive state often symbolised by a floor-length beard.
Simply put, convenience has carried the day over the years. Given the routine discomfort and minor blood-letting associated with a morning shave, it remains immeasurably easier for me to keep a beard than maintain a whisker-free mug.
Now it appears the times have caught up with me. These days every guy past puberty has a beard – or at least some wispy semblance of facial hair they hope will be seen as one.
Of course, as a fascinating potted history on BuzzFeed reveals, after a smooth-faced start American males such as myself have favoured an assortment of beard motifs over the years. The report states: “In the early 1800s, American men typically wore their faces clean-shaven. Barbers were commonly black men, who could become independently wealthy and were privy to secrets shared in the barbershop. As racial tensions in the US grew towards the Civil War, white men became less comfortable with the black barbers’ position of power.”
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Facial hair became more popular. And not just for racially motivated reasons. “Men who shaved their own faces at this time risked tetanus and even death if their razor was not properly sterilised,” according to the BuzzFeed account.
In subsequent decades, full beards came to share the stage with other styles, such as heavy sideburns, named after the US Civil War general Ambrose Burnside, and the chin curtain, linked forever in the popular imagination with Abraham Lincoln.
But comprehensive facial hair took a hit in the early 1900s, thanks to science and advertising. With the discovery of bacteria, beards were now believed to harbour germs, generated in many cases by a buffet of partially chewed, whisker-ensnared food products. (Anyone who has ever sat beside a bearded man with poor table manners will know what I’m talking about.)
Plus, the Gillette Company – founded in Boston in 1901 with razor-blade technology developed by an MIT-educated machinist – encouraged men to shave daily, peddling the line that reputable women favoured clean-shaven gentlemen. As a result, the moustache in several understated forms – handlebar, toothbrush, and pencil – enjoyed a period of popularity, evolving into the 1950s and beyond as the goatee, horseshoe, and chevron variations.
Each of these styles has its own standard bearer, the former group comprising US president William Howard Taft, Charlie Chaplin, and Clark Gable, the latter beatniks, bikers, and Tom Selleck’s Magnum P.I., respectively.
And now, apparently, we are in the age of the “Lumbersexual”, a look epitomised by plaid shirt-wearing young male professionals, heavy with beard, who seem not to understand the function of a mirror. (Monty Python to their credit sang about this softening of the outdoorsman image decades ago.)
As if it needed to be said, belonging to the bewhiskered set also carries a certain street cred. According to a 2013 study reported in the official journal of the Human Behaviour and Evolution Society, men with full beards are seen as healthier, more attractive and masculine, and better at parenting. Sounds to me like a sort of Millennial “Samson Effect” – if researchers are looking for a catchy name – except in this case the empowering hair is face-based.
Also, perhaps the most rugged and skilful of professional sports – ice hockey – has developed a certain practice in recent years. When a National Hockey League team qualifies for the Stanley Cup playoffs at the end of the season, players forsake shaving until their squad is eliminated from competition. As a result, the NHL champions and runners-up regularly sport beards normally associated with desert island castaways.
So where does this youthful embrace of facial hair leave older guys like me, whose ever-whitening beards make a holiday stint as a shopping mall Santa-less of a stretch? Well, I’ll continue to think of myself as a pioneer of fashion.
At least where facial hair is concerned.
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