We live in the age of the beard. Margaret Thatcher didn’t “tolerate any minister of mine wearing a beard”. Police once went beard-free. But today, beards are everywhere. In Britain, Prince Harry and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, both sport beards. In America, Paul Ryan, former Republican speaker, and Ted Cruz, once a Republican presidential candidate, have experimented with facial fuzz. Even Disney, the cleanest-cut of brands, has lifted its 60-year ban on beards for Disneyland employees.
Occasionally you hear that the beard bubble is about to burst: Bradley Cooper or George Clooney bid their bristles farewell; in San Francisco, young men in the city’s most fashionable bars are now clean-shaven. Yet at a drinks party recently, deep in rural Hampshire, I noticed with horror that a decidedly un-trendy friend of mine – a man who started wearing bell-bottoms only in the mid-1980s – had grown a goatee. “It’s the latest thing, you know,” he told me. Alas, we can assume that beards are here to stay.
According to John Sparrow, former Warden of All Souls College, Oxford, and a formidable scholar of beards, history has seen only two clean-shaven eras. The first was the late Roman Republic and early Empire, when Romans regarded themselves as defenders of civilisation encircled by hirsute savages. The second was England after 1660 when, for 150 years or so, “not a beard grew upon an English chin”. The great figures of this era – Pitts the Elder and Younger, Pope and Swift, Gibbon and Burke – were all pink-cheeked cherubs. Sparrow simplifies: the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s were largely beard-free too. But he’s basically right. Human history is horribly hairy.
Apart from aesthetic objections, many people oppose beards for their unsanitariness and barbarism. Roald Dahl’s Mr Twit snacked on bits of sardines, Stilton and cornflakes stuck in his beard. Peter the Great personally clipped the beards of his courtiers. Auberon Waugh liked to point out that the great enemies of bourgeois civilisation – Marx, Lenin and the guy in “The Joy of Sex” – all sported beards.
As a committed pogonophobe, it pains me to admit that such objections are exaggerated. Victorian men – the epitome of bourgeois sensibilities – all seemed to come with giant beards attached. The word “barbarian” does not in fact derive from the Latin “barba”, but from “barbari”, people who spoke a foreign tongue. (The Latin word for beard-wearers is “barbati”.) Some of civilisation’s greatest enemies have been anti-beard. For all their other crimes, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot were beautifully clean-shaven. Enver Hoxa, the Stalinist boss of Albania, posted barbers at the border and barred the bearded from entering.
Confusingly, the semiotics of beards have varied over time, from sexual virility, to authority and manliness, then rebellion and revolution. For many they indicate religious devotion; for ageing hippies a rejection of piety.
Today, to my frustration, beards can’t even be convicted on health-and-safety grounds. Beards have boosted an already bloated grooming industry. Chemists sell beard oils, trimmers and tweezers. Barbers charge a premium for sculpting facial hair. Beards don’t represent the normalising of laziness or barbarism. Much worse: they represent the mainstreaming of male vanity.•