Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair

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The Revealing History of Facial Hair




Christopher Oldstone-Moore
is a senior lecturer in history at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 2016 by Christopher Oldstone-Moore

All rights reserved. Published 2015.

Printed in the United States of America

24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 1 2 3 4 5

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-28400-2 (cloth)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-28414-9 (e-book)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226284149.001.0001

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Oldstone-Moore, Christopher, 1962– author.

Of beards and men : the revealing history of facial hair / Christopher Oldstone-Moore.

pages ; cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-226-28400-2 (cloth : alk. paper)

ISBN 978-0-226-28414-9 (ebook)

1. Beards—History. 2. Mustaches—History. 3. Men—Social life and customs. I. Title.

GT2320.O43 2015



♾ This paper meets the requirements of ANSI
NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).

Dedicated to




with love beyond words


There is a growing trend in today’s world: beards. The consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble has noticed, reporting in early 2014 that this growth of hair has reduced demand for Gillette razors and shaving accessories. A scholar contributing to the
declared 2013 “a landmark year for men’s facial hair.”
The cornpone prophets of
Duck Dynasty
and the whiskery Boston Red Sox grabbed headlines, as did the crimes of Amish beard-cutting rogues, a kerfuffle over a BBC presenter’s facial fuzz, the campaign of Sikhs in the US Army to overturn its beard ban, and the revival of mustaches in France and Turkey, not to mention increased observance of “Movember”—Mustache November.

Is this the dawn of a new era or just another bump in the road? Only time will tell. One thing is certain: changes in facial hair are never simply a matter of fashion. The power of beards and mustaches to make personal and political statements is such that, even in the “land of the free,” they are subject to administrative and corporate control. That Americans do not have a legal right to grow beards or mustaches as they choose was confirmed by the Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling in
Kelley v. Johnson
, which upheld employers’ authority to dictate grooming standards to their employees. Such infringements of freedom are a strong hint that something more than style is at stake. In fact, beard history fails to reveal fashion cycles at all, presenting instead slower, seismic shifts dictated by deeper social forces that shape and reshape
ideals of manliness. Whenever masculinity is redefined, facial hairstyles change to suit. The history of men is literally written on their faces.

Judith Butler, one of the luminaries of gender studies, has argued that our words, actions, and bodies are not simply expressions of ourselves; they are the way we form ourselves as men and women. Our identities, in other words, are made and remade by what we do and say.
In this sense, cutting or shaping facial hair has always been an important means not just to express manliness but to
men. Society enforces approved forms of masculine personality by regulating facial hair. We arrive, then, at the first principle of beard history:
the face is an index of variations in manliness
. As religions, nations, and movements formulate specific values and norms, they deploy hair, as well as other symbols, to proclaim these ideals to the world. When disputes arise about contrasting models of masculinity, different treatments of facial hair may indicate where one’s loyalties lie.

The idea that facial hair is a matter of personal choice remains popular despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Choosing to wear a beard in modern America, for example, can still get you drummed out of the military, fired from a job, disqualified in a boxing match, eliminated from political contention, or even labeled a terrorist. This reality relates to the second principle of beard history:
facial hair is political
. Because ideas of proper manliness are bound up with social and political authority, any symbol of masculinity carries political and moral significance. This explains why facial hair has the power to outrage and why it is subject to social controls.

Another misconception holds that shaving or not shaving is a matter of convenience, and that developments in razor technology explain the prevalence of smooth chins over the past century. The truth is quite different. Shaving is as old as civilization itself, and the absence of modern conveniences has never prevented societies from taking advantage of the symbolic power of removing hair. We arrive, then, at the third principle of beard history:
the language of facial hair is built on the contrast of shaved and unshaved.
Using this basic distinction, and its many variations, Western societies have constructed a visual vocabulary of personality and social allegiance.

History teaches us to be cautious about declaring the current beard trend the dawn of a new era. A few star athletes and Hollywood extroverts
notwithstanding, a smooth face is still very much the norm. The popularity of beard clubs proves it. They thrive on the proposition that growing a beard or mustache is an adventurous thing to do. In fact, substantial changes in facial hair norms are rare in history, and when they do happen, they are signs of significant historical shifts. We should, then, bear in mind a fourth principle of beard history:
understanding the forces shaping the male face requires the long view
. Historians who focus on one place and time may miss the larger picture that emerges over many centuries. Beard history is like a mosaic: the image becomes sharper the further back one stands.

All of these dimensions can be seen in the example of Alexander the Great, who changed the course of Western civilization and also the face of masculine respectability. By conquering Egypt and Persia, Alexander made himself and his fellow Greek-speakers masters of the known world. Yet he chose a look—portraits, statues, and coins depict him as youthful and clean-shaven—that was widely disparaged in Greek tradition as unmanly. Why would he do so? More to the point, why did respectable Greek and Roman men enthusiastically emulate him for the next four hundred years? The answer is that he viewed himself as a demigod and wished to look the part. Because the artists of his day depicted mythic heroes like Achilles and Heracles as eternally youthful and beardless, he shaved himself and encouraged his followers to do the same. He was very persuasive. In classical times, elite men—or lesser men who aspired to greater honor—adopted Alexander’s style to imply something heroic in themselves. It was not a fad or fashion trend but powerful symbolism. Only after many prosperous centuries for ancient barbers did an alternate philosophy of masculine honor arise, finally breaking the power of the shaven ideal.

Each chapter in this book describes a distinct era in beard history, from the emergence of great cities in Mesopotamia and Egypt to the rise of the smooth-skinned “metrosexual” in our own time. In the twenty-three centuries since Alexander set the precedent, shaving has been the default mode of masculine style, punctuated by four great beard movements. The first, initiated by the Roman emperor Hadrian in the second century, persisted for about a hundred years. The second, in the High Middle Ages, saw kings, nobles, and knights complementing their armored splendor with full beards. This movement, however,
was incomplete. Churchmen shaved, especially after the eleventh century, when they were positively required to do so by canon law. This was part of the church’s deliberate effort to define its own brand of manhood, with its own special claims to spiritual and political authority. This hair dualism dissolved by the late fourteenth century, however, when laymen adopted the clergy’s shaven style. The Renaissance generated a third beard movement, inspired in great measure by opposition to medieval churchly values and styles. The fourth and final outgrowth of beards was comparatively brief, spanning just the latter half of the nineteenth century. In this talkative and rather more self-conscious era, men did not hide their aspiration to fashion a new masculinity for the modern world.

To measure the tides in our present day, one must see them against this extended backdrop, appreciative of the social forces that interact with the styling of the body. If one scans corporate conference tables, capitol chambers, and military mess halls, it is not yet possible to discern a beard movement. When facial hair becomes desirable, or even acceptable, for soldiers, managers, and legislators, we will know that a new chapter in the story of masculinity has begun.

Limitations of space and sources dictate that this initial exploration of beard history focus primarily on elite men in Western Europe and North America who had time and resources to shape their bodies as they deemed appropriate, and whose choices dictated social norms. Men outside these centers of power could not ignore the styles established by the elite but were forced either to conform as best they could or to stand defiantly apart. Even so, writing the story of manly hair in other regions, and among minorities and other non-elite groups, remains an important task for future writers.

Our voyage across time begins in prehistory, in the far-off evolutionary past. Some would argue that natural selection has determined and still determines the meaning of beards. With this idea in mind, evolutionary biologists and psychologists have strived valiantly to untangle the natural riddle that is the human beard.


Civilization is at war with nature. That is true at least with regard to facial hair. In the heat of this centuries-long battle, on which billions of dollars are spent each year, few have paused to consider how the war began in the first place. Why did nature give men—and some women—beards? How did they end up with a band of hair on their cheeks and chins that society requires they scrape off every day? If one hopes to discover the meaning of beards, it makes sense to start with these basic questions. And that will require us to peer into the mists of the evolutionary past.

It is tempting to think that beards are a holdover from our much hairier progenitors, that for whatever reason this trait survived as we developed into the naked ape. Yet bonobos, our closest relative in the animal kingdom, lack hair around their mouths—precisely where the human beard grows. It would seem that, if anything, human beings have
hair to their faces, even as they lost it most other places. Even if our ape ancestors had had hairy faces, a question would remain: Why did women lose this hair while men retained it? As it is, a hairy chin and upper lip are virtually unique to the human male.

The beard is also distinctive as the last of the sexual traits to manifest itself in a man’s development, other than baldness. Biologists have determined that both beard growth and baldness are stimulated by androgens, such as testosterone, and that the rate of growth varies
according to naturally occurring cycles of hormone secretion. One scientist reported in the journal
in 1970 that he had measured an increased rate of beard growth (by weighing the clippings from his shaver) on days before he traveled to visit his distant lover.
He surmised that his androgen levels spiked as he anticipated sexual activity, causing his beard to grow faster. Later studies found that androgen production followed a five- or six-day cycle, as well as a daily cycle, with facial hair growth reflecting its variation. A California scientist reported in 1986 that both illness and jet lag affected the rate of his beard growth, apparently by disrupting these hormonal rhythms.
More recently, biologists have mapped some of the endocrine pathways that link androgens with hair follicles in the face and scalp. It is clear that male hormones are part of the mechanism of beard growth and hair loss, but this does not explain why these androgens have evolved this function.

Male Bonobo.

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