So what’s with all the beards? Seriously they are everywhere. It seems every dude is either trying to grow a beard or has accomplished the honored endeavor. Beards and flannels, beards and suspenders, beards and skinny jeans, beards and gym shorts, beards and the Red Sox, beard pandemonium is here. Don’t get me wrong I love a good beard, it makes even the most frivolous of men appear more rugged, primitive, and well titillating.
With No Shave November quickly approaching it only seems appropriate to dive in to the nitty gritty science and history behind them. Side note to the beard connoisseurs out there; this is a brief lowdown on beards the actually history and science could fill a book, for real—it does. If you feel inclined I highly recommend, “One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair,” by Allen Peterkin.
Science of Your Face
Not only are beards lovely to gaze upon it turns out that they also have a number of benefits too. Beards eliminate the need to shave and the cost of razors, they help protect your face from harmful UV rays, unlike the hair on your head facial hair will stick with you through thick and thin, and they signal sexual maturity—ya baby. Another HUGE benefit for beard wayfarers is that they are viewed as more masculine, virile, wise, and to have higher class status. Boom. Unfortunately this does not necessarily improve a fellow’s level of hunk.
Lamentably the science regarding “beard attractiveness” is mixed some reports conjecture that women like bearded men more while other reports suggests the opposite. In many studies women rated beards as follows: men without beards were rated as least attractive (think modern politicians and presidents), next men with full beards (think yeti) and most attractive the trimmed beard aka stubble (think Ryan Gosling or George Clooney).
Because of their masculine nature beards can be somewhat intimidating to women, but on the flip side no beard equals femininity. Therefor the stubble beard is most enticing to women – it’s the cream between an Oreo cookie. Random tidbit men also rated the allure of beards and surprisingly or maybe not so much, they thought full beards were most enticing.
Women’s attraction to beards is not news—Charles Darwin first hypothesized women’s appeal to beards in 1871 when he published his book, “The Descent of Man.” Scientists today agree with Darwin however due to the highly individualized nature of sexual selection it’s nearly impossible to prove.
Darwin while studying animal behavior believed that any male species capable of growing a beard did so as part of sexual selection. Ya you heard that right gentlemen, beards are preferential in sexual selection, but don’t get too excited they also imply the ability to contribute to child rearing e.g. you make women want to have babies and make families with ya.
Other than rating the attractiveness of beards very little in the way of science has been dedicated to the topic. This was especially true while trying to discover why some men have red in their beard, but not anywhere else. Pilfering through research alluded to only one scientific snippet that made sense. So here it goes, the trait for red hair is carried on Chromosome 4 which has two copies, if both your copies carry the red hair recessive trait you are red ALL over, however if you carry only one of the recessive copies then you either have brown, blond, reddish-blonde, reddish-brown hair on your head or in your beard. This explains why some men have blonde/brown hair and a partial or full red beard.
Sadly, there are men out there who simply can’t produce a smashing beard. Men of Asian, Native American, and South American descent have a much harder time growing a beard, there is no scientific conclusion as to why this is, other than plain old genes or a lack of the almighty testosterone. That said some scientists hypothesize that the lack of beards in these cultures is due to evolution (living in warm, moist areas all year long negates the need for large amounts of facial or body hair).
The World According to Beards
The history of the beard is well long and a bit hairy (pun intended). Pogonotrophy, the grooming of facial hair has been around since pretty much forever. In one scenario, prior to shears or razors, the men resorted to sea shells. The scenario proceeds as follows; grab facial hair with sea shells, press seashells firmly together and last, yank. While this may provide optimal results it still makes even the most tenacious dude cringe.
Investigating beard history is dizzying because the trends permutate through time and cultures. Wisdom, sexual prowess, elevated social status, barbarism, whack jobs, devil worshipping these all are associated with beards at one point in time or another.
The original Greek and Roman word barbarian literally means, “the bearded ones.” Paradoxically philosophers have consistently adorned themselves with lengthy and/or robust beards to signify their wisdom and intelligence.
Viking beards were feared across Europe and Asia during the late eighth to middle eleventh centuries a physical byproduct of their brutal and merciless ruling. Random fact: Vikings’ penchant for hygiene surpassed other cultures of their time.
Slave owners preserved their high status by requiring their slaves to wear beard styles opposite to what was in vogue. Sort of an enigma considering slave owners must have supplied grooming tools to ensure their elevated status. Queen Elizabeth I procured monies by imposing taxes on beard goers during her reign (no wonder she always looked decadent and fantastically regal).
Men of the church often followed suit with the prevailing trend, their bearded or beardless face confirmed their celibate state. Islam forbids Muslim men from trimming their beards, although trimming the mustache is allowed. Orthodox Jews allow shears including electronic trimmers however razors are verboten. Another popular religion signaled by the beard is the Amish who grow a beard after becoming married, but not a mustache because of its military association.
Red, White and Bearded
America has experienced its fair share of beard fads. During the mid eighteenth century men maintained a planate, or smooth, face. None of the founding fathers wore a beard when they developed the U.S. Constitution in 1787. For some reason at this time men were more concerned with the wigs atop their heads than the hair on their face. During the Revolutionary War while smooth faces were still very much in style, many soldiers appeared scruffy, more than likely because of exhaustion, lack of time, and scarcity of grooming necessities.
Jump a century later during the Civil War and the Antebellum period where men wore beards and wore them exceptionally well. The styles of beards during the Civil War were nothing short of awe-inspiring, seriously there were some crazy beards. Some historians propose beards became fashionable at this time as a way for the fellows to clearly designate their masculinity during a time when women were making considerable strides in equality. Side note: I think many a lady would swoon if men today adopted the same flair, grandeur, polish, and refinement of the Civil War beard.
Speaking of tantalizing beards from the Civil War I would be remiss to not mention the distinguished Abe Lincoln beard. Did you know that he didn’t grow a beard until the latter part of his presidential campaign? He only sported a beard upon the request of a little girl who insisted he’d win more votes if he grew a beard to hide his sunken cheeks and odd face, that’s like fall without pumpkin spice everything – disheartening. Interesting tidbit: Abe’s beard is not only famous, but downright ubiquitous in American culture, pick up a penny or grab a five dollar bill to behold this prodigious bearded chap.
In World War I beards became a thing of the past for military men. Chemical warfare necessitated gas masks which in turn required men to shave to achieve a good seal. This still holds true today as well for any position including police officers or pilots who need to wear masks in emergency situations.
The Roaring Twenties through the 1950s pretty much stuck to the clean shaven, baby face look. The 1920s produced some sort of remnant of a mustache occasionally, but little else. A barber shop boom ensued in order to maintain a velvety, neat, straight, not a hair out of place appearance.
Surprisingly this look persevered through the Great Depression. Those who were able to maintain the barber shop regime represented the upper echelon of American society while the down and outers made do with what they had. Continuing through the 1940s and 50s the super clean and oh so fresh look only began to dissipate with the encroaching cultural turmoil of the 1960s.
In case you were wondering the last president to wear a beard was Taft who served from 1909-1913 and the last vice-president was Charles Curtis who served from 1929-1933, since then no president or vice-president has adorned themselves with a beard. This is just another anomaly given that beards most often indicate wisdom and high status.
The cultural shift of the 1960s “make love not war” man reintroduced groovy, funky, and totally rad beards. It became a physical characteristic that signaled rebellion, mainly against the government. This craze continued through the 70s and 80s defining the, “Hippie Era.” Beards lost their iconoclastic image as civil unrest settled thanks to the Civil Rights Act and the end of both the Vietnam and Cold War.
The 1990s gave birth to the two day shadow (a favorite among the ladies), the goatee, soul patch, sideburns, and sharp jawlines (which works only if you have a jawline gentlemen). From 2000-2010 beards had started to grow in popularity.
Today beards like full on beards are everywhere and if it’s not a full beard then it’s a trimmed full beard. Ya, an article in GQ even named the different full beard lengths. One possible reason for the omnipresent beard today may be due to a type of revolt against an increasing metrosexual society. Others hypothesize that it’s a throwback to an idealistic, simpler life when technology was nothing more than an illusion. It’s hard to say why the beard is, “so in” right now. I’m sure that years down the road some historian will postulate a grandiose theory, but until then, long live the beard!
by Genevieve Ackley
Special thank to Tim Sparks. Tim Sparks if a filmmaker living in Denver but originally from Pueblo. More of his work can be found at Deep Field Cinema.