Several weeks ago I read a report on the projected demise of the modern beard. I forget where, exactly, but a young woman reported that because fewer beards had been seen at a Farmer’s Market in Brooklyn favoured by gay men then, hey, beard over.
To me it is significant that this was written by a woman – someone presumably with no understanding of the psychology of beard ownership. For many men, a beard or moustache is not a transient fashion statement; it is more of a major investment in an element of personal identity. Facial hair choices can remain unchanged on some men for decades at a time.
The last great age of facial hair was the mid to late 19th century, just at the dawn of photography but before image consultants came on the scene. Karl Marx, Charles Dickens, Louis Napoleon, Henry Parkes and Abe Lincoln provide a fine representative sample of 19th century beards. By and large the 20th century was beardless and moustacheless save for the hippy era and a few communist leaders.
One answer to the question of peak beard is to examine the 19th century experience in a bit more detail. My major source of evidence is an 1888 publication called Australian Men of Mark Vol II, which actually is about NSW. This book looks to be something between Who’s Who and a vanity listing book and it includes full page photos of 103 eminent New South Welshman.
Of the 103 men depicted only 7 of them are clean shaven. Fifty nine of the men have full beards and some of them are quite magnificent, although perhaps Mr Paxton’s is not among the best of them. Seventeen men sport sideburns and eleven more have sideburns and moustaches. A further eight men have grown a moustache without any sideburns and there is one truly weird follicular effusion which can best be described as a neck ruff. It is not a look that needs to be reprised, ever!
There was a trend away from the full beard on the ten men born after 1850 (less than 38 years old) with only two full beards, four sideburn and moustache combinations and three moustaches. One member of the youngest group was clean shaven.
The number of beards dropped away consistently after about 1890 and in the immediate aftermath of WW II any form of facial hair on Anglosphere and western European men was something of an eccentric fashion choice. The haircuts in the era immediately preceding the arrival of those lovable moptops from Liverpool were quite severe and conformist. And then the ‘60s happened – “Give me a head of hair”.
Plainly the 21st century is not the 19th century and the differences between the eras are many. Photography, fashion and hair care products all impact differently on the decision to grow or retain a facial hair ornament. Women in the twenty first century may be a little more inclined to venture an opinion on male hair care than their great great grandmothers were.
Is this the era of peak beard? I very much doubt it. In the late 19th century some form of facial hair ornament was almost universal for a period in Australia. Even conservative men in the 1970’s were sporting bouncier bouffants and sideburns after the young folk had let it all hang out in the 1960’s. Most likely, some men will come to love their follicular experimentations and end up retaining them for some time to come.
Women might ask the hairdresser for something different, but many men ask for less of the same when they are sitting in the hairdresser’s chair. This inertia factor may keep the 21st century beard revival going for a while yet.