The evolution of: Beards

Anna Walker

In 345BC, Alexander the Great decreed that no soldier could sport a beard in case enemies pulled them during battle. Here's the full history of facial fuzz. 

Somewhat surprisingly, since around 300BC a clean shave has been considered the norm for most men.

Every few hundred years however, humans go through a phenomenon that facial hair expert Christopher Oldstone-Moore (author of Of Beards and Men) describes as “beard movements”.

 

BC Beards

Mesopotamian beard
Image: Carving depicting an intricate Mesopotamian beard

Scientists believe that prehistoric man originally needed their beards for warmth, to protect their mouths from the elements, to intimidate rivals and to provide them with cushioning, should they suffer a blow to the face. 

Beards also served as signs of honour, and were only cut as a form of punishment.

Mesopotamian civilisations took great care over their beards and were devoted to carefully oiling, curling and dressing their beards using tongs to create elaborate ringlets and patterns.

Confucius beard
Image: Statue of Confucius via Lisi Ming

The first real beard movement however, came with the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century BC and lasted about 100 years. He was a follower of a vein of stoic philosophy, which argued that it was of vital importance to follow the rules of nature and believed that beards were signs of wisdom.

The trend quickly caught on and facial hair became a way to distinguish between Romans and a Greeks.

This is not dissimilar to the preaching of Ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, who maintained that the human body was a gift from one’s parents and shouldn’t be altered in any way. Confucians were advised not to modify their bodies with tattoos or cutting their hair, fingernails or beards

 

The closer the shave, the closer to God

Van Dyke
Image: Artist Anthony Van Dyck popularised the 'Van Dyck' beard through his portrait subjects. Via Wiki. 

The next major beard movement was in the 1100s. Only priests still subscribed to the clean-shaven look, as a smooth face was considered more holy. When the beard trend subsided a couple hundred years later, it was because of a trend for looking more wholesome and religiously conscious.

Next, during the vibrant Renaissance years, worldly artists and thinkers grew their beards as a symbol of their rejection of the church’s mentality. It was then that the connection between beards and radicals first became established.

In the 1600s, belief in the four humors was still rife. Hair, especially beards, was considered waste product from the body that rose from the “reins”, the area which included the genitals. For this reason, a bushy beard was considered proof of sexual potency and therefore unsurprisingly popular. 

By the end of the 1850s, beards were so popular that men were basically expected to have one. In fact, facial hair was so popular that most European armies made it mandatory for all officers to grow a moustache. This military association meant that facial hair gained negative connotations and once again dropped out of style.

 

The modern muzzle

Tom Selleck
Image: Tom Selleck in Magnum PI. Via Red List

Facial hair made its 20th-century comeback through counter culture. First with the beatniks in the 1950s, then the hippies of the 1960s, especially through musicians such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Barry White. The trend dipped once more in the 1980s, after a brief resurrection in Tom Selleck’s Magnun PI, and has only just begun to remerge.

Today, around 55% of men have facial hair.

Certain religions, such as Islam, consider the growth of a beard sacred and mandatory. In the Islamic tradition, God commanded Abraham to shorten his moustache but keep his beard, as well as shaving his pubic hair and clipping his nails.

Sikh men show respect to God by maintaining unshorn hair, usually kept in a turban. Kesh (uncut hair) is one of the five Ks.

Traditional Jewish men may also refrain from trimming or cutting their beards during times of the year like Passover, Sukkot and the Three Weeks. It is also restricted in the mourning period after the death of a close relative, known as Shloshim.

Man with turban
Image: A Sikh man wearing his turban

Some theorists have suggested that beard trends emerge when traditional conceptions of masculinity have come under threat.

Though many brush off this suggestion, it would explain the popularity of Victorian beards, just as women were progressing towards the vote as well as the macho ‘tash in the 1970s and the recent resurgence in the popularity of facial hair, which has arisen in tandem with the increased discussion of feminism in popular culture.

In the modern age, it’s not just men embracing the facial fuzz. Sikh convert Harnaam Kaur hit headlines this year for embracing her natural beard. Kaur suffers from a condition that causes her body to grow extra hair and she began growing her beard aged 11.

Harnaam Kaur
Image: Harnaam Kaur photographed by Louisa Coulthurst/Urban Bridesmaid Photography

Speaking about her hair Kaur said, “When I first started growing my beard it was for religious reasons but as the years have gone by I’ve kept it for more personal reasons. It makes me feel like a brave, confident woman who isn’t afraid to break society’s norms.”

Across the world, we now have miniature beard movements every year, when thousands of people grow out their facial hair in aid of the charity Movember.  Since 2003 they have raised over £403million in aid of prostate and testicular cancer research as well as poor mental health and physical inactivity. You can read more about Movember here.