‘Of Beards and Men’ Is a Fascinating Through-line of Social and Cultural History

Senior lecturer in history at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio Christopher Oldstone-Moore leads the reader through a sober but thought-provoking history of facial hair -- and not just men's.

It would have been fairly easy to have made a book about the history of beards a fashion-inflected, coffee-tableish romp through the life and times of facial hair: tempting, even. In Of Beards and Men, Christopher Oldstone-Moore goes about things in a much more involved manner. He is well aware that beards are back in a big way and that the urban beardsman is all around: stringent cross-Atlantic regulations mean that there must be a certain number of bearded hipsters in every town or city. With the acknowledgement of these fuzzy-faced male urban dwellers and Movember (the “no shave month”) safely out of the way in the introduction, Oldstone-Moore is free to get on with following and interpreting the quite complex peaks and troughs of facial hair of all stripes — beards, mustaches, holy, heretical, mostly male but sometimes female, wacky, conformist, attention-seeking.

As facial hair has set up shop in all nations and all times, so too must a book about its full story span the whole of human history. Of Beards and Men is a linear, clear-headed forwards march through humankind’s time on earth, moving as it must from the time of our simian ancestors to what happened and why, a couple of years ago, when the Boston Red Sox decided to appear on the baseball pitch with their fully grown beards.

It might surprise the reader to know that “shaving is as old as civilization itself”. When thinking about ancient Egypt, for example, pop culture, school history lessons and our own hazy imaginations gang up and do a number on our mind’s eyes, and we imagine all the men as hairy, perhaps for want of razors. Oldstone-Moore re-educates us gently, and we learn that things were more complicated than that. From ancient times, the expected link between sprouting facial hair and masculinity — that complex, much misinterpreted aspect of humanity — was established.

Much less expected was the way in which beardedness got tangled up with religious practice and societal custom. A reading of Of Beards and Men nudges you in the direction of thinking that no sooner had the first hair sprouted on a man’s face, than holy men, kings and sages were contesting its meaning, appropriateness and mystical relationship with the human body.

Oldstone-Moore is a faithful historical newshound, sniffing around every cave, stone, throne and sports pitch, lest he miss just one hair. His writing style is dogged but gentle. His patience shines through, as it must: the twists and turns in the story are remarkable. The relationship between facial hair and the kingdom of heaven in its various manifestations over time is fascinating. The sheer corporeality of beards made them ripe for sacrifice by razor: in the ancient world, there was a tradition of face shaving as an honoring of the dead, piety, and self-purification. From the get-go, beard hair was endowed in human consciousness as having special powers: in ancient Mesopotamia, mystical texts reveal legends of witches gathering fallen hair for potent spell casting.

There was never a universal agreement about it, of course: as one part of the world saw the shaven male face as a token of piety and holy respect, certain religious groups, for example, valued full beardedness as a link to the divine. Oldstone-Moore makes interesting work of perhaps the most famous facial hair in history. The chapter “How Jesus Got His Beard” explores the push-pull of the view of Jesus as both human and godly. In the Christ of the Passion, in art from Ravenna, Rome and Constantinople, he is depicted as bearded to emphasize his divinity, and hairless when living amongst men. It’s another example of hairiness being used to contrast the states of earthly manliness and holiness.

The journey takes dizzying turns: Alexander the Great upsets the applecart by being shaven, and ordering his men to shave before battle in a time when “respectable” Greek men were fully bearded. Both the idea of “shavenness” and beardedness being improper and unseemly is a leitmotif. The mischievous ancient Greek idea of men having more “vital heat”, which was associated with hairiness and superiority, turns up in more or less sophisticated guises through time, and is used to entrench and justify all manner of theories about masculine superiority. The German Abbess Hildegard was, of course, as ensnared as everyone else in middle ages mores, and said that “men have beards because they have more strength and warmth than women — women are subordinate to men, and live in greater quiet.”

There is more shock and bluster when bearded women show their faces: it’s a historical plot twist which does something to upset the accepted order of biological masculinity making itself known through the face. Three sisters by the name of Gonzales couldn’t help but make themselves known in the late 1500s by having thick hair all over their bodies, and not just their faces. Such women were rare, but it was enough to poke a stick into the conventional wisdom of the times. Various theories were cobbled together in an attempt to explain what was going on, but ultimately things rolled on as they had been, with the appearance of hirsute women a distraction from the real business of beardedness and manly bodily hair.

Of Beards and Men demonstrates that male facial hair was, and is, a sign of the times. It’s still a general rule in the US military forces that beards are verboten, unless a serviceman’s own religion would have him wear a beard: the time-honored link between the divine and the face still tends to override modern rules and regulations. Oldstone-Moore is well aware that the beardedness and mustachio’d state still has subversive or odd overtones.

In the chapter “Corporate Men of the Twentieth Century” it’s not all Mad Men and friends: Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin turn up as the handsome one, part of whose charm was the getting away with a mustache, and the evergreen clown whose facial hair was all part of the silliness. Hitler and Stalin make shadowy appearances, underscoring Oldstone-Moore’s point about the connection in the general consciousness, even into modern times, between the darkest side of the self and facial hair. For all sorts of reasons, face fuzz is not easily disconnected from shadowiness. Indeed, Oldstone-Moore uses the example of pugnacious Labour politician Frank Dobson, who had no hesitation in throwing a few choice words in the direction of the image-conscious New Labourites who wanted to see Dobson shave.

No book about beards would be complete, of course, without a meaningful mention of gay men. The reader knows by now that sexuality, subversion and the distancing of oneself from the feminine is part of the language of facial hair. New-mannishness seems to be a kind of offshoot of this. British footballer and fashion icon David Beckham ruffles hairs with his smooth beard and rampant metrosexualism. Metrosexuality takes the rough with the smooth, and presents itself in the artisanal coffee shop and the subway station to the delight of both women and men.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Of Beards and Men is the revelation of one’s own ignorance: who knew that such a fascinating through-line ran amid history, which itself ends up telling us so much about sexuality, gender, religiosity and sexual attraction? Oldstone-Moore has done so much more than to avoid easy tropes and clichéd representations of facial hair and the men who wear it. Of Beards and Men is a sober and sensible but arresting walk through not simply a history of masculinity, but also the changing face of gender, sexuality, what’s what in the world of cultural acceptance, and the world’s changing tides of thought. We’re left better informed, but still in a tangle: “There is much more to be said and done…,” he writers, “more discoveries are yet to be made as the historical hair code is deciphered.”

RATING 8 / 10