Sep 26

Beards – Q&A with Christopher Oldstone-Moore

The beard is a great statement of masculinity. However, the appearance of a beard has received mixed reception over the years. I reached out to Christopher Oldstone-Moore, a history lecturer at Wright State University and author of “The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain”, who is known as the world’s foremost beard expert, to discuss the beard and its place in history.

Travis Blair: Does man unwittingly say anything to the general public when wearing a beard?

Christopher Oldstone-Moore: The answer to the question depends on time and place. In today’s United States, a man with a beard consciously, unconsciously, or maybe semi-consciously communicates a quality of autonomy and self-reliance. This is because the prevailing norms still press hard for the shaved look, whether it be employers, public institutions, customs, women or fashion leaders. A man with beard has some measure of freedom from these pressures. He may be self-employed, or in a profession that permits and values independence, such as academia or the arts. In other words, a man with facial hair says he is his own man and plays by his own rules. Employers have become a bit more lenient in recent years, and one can see a bit more display of facial hair for that reason.

Travis: For hundreds, if not thousands of years, man has shaved. What caused the facial hair disrespect?

Christopher: Thousands is right, though the reasons for shaving have changed over time. The big turning point in Western civilization was Alexander the Great’s decision to look like the Greek artists’ depiction of the gods and demigods, that is, eternally youthful (and beardless). Alexander thought of himself (or at least wanted others to think of himself) as a sort of demigod– a new Achilles or Heracles. Greek artists of his time painted and sculpted these heroes in beardless and naked youthful perfection. Alexander had statues of himself made to look that way. Before the final battle with the Persians, he ordered his men to shave like him, so that they too would have his uniquely awesome, godlike Greek look that would give his men a feeling of superiority over their bearded enemies. For the next 400 years (!) respectable and powerful Greeks followed Alexander’s example, and later the Romans did the same. This was a major example of life imitating art.

Travis: Is there a period of time you would say is the heyday for the beard?

Christopher: Since Alexander there have been four “heydays”–what I call beard movements. One was the third century, starting with Roman emperor Hadrian. Another was the medieval period, though the church required clergy to shave, and in the 12th century began to encourage laymen to likewise. A third resurgence of facial hair was the Renaissance, and the fourth was the mid-19th century. I will say that the most impressive period was the Renaissance. Beards were everywhere in all kinds of styles and cuts, and some fashionable and wealthy men even got into dying their hair different colors.

Travis: You have an appreciation for history. What is one of your favorite bearded historical figures?

Christopher: So many to choose from! You’ve got to love Lincoln because he grew his beard for the best reason (a little girl suggested it), and because it managed to make him look wise and gentle at the same time. His case is also a good example of how it can make an ugly man look much better. But that awesomeness is met or surpassed by the Egyptian pharaohs, especially Hatshepsut, who was a rare female pharaoh. Pharaohs had ornate, colorfully braided fake beards in a long curling J shape. Hatshepsut looked just like the men with her equally impressive fake beard. Figuratively speaking, it made a man of her.

Travis: Comic book heroes have been in movies with beards. Thor has one, however Wolverine has mutton chops, and Tony Stark/Iron Man has a thin beard. Is all facial hair created equal, or are these heroes not doing justice to beards?

Christopher: Comic books had their origins in the mid 20th-century America, a very clean-shaven era, so it is no surprise that most heroes go without facial hair. I will go back to what I said about Alexander the Great. Shaving helps establish an image of youthful vitality. Beards tend to add a sense of age and weight. When asked, people said in the the early 20th century would often say that shaving was important to project youthfulness, and we are a society that admires youth and fears age. Superheroes are like Alexander: they want to appear ageless and powerful. I also think the young readership/viewership will identify more with youthful heroes. Just look at the success of the Young Avengers and Young Justice series. Besides the youth issue, there is another reason superheroes may be mostly hairless, and that opposition in masculine display between muscle and hair. From the beginning, body builders have removed hair from their bodies (and have oiled their skin) to emphasize muscle definition. Body-building culture is still anti-hair. (You won’t see Arnold with a beard!) Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is definitely in this ripped category, and though he has a semi-beard to suggest his animal nature, too much hair might look a bit odd with his hairless abs. As for Tony Stark, he doesn’t really have superpower, and relies on his awesome engineering/science knowhow, so maybe he could use a little facial hair to fit his older personality.

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Christopher has published several works to include two academic articles, “Mustaches and Masculine Codes in Twentieth-Century America,” Journal of Social History 45:1  (Fall 2011),  and “The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain” Victorian Studies 48: 1 (Fall 2005). He is also featured in a BBC News article, “A history of beards in the workplace”.

Image credit: Huffington Post