NEXT to portraits of my sour, pious ancestors, large Boer War commemorative posters hung in the corridors of the farmhouse of my childhood. All the heroes had beards and then some. To this day, I associate a bearded man with a horse called Poon and the old Transvaal Vierkleur.
I always had mixed feelings about bearded men. For this I blame that series of oval portraits of stern old men with beards.
My first close encounter with a beard was at the age of 16 on my way home from a rugby match somewhere in the north. On the back seat of the bus, my first big school crush, sporting a one-day beard, kissed me furiously.
At the time, my home city, Pretoria, was riddled with moustaches. Short moustaches, long moustaches, hanging moustaches, as well sideburns (also known as “sidies"). Men ranging from boring civil service bureaucrats in safari suits to fans of The Village People boasted proud tufts of hair on their upper lips.
Even though it is claimed moustache kisses are as good as eating soup with a fork (you can never get enough of that), to this day a moustache without (neatly trimmed) chin hairs and (nicely styled) cheek hair to balance it out gives me the heebie-jeebies. Especially when it starts dangling over the wearer's upper lip. Gross.
Victorian beard movement
More than a century ago, the same variety of facial hair fashions was seen around the world. Driven by collective male insecurity (among other things as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the fight for women's rights) and inspired by explorers and heroes returning from the Crimean War, the men of the Victorian “beard movement" began to grow their beards with zeal.
In a British newspaper from 1853, a dismayed journalist writes: “Beards and moustaches are arising on every side of us and we seem in a fair way of being as hairy as our ancestors.”
The beard movement began to wane around the 1870s, but fashion-conscious men tried new variations on the theme. In the US of the late 19th century, streetcar tickets were printed with illustrations of five male faces: clean-shaven or with sideburns, moustaches, goatees and full beards. Conductors cut out the face on the ticket that most resembled the passenger so men could not give their tickets to anyone else.
Here come the hipsters…
For most of my adult life, the men in my circle have had clean-shaven faces. It was only hippies, swamis, bikers and ZZ Top who grew their facial hair. (And those with weak chins and pencil necks.) In the 1990s, men began to wear goatees, but they were clean-shaven around the jowls.
And then, around the time of the 2008 recession, a splinter group arose that rebelled against the clean-shaven establishment. They bought their clothes and other products handmade and locally produced; they drank craft beer. And they grew full beards.
In no time, they sparked a trend, and as more men began to grow beards and man buns, the hipster movement went mainstream. The TV series Vikings provided inspiration from the sidelines.
Manufacturers of shaving products who started losing money during the hipster boom started developing beard-care products. Beard oil and beard wax were suddenly a thing and barbers started adding beard care to their hair-cutting services.
Locally, smart entrepreneurs climbed on the beard bandwagon with an manly beard product; also to allay conservatives' fear of “woke" fashion trends. What “ruffian" wouldn't want to lift a glass of (Buffelsfontein) brandy while using Buffelsfontein Beard Oil?
The beard’s high water mark
In an article in The Guardian in 2022, Tim Dowling wrote about the high-water mark of the beard movement: 2013. At that year's Academy Awards, hair starred on the chins of Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper and Paul Rudd. The streets abounded with full-bearded men and man buns.
But the more mainstream and predictable the hipster look became, the more reluctant the true rebels became about their beards. There is still a joke floating around on social media about a hipster who complained that an online newspaper used a photo of him… that later turned out to be someone else.
It seemed the new beard movement was starting to wane.
A woolly pandemic
But then the pandemic happened and loads of men let their facial hair grow behind their masks.
And because beards — despite the hipsters — are mostly associated with giving up on personal grooming, many men reached for their razors post-lockdown.
Is the era of the beard now over? I thought so, but I recently saw a photo of singer Joe Black on social media and involuntarily wondered if that beard might have its own nervous system and digestive tract. And despite my beard bias, I have to confess that I think that looooong beard works for him.
Something of everything
In the third decade of the 21st century there is something of everything again, like on the tram ticket pictures in 19th-century America. Clean faces, goatees, full beards and bushy beards. And, thank the gods, few sideburns.
Whatever hairstyle men want to grow on their faces, I have one request. Please, you ruffian, let the barber tame those facial hairs for you.
♦ VWB ♦
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