The World’s Foremost Beard Expert

You are going to love the results of yesterday’s Beard Portrait Booth experiment! The photos will be posted a bit later — I’ll be sure to keep you wildly updated. My initial reaction is that there is no reason that this shouldn’t be a constant presence at every event I ever organize, for the rest of my life, forever and ever. Thanks so much to the fine folks who came out to make the event so much fun!

In the meantime, here’s a treat for beard fans everywhere. Earlier this spring, I spoke at length with Dr. Christopher Oldstone-Moore (pictured above), a history professor at Wright State University in Ohio and quite likely the world’s foremost beard expert. Dr. Oldstone-Moore is currently working on a book about the history of the beard in Western civilization, and in our conversation, we discuss the origins of shaving, the various ups and downs the fashionable beard has suffered throughout the ages, and of course, the current beard renaissance. Enjoy!

Download the MP3 (24 minutes; 27.5 MB)

UPDATE: I have transcribed the audio! Here is the full text of the interview.

DM: Hello, it’s David Malki ! from Wondermark.com. Like it or not, we are living in a Renaissance of beards. On the line I’ve got Dr. Christopher Oldstone-Moore. Dr. Oldstone-Moore is a lecturer in history at Wright State University in Ohio. He wrote an article in 2005 for the academic journal Victorian Studies; the article was entitled “The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain.” Chris, thank you for joining me.

COM: You’re welcome. Thank you.

Do you think you can lay claim to the title of The World’s Foremost Pogonologist?

That’s my goal!

Are there a lot of professional pogonologists out there?

Um, no. I don’t think there are any. So, I think if that’s the case, then I am the one.

Okay. I didn’t know if it was a very crowded field that I’ve somehow missed all these years!

At least in academic terms, I think I’m the only one.

The Image of Radicalism

A lot of times, when people think of the Victorian Era, they picture Charles Dickens-like characters in waistcoats and top hats, and they’ve got sideburns and mustaches and sometimes even more elaborate arrays of facial hair. But it wasn’t always like that. Can you explain: what was the “Beard Movement”?

The Beard Movement is what caused all those men to have all that facial hair. In Britain, the movement — you can almost pinpoint it exactly to a year. 1853 is the year in which the British became aware of this explosion of facial hair, and they coined the term “Beard Movement” in that year. There was a mistake made later — not very much later, as a matter of fact, only a few decades later — the British forgot exactly when it began and they imagined it began because of the Crimean War, which was 1854 to 1856. But that’s a misunderstanding, because facial hair became very common before the war.

Was this something that just exploded all of a sudden? Or, what changed between 1852 and 1853, so that all of a sudden it went to facial hair?

Well, it wasn’t 1852 to 1853. It was really 1848, but it took five years from 1848 for it to reach the “take-off speed,” if you will. The magic of 1848 is that it was the year of the liberal revolutions around Europe. In Paris and Berlin and Vienna and Rome and the capitals of Europe (except Britain), these revolutions failed. And as a result, the liberal radicalism of that time kind of faded out.

What that meant was that the political anxieties declined. And in Britain, even though you didn’t have a revolution, you had Chartism, which was kind of a working-class movement for political rights. That faded out, too. And one of the things that helped it fade out was not only the failure of [the 1848 revolutions], but after 1848 the economy was recovering and doing very nicely.

So, Europe was settling down and radicalism was fading. Before 1848, radicals often wore beards. Engels, for example, Marx’s close collaborator, as a young man wore mustaches to show that he was not bourgeois. And some socialists in France were famous for their beards.


Friedrich Engels, noted beardist

So, [beards were] a way for a particular class of thinkers and progressives to distinguish themselves from the ruling class?

Yes. And, so, what that meant was if you were an ordinary middle-class gentlemen, there was no way you were going to wear a beard, because that would signify that you were a radical.

And you would be tarred with that same brush.

Yes. The Chartists in England, those working-class radicals, sometimes wore beards to show that they were radical. And so you couldn’t wear a beard, because that was appropriated by the radicals.

But after 1848, as the economy improved, radicalism fades, and so it no longer becomes a symbol of radicalism. So now it can become acceptable for gentlemen, middle-class gentlemen, to wear beards. That’s why in the early 1850’s, all of a sudden it’s a possibility. [Society] embraces them, and off we go.

A Beardy Dam Bursting

But it took some time for it to be fully accepted by every facet of society. Is that right?

Yes. In fact, some people never quite got there. And the older generation who were already in their 40s or 50s by that time — they would still not be ready to make that change.

So was it way for a younger, up-and-coming generation to distinguish themselves in a very peacocky nature?

Yes. I think, actually, it’s more like a dam bursting. I think that several generations before had been pushing towards more facial hair. Since the early 19th Century, men had been eager to show off more facial hair, but because the beard was radical and too extreme, they couldn’t bring themselves to wear beards.

However, in England anyway, and the United States too, and throughout Europe, sideburns, big, bushy sideburns got bigger and bigger and bigger. Since the 1840’s, you know? And sometimes they even got big sideburns that went all the way down to their chin on both sides — but they wouldn’t allow it to meet under the chin. Because if they met, then that would be a beard.


From Punch

That would cross the line. And that would be too much. They couldn’t handle it.

As long as you just shaved a line right along the middle there! It’s almost like they couldn’t bear to — or couldn’t dare, really — to go all the way. And I think that’s what happened in 1848.

They crossed that bridge. Like, “we’re going to do it.”

They crossed that line. So, it’s not that generation only. It’s several generations in the 19th Century. I think it has deeper roots than just one generation.

So, it almost sounds like instead of a default cleanshavenness giving way to this sudden growth of beards, it’s almost like beards were the default state, of course, they are the default state of humanity, but they’ve been repressed during the 18th Century and so long, and all of a sudden it’s like, “Now we’re free! We’ve had it welling up inside us to grow these beards, and now we’re finally allowed to.”

That’s exactly what they said. “Finally, we’re free to be what we’ve always wanted to be, and what we should be.” Finally, the barriers and the regulations and prohibitions that had prevented men from wearing facial hair were removed, and they could be free. And liberty was a big theme, you know. Beards meant liberty, among other things.

The Very First Shave

Well, how did those prohibitions come into effect? I mean, who was the first guy to say, in caveman days, “I think I’m going to cut this hair off.”

I can answer that question. The answer to that question is Alexander the Great.

The reason is that Alexander the Great wanted to have an extraordinary look because he considered himself to be an extraordinary person — even divine. At least, he wanted other people to think that. He claimed to be descended of Zeus, in the line of Hercules, and he also claimed to be like Achilles, the great hero of the Trojan War for the Greeks, who was himself divine, or semi-divine. Both Hercules and Achilles were semi-divine.

He wanted to present himself as semi-divine, so he wanted to look like Achilles or Hercules (Heracles, in Greek). And what does Heracles or Achilles look like?

Well, in the 100 years before Alexander’s time, from the time of what we call the Classical period of Greek art from about 450 BC until Alexander’s time, which is around 350 BC, Greek artists started to portray these gods — particularly younger gods, like Achilles — as younger, ideal, youthful men. In the flower of their youth. They were shown as shaved and nude.

Originally in older Greek art, they had been clothed and heavily bearded. You know, like men were supposed to look! But the classical idea was this flower of youth. So that’s why Alexander shaved — because he wanted to look like that. He wanted to look like art!


Alexander the Great, in a pensive moment

And then, in the great battle, the final battle with the Persian Empire, the big one — before the battle, he ordered his troops to shave their beards. This has been much wondered about. The explanation that was given in the historical texts that we have is completely inadequate, and we know that. The argument was that he didn’t want the Persians being able to pull their beards, and getting an advantage over his soldiers by yanking their beards. But that’s not believable for many reasons.

One is, if that’s the case, then why didn’t they do it a lot earlier? He had fought many battles up to that point. I think the real reason is that he was inviting his troops to kind of take on this extraordinary, god-like look that he had. He was inviting his troops to identify with him, and define themselves as special, and define themselves as Greek, and different from the Persians.

So, it’s ritualistic. It’s tying them together as a unit that all has to undergo this common practice.

Yes. And, then after the battle, it sticks. It becomes the Greek look, and that sticks for hundreds and hundreds of years. And then the Romans take the idea, and they start shaving in about 200 BC — and they stay shaved for 400 years.

So, from Alexander the Great to Hadrian, in the middle of the 2nd Century — important, cultivated men, men of power, they all shaved.

Hairy Hadrian


Hadrian: “Yup, I got a beard. Deal with it.”

And then when Emperor Hadrian came upon the scene, all of a sudden everyone started wearing beards again. It became common.

Yes. He made it respectable again. The one group of men who did not shave, and held their beards very proudly in this whole period that I just described, were philosophers. It’s at this time that philosophers became identified with beards. If you wore a beard, then you were a philosopher, or you were looking like a philosopher.

And Hadrian was personally friendly with a great stoic philosopher named Epictetus. Epictetus was a great exponent of beards, and he believed that all men should have beards, not just philosophers. The argument was nature — Stoics believed that we should live our lives according to nature.

So, of course, he preached that men should live according to nature, including growing their beards — and I’m sure, though we don’t have an absolute record of this, I’m absolutely certain of the fact that Epictetus said, “Come on, Hadrian. You’re an Emperor.” Hadrian loved philosophy and admired Epictetus, and I think he wanted to live according to the rules of Stoicism, and he wanted to rule the empire according to philosophy. And so he needed to look the part.

So, you’ve got Alexander on the one hand saying, “We need to shave so that we appear more youthful and athletic and godlike.” Then you’ve got Hadrian saying, “We need to grow beards so that we’re more revered and philosophical and learned.”

And I think it represents a shift in the way that at least the emperors think of their legitimacy as emperors. “I’m a good ruler because I’m a philosopher, not because I’m born of a godlike family.” Remember that Augustus, Julius Caesar — they claimed to be gods.

The Guild of the Bearded

And the whole idea of shaving is ritualistic, as a way that people can identify within a group. I mean, that’s something that’s been a key element of many religions, even to this day, especially in the East. It’s something that you can control, because you can choose to shave or not shave — and it visually distinguishes you to strangers as a member of a particular sect, or someone who’s undergone this particular choice.

Yes.

Are there more class markers like this? I mean, even today, where we see things like the cop mustache, which is a little bit more prevalent — I think it’s giving way to the stubble goatee. I seem to see a lot of homicide detectives and cocaine dealers that maybe used to have a cop mustache, but now they’re doing the stubble goatee.

Yes, I’m thinking more along the lines of profession, rather than class. I find around here where I live, a lot of blue-collar guys like to wear beards. It says something about their rough-and-readiness. On the other hand, you’ve got professors. Highly educated professional men who wanted to distinguish themselves as individuals, as unique. So, they wear a beard — and sometimes it can be kind of the same beard, even.

In the 19th Century, doctors loved to wear beards. Doctors were the most avid devotees of beards in the 19th Century. In fact, doctors kept their beards well after beards became unfashionable in the 20th Century! I have records that show that most doctors in the United States, according to one account, had beards still in the 1920’s, which is way after beards became unpopular. Doctors, I think, liked beards because they were in a nurturing profession, yet they wanted to show their manly intelligence.

Well, you’re talking about blue-collar workers today, and also professors — in both cases, these are people that maybe could trace their style as a deviation from some abstract mainstream, which is clean-shaven nowadays.

Yes, I think that’s right. I think they’re deviating from what you’d call kind of a middle-class of respectability. I think that it does work that way in our culture, that facial hair can mean “I don’t need to conform to some boss.”

Beards on the Wane

It seems like, in terms of this mainstream that we’re talking about, we’re still in a pattern that started around the turn of the century — when all the beards that we see rising up in the mid- to late-19th Century are now going out of fashion. Why is that? What caused that shift?

A couple of things happened at once, I think. One is, the microbial theory of disease had an effect on people. They became aware that diseases were carried by little critters, little microscopic critters, and that those little critters can hang out. They even did little studies about beards and found that, you know, there a lot of critters in the beard! And if you kiss somebody, then you’ll probably leave microbes. In the early 20th Century we got pretty obsessive about cleanliness. So, beards were tarnished as dirty.

Another thing that made a difference was the Muscle Movement. I think men started to identify their masculinity physically more with muscles. There was a real movement in 1890′s and the turn of the century of muscle building, particularly coming out of Central Europe, Germany and Austria. Of course, we have Arnold Schwarzenegger to demonstrate that. Look at Arnold. When he does his muscle-flexing photo shoots, not only does he have a shaved face, but his entire body is shaved. You want to show all those ripples. You want to show all those muscles.


Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1910

And that goes back a little bit to Alexander, too. I mean, the idea of youthfulness, of being at the flower of youth, like you’re 20 years old. When you’re 20 years old, you’re not really growing a big beard yet. A lot of people aren’t, anyway. So, kind of a youth movement, a muscle identity, sports, sports teams, uniforms, all those kinds of things I think, plus the business culture. Big business. The big corporations. The big banks. The big downtown businesses. They want a crisp, uniform look. So, all these kinds of forces, I think, are pushing to make beards unstylish.

Yet the Lip-Fur Hangs On

But the mustache held on for a long time. I mean, that’s part of the military dress code that [stays] acceptable, whereas a beard does not. Is there something particular about the mustache that keeps it in fashion when the full beard goes away?

Yes! In fact, in the late 19th Century in most European and even in the American army for a while, a mustache was actually required of officers, because it was considered to be the kind of look that an officer needed. I think it’s perfect for the military, because you want a uniform look and beards are a little bit individual. Beards grow in different ways on different men, and it’s hard to regulate them and make them all look the same.

So, if you want a uniform look, then you want to get rid of the beards, but you can still have mustaches according to — usually they’re quite regulated. You know, exactly how big they are. So, I think that the idea is that it’s a nice compromise — where you can have kind of a manly look, without all the complications of facial hair.

All those many dangerous complications that we don’t want to have to deal with in the field!

Well, the soldiers loved wearing their beards. At least they claimed to, in the 19th Century — because, you know, it would protect them against sun and wind and all that good stuff.

And that’s that Crimean War argument. Where all of a sudden –

Yes, in the Crimean War, but even in wars before the Crimean War, the troops were allowed to have a little bit more lax standards when they were actually on the field. Maybe in Southern Africa, or India, in tough conditions, they look past those regulations, and then when they come back to camp or when they go back to England or wherever, then they need to shave up.

But I do think that throughout the 19th Century and even into the 20th Century, mustaches were considered a very stylish officer look, and you’ll see even the generals in World War I and all the officers at the beginning of World War I still wearing their mustaches. Then, you know, the idea was that the women just swooned.


“Ladies, I’ll be in my trench.”

The Modern Beard

Nowadays, even besides the professors and the blue-collar workers you mentioned earlier, there’s a large trend towards hipster- and indie-rock-type beards. I guess it’s been going on for a long while, but it’s certainly becoming more and more part of mainstream culture and fashion every year. Do you think that’s something that can be pegged to something as precisely as we can look back at 1848?

Well, we are in a transitional phase, and it’s a little hard when you’re inside a transitional time to see where the trends are running. I’d hate to predict and be wrong, because I find pressures moving in both directions. I find that the social pressures to keep the shaven look are pretty strong still. And, as you pointed out, there are several groups that are looking for a different look, and I think that pressure comes partly because masculinity in general is a little bit up for negotiation at the moment.

I wouldn’t call it “crisis,” I’m not sure that that’s the right word, but men are exploring and considering new looks, and wondering about how it’s appropriate to be a man now, in an age when men and women are more equal than ever. What should a man look like, what makes a man distinctive, what makes a man attractive? Part of the problem is that studies suggest that women actually prefer a clean-shaven face.

The best study I’ve seen so far suggests that women like men to look like they could grow a good beard, but don’t — because they’re not so sure they like the beard itself, but they don’t like men who look too youthful and immature. Some studies show that a lot of women do like beards. The studies just aren’t good enough. But there is pressure there.

Women, I think, are split, and the men are a little bit split, and I do think that we’re in an exploratory era. I don’t really know where that exploration is going to go, but I do think you’re right. There is more freedom, more interest in looking for a new style of facial hair than there has been in a long time.

I think it’s interesting to note that the beards might be one symptom of an overall feeling of, as you called it, “exploration,” and the feeling that we’re such a culture saturated with very similar, very homogenous media images, that breaking away from that is seen as something that’s valuable. Defining one’s own identity is common and valued by anyone that wants to have something original to add to the conversation.

You know, I came of age in the 80’s, — really, late 70’s, early 80’s, and my college generation was the Reagan era, and a lot of young people were really excited about the free market, business, enterprise, banks, you know, entrepreneurship… and there was a real enthusiasm for reclaiming a lot of that middle-class ethic that people thought that they had gotten away from in the 1960’s — which, by the way, was a very hairy decade, right?

So, that was a very shaven time, and young people were trying to look as squeaky-clean as they could and talking about being Young Republicans and so forth. And here we are, with the market collapsing… I think the younger generation is not going to be so attracted to this notion of business, of working up the ladder in a corporation, or the stock market, and the financial industry and that kind of thing.

Those kinds of industries and lifestyle are kind of discredited a little bit at this point, and I wonder if more of an adventurous and more individualistic ethic and personalities will come from this — people will turn away from this kind of business model of life to more of an artistic model of life. That might be part of what’s going on in the music world and elsewhere. I was watching a little bit of the Academy Awards, and I did notice some beards.

Yeah, there were a couple of them.


“It’s for a role. Don’t get excited.”

I mean, Josh Brolin was sporting a very nice beard there. So I’m wondering if there’s a kind of a change in the zeitgeist.

If you look at the Beard Movement that we’ve talked about, they believed that they had finally arrived at their final achievement, the advance of civilization to the point where we didn’t have to — we could grow our beards now. Well, that lasted about 40 years! (laughter)

And then, you know, maybe two generations… and then people started to think that advancement and progress meant shaving again. And beards went out around the 1900’s, even a little earlier, in the 1890’s. They haven’t really come back in a hundred years.

…Other than the 1960’s, but the 60’s have to be seen as a little bit of an aberration. I mean beards never became acceptable to the respectable middle class, and most of those guys who wore beards in the 60′s as young rebels shaved them off when they joined Wall Street firms, you know. Many of them really, literally did. So, I don’t think of the 60’s as really a genuinely bearded time.

So if you think that way, then really we’ve been in a shaven time for a hundred years. It doesn’t come and go; it comes, and then it goes for a long time. And then maybe it comes again for a little bit. I don’t see a pattern. I don’t know if we’re due. It’s like earthquakes! I mean, I guess earthquakes are due, but you can’t really say that there’ll be an earthquake in the next ten years.

It does certainly make it interesting to consider that instead of it being some sort of a wheel, where one side of it is shaven, one side of it is bearded… is it one factor among a number of other things that sort of crops up as a response to the claim of an emperor to divinity? And then it goes away, and it crops up again as…?

Yeah, it serves different purposes at different times, right. It doesn’t mean the same thing every time. It can mean something different. So, if we grow beards now, it’ll probably be for different reasons than it was in the 1850’s.

From Punch

It’s too early to speculate on what exactly those forces are at work, at the moment. It’s best to wait and see how it turns out.

The one thing I am sure of, the one thing I’m absolutely sure of, is that these changes are connected to whatever conceptions we are developing of masculinity. Ultimately, it is always tied to the question of what is it to be a man, and “how should I be a man?” That’s the existential version of that question, as a man. However that question gets answered is going to have a lot to do with what you do with facial hair.

And that’s why I’m interested in studying facial hair, because I think it’s a way of looking at the history of how people think about their masculinity. So I think I’ll be better able to explain maybe what’s going on now once I finish this project and see how it all worked out in the past. And then maybe I can guess at what’s happening now.

Well, we’ll definitely want to check back in with you. Dr. Christopher Oldstone-Moore is a lecturer in history at Wright State University. He’s currently writing a book on the history of the beard in Western civilization, which will aim to be the most exhaustive, comprehensive and authoritative work on the subject. The working title is The Meaning of Beards: Science, History and Culture. Chris, thanks for doing it so I don’t have to! And thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.

It was a pleasure! And I’m sure we’ll be in touch again.

I hope so. I’m David Malki ! from Wondermark.com. Thanks for listening.


^ One Comment...

  1. Aquatopia

    As a graduate of Wright State University, and a former student of Christopher Oldstone-Moore himself, I have to say that this revelation that I studied the foremost expert on beards has changed my perspective on life, possibly forever.