The Guardian, in one of its more clickbaity moments, recently declared that we’d passed “peak beard”, no doubt prompting trend-sensitive liberals across the UK to reach for their razors.
It’s hard to read the recent vogue for facial hair as emerging from anything but a yearning for the authentic, shot through with a hearty nod to masculinity. First sprouting in Brooklyn circa 2005, and growing in parallel with the conceptual Gordian knot of hipsterism, the rebirth of the beard followed the dawn of the new century, perhaps a naturalistic reaction to the entrenchment of all things digital in our lives.
Previous cycles of male identity had involved Laddism (in the UK) and preening metrosexuality. A corrective to this might well blend seriousness, a seeming lack of vanity, and a masculinity that was unabashed yet unthreatening – i.e. lacking the aggressive boorishness of the Lad. (And only in so far as beards themselves have a certain inherently avuncular, warm character. Sadly, it would be impossible to assert that men in general are becoming less aggressive/threatening.)
The beard also carries the historical weight of tradition, as well as being a code for the rural and the unrefined, the artistic-artisanal. See also: folk music and local cuisine, microbreweries, manual typewriters and hand-carved spoons. Intrinsic to the beard, moreover, is a decent measure of individuality – length, coverage and curl, the patterning of white and red hairs found in most every beard, these things varying wildly from person to person. And that’s on top of a bewildering array of styles, your Boxeds, Lincolns, Ducktails, Hulihees and what have you…
The accompanying “cottage” industry of beard products reflects this mix of signs precisely, with brand names like Captain MacGuffin’s Indomitable Beard Pomade. Barbers everywhere are locked in a death match of ultimate vintage oneupmanship (like so and etc).
But like many stylistic choices that progress from niche to mainstream, the beard has suffered an ironic reversal of meaning. The unkempt, careless wild man look has been muscled out by painstakingly neat trims and artfully waxed ‘staches. Authenticity swapped out for artful pretension. Hence the Guardian declaring open season on hipster beards.
‘Come now, Epictetus, shave your beard’.
If I am a philosopher, I answer, I will not shave it off.
‘Then I will have you beheaded’.
If it will do you any good, behead me.
Luckily, the full-bore woodsman look (jeans, work boots, thermal undershirt, flannel shirt, sturdy braces and woollen cap) is a pretty sensible wardrobe for much of the year here in Sweden. And you know what? Despite the lolworthy nature of this tweet doing the rounds, a beard is genuinely a top notch aid to concentration, cogitation, and contemplation.
Thus I could claim, like Epictetus, that retaining my own beard is a principled stance. I’ve frequented each of the barbers linked above, and think the carving of wooden spoons is a fine pursuit. (No value judgement there.)
But it would be closer to the truth to admit that so long as my significant other prefers the beard, and for reasons largely tactile, the thing will remain in place.