Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair

Christopher Oldstone-Moore. University of Chicago Press, 2016. 338 pages. $30.00.

By D. T. Siebert

The changing fashions in male facial hair are the subject of this fascinating book—a subject not as incidental or trivial as it might appear. How men have displayed beards, mustaches, or shaven faces through the ages has an interesting intellectual history behind it. Oldstone-Moore discusses how these changing styles have been important signals of cultural values.

The book moves through thirteen chapters, from anthropological considerations, such as the advantage of beards in early humans, to a historical examination of beards and beardlessness through early centuries to our own age. 

Beardedness is of course natural for men, and it was understandably the default fashion in early centuries. Alexander the Great established another standard—beardlessness—that went largely “unchallenged for the next four hundred years.” Why did Alexander reject the established fashion? The gods and heroes of the ancient world were associated with beardlessness, images “of ageless perfection,” like Achilles himself as depicted in the Iliad. Also, “both youth and nudity had come to represent immortality in classical Greek art,” and this image of youthful attractiveness was abetted by the homoerotic culture of Greek men. By shaving his beard, Alexander projected an eternally youthful and divine image.

The chapter “Why Did Jesus Have a Beard” is quite interesting, not only because of the various efforts to make portraits and images of Jesus theologically acceptable, but even more because of the various opinions of what kind of facial hair is acceptable to God. Should a man disregard his God-given nature and shave his beard, or should he attempt to resemble the pure holiness of heaven, a place where male angels were always supposed to be beardless? There were many conflicting theories. Jesus was generally thought to be beardless in heaven, but bearded on earth, though with a compromising close-cropped beard, as many portraits and images of him show. No one knows what he might have actually looked like, of course.

Roman fashions generally followed those of the Greeks, after Alexander’s example, and the clean-shaven look was generally the norm. A few centuries later, the Frank Charlemagne, crowned by the Pope as Holy Roman Emperor, managed to be both German and Roman by wearing a full mustache (a bow to German beardedness) but otherwise displaying a clean-shaven face (a bow to the Roman tradition). There was a return to full beardedness in the Renaissance, but by the late 17th and 18th centuries, the classical fully shaved look reappeared, oftentimes featuring elaborate wigs as replacements for the abandonment of the beard. The splendid French king Louis XIV is a good example, one the author analyzes quite well, including the full portrait of Louis in his glory—clean-shaven, but with a magnificent full-bottomed wig. As Oldstone-Moore says of the Sun King, “There have been few times in history when the arrangement of the body politic was so closely tied to the arrangement of the ruler’s body.”

The 19th century saw a return to beardedness. Then the pendulum swung in the 20th century toward the clean-shaven look. The case of Kaiser Wilhelm II illustrates again, as in the case of Alexander or Charlemagne, how a king manages to use traditional fashion to his advantage. Beards were becoming passé, and even the traditional military mustache was commonplace. The Kaiser wanted to look distinctive and had his court hairdresser come to the rescue. The result was a mustache pointed upwards, the erect mustache, well illustrated in the book by a picture of the Kaiser. This style became an immediate sensation. A quotation from a German novel by Heinrich Mann makes the point. The main character watches the Kaiser ride through the Brandenburg Gate: “. . . an intoxication, more intense and nobler than that stimulated by beer, raised his feet off the ground and carried him in the air.” As this book proves throughout, a facial image can be priceless and indeed intoxicating.

By and large, the 18th and 20th centuries have been the most beardless, even if later in the 20th century beards began to be the badge of rebellion and counter-culture. The 21st promises more diversity, as anyone living in these times has noticed, with the appearance of the popular stubble-beard. 

One of many amusing anecdotes in the book is the following: In the 1920s Lord Quickswood objected to his cousin Algernon Cecil’s beard: “‘Algernon, why have you grown that beard?’ Algernon replied, ‘Well, why not? Our Lord is supposed to have been bearded.’ Quickswood retorted, ‘That’s no answer. Our Lord was not a gentleman.’”

This well-written book abounds in provocative information, anecdote, and illustrations. It is highly recommended. 

D. T. Siebert (ΦBK, University of Oklahoma, 1962) is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English Literature at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Among his recent publications: Mortality’s Muse: The Fine Art of Dying (Delaware, 2013) and the chapter “Hume’s History of England in The Oxford Handbook of David Hume (Oxford, 2016).