Bodyscaping might have re-sculptured and reduced the hairy chest/ back, but men are fighting back by adding hair to their faces.

The history of beards is a long and glorious one. High-ranking Egyptian officials and rulers wore beards as signifiers of power. Luckily the less hirsute, females and young males, could don a postiche (false beard). Wealthy Mesopotamians oiled and curled their beards to create tiers of ringlets. Expensive gold dust, gold thread and scented starch were added for festive occasions. Romans thought scented and groomed beards were effeminate and preferred closer crops; they called those who did not shave barbarous (beard-wearing). The “philosophers’ beards” of Roman philosophers indicated the school to which the owner was party: cynics wore unkempt beards to indicate their distain for the strictures of Roman society, stoics sometimes trimmed and washed theirs as a symbol of necessary conformity, and peripatetics groomed theirs to show compliance to their Aristotelian beliefs. Epictetus felt that shaving was against his beliefs and proclaimed “death before shaving”!

Many religions consider shaving as antithetical to their beliefs. Perhaps the most famous biblical reference to hair comes from the story of Samson and Delilah. Samson adhered to the Nazirite laws and had not cut his hair or his beard. When his hair and beard were removed, it marked his lack of strength in that a woman from another culture had fooled him and, he had not only broken his religious laws, he had become like any other man. Thus Delilah’s betrayal is a complex mix of religious, cultural and sexual politics.

Shaving can be hazardous in other ways too. Alexander the Great demanded his troops be clean shaven so they could not be grabbed during battle. Unclean tools meant the spread of disease. While today most men shave themselves, the barber shop has played an important role in male bonding and has even been the site of racial politics.

After the American Civil War, barber shops were one place where black men mixed freely with white clientele. Experienced black barbers had learned their trade as valets to plantation owners; clever entrepreneurs then opened shops that were the height of gentility. Stylishly appointed, the shops were intimate places where the racial divide was both obvious and covert. Barbers were discreet, servile and yielded their implements with finesse. While wielding cut-throat razors, they were privy to the political discussions and gossip of their white customers. Clever barbers thus acquired money and knowledge.

In the past 50 years men have gone from the ultra-smoothness of the restrictive 1950s to free flowing 1960s beards and the mediated moustaches of the 1970s. In the 1990s, facial hair became face-scaped into careful patterns. Today’s styles are atavistic in their 19th Century stylings. Waxed moustaches are common as are woolly sideburns and chest-length beards.

Over time, beards have symbolised unruliness and godliness, persnickety grooming and disregard for personal hygiene; untamed primitiveness and metrosexual grooming. The history of beards tells us something of the owner and his culture.

Words by Toni Johnson-Woods

Images by Colin Bushell