Apparently, it’s the latter. I confess as much, because having decided to write about this beard business, I did some Googling and turned up several articles written in the last few years about the hairy trend.
The earliest report that came to my attention (though many may have preceded it) is by the New York Times’s Alex Williams. He talked on July 7, 2011, about his personal beard exploration as goaded by a girlfriend, younger than he by 13 years, whom he eventually married. The implication is that his raising the beard was part of her decision to say yes.
He claimed, “[T]he style world just happened to be entering the Postmillennial He-Man Beard Epoch.” So even he conceded he was only joining a movement already in progress, commenting, “In downtown Manhattan, where I live, the beard was de rigueur for young creative professionals.”
New Yorker blogger Jon Michaud picked up on Williams’ happy outpouring as an excuse to unearth a 1938 Lewis Gannett piece in the magazine, “American Hair: Its Rises and Fall” (subscription required). He mentions that beards and mustaches have a certain connection to “the mysterious tides of our history.”
While Gannett points out that the New World was explored and settled by bearded men, he also notes that not one of those who signed the Declaration of Independence affected one. Michaud cites another article from the archives, which quotes a police officer of the ‘30s and ‘40s who said about his Van Dyke beard, “It hides the emotions. I can be pleased or I can be annoyed and there can’t nobody tell.”
That’s food for thought, isn’t it? Are men today encouraging the follicles so that they can hide emotions? More like the opposite. In what might now be thought of as the pre-millennial psychological mindset that’s perhaps responsible for bringing us the metrosexual man—usually, if not always, clean-shaven—showing emotion was a sign of strength.
So perhaps the beard signifies a response to the metrosexual male. Perhaps beards are a rejection of a feminized masculinity. Perhaps it’s an assertion that since women can’t grow beards, facial hair, and a lot of it, is the ultimate expression of masculinity.
I’m not saying it is. Nor am I saying, as Sean Trainor reminded us earlier this year in an Atlantic Monthly article, that the difficulty of shaving with a straight razor, the prevalent practice in the 19th century, accounts for today’s beard proliferation. Why would it? Men no longer have to shave with straight razors.
(Trainor also reminds us that in Song of Myself, bearded Walt Whitman lyricizes, “Washes and razors for foofoos…for me freckles and a bristling beard.” In Greg Voakes’s Huffington Post infographic, he reminds us that circa 345 B.C., Alexander the Great proscribed beards because—get this!—they could be pulled in battle.)
What no one seems to be doing is speculating, as I am doing, on the causes of the renewed beard craze. The metrosexual backlash is just one theory. What about the beard as the natural outgrowth (pun intended, of course) of the two- or three-day unshaven look so popular since, maybe, the advent of Casual Fridays? The unshaved appearance is so popular that slightly scruffy men now show up in fancy ads for cologne. How many men promoting the look have gazed in the mirror after not shaving for a few days, then looked at their shaving gear and said to themselves, or thought, “The hell with it”?
What about various cultural influences? Isn’t Duck Dynasty among the most popular reality shows now? How many men watching it, who’d like to present themselves as part of the show’s macho advocacy, are aping (pun intended, of course) the back-to-nature-with-a-rifle look? Alternatively, how many man, straight or gay, have peeked at the Tumblr “Fuck Yeah Bearded Men” and wanted to join the crew?
Here’s another question: Where can what’s happening these days lead? At the moment mixed in with fairly standard beards, some shaped and some not, I see an increasing number of long beards—not the Hasidic sort (other than those on Hasidic Jews) but closer to the Farmer Clem type of long, often straight-along-the-bottom trim.
Will men who decide they’d like to go farther with their beards begin reprising 19th century variations? Might muttonchops reappear? (Weren’t there muttonchops in the ‘70s, too?) Might carefully tended mustaches recur of the kind Jeremy Piven shows off on Mr. Selfridge? Can we look for renewed mustache wax sales?
Full disclosure: Fashionisto! isn’t sporting a beard these days, but Fashionisto! has sported a beard. This was in the ‘70s, when I eventually shaved it off. Why? In those days, I was performing my own songs around Manhattan and a trusted director insisted that my beard hid the emotions I meant to express (cf. policeman previously quoted).
And this just in, though it’s already a few months old. In the January 8, 2014 issue of The New York Times, Alex Williams, who we now know grew a beard some years ago, reported that the beard has become “establishment.” Woefully so, is his gist. Does this mean that he’s shaved off the beard that his wife so adamantly championed? He doesn’t say.
What it does mean is that the answer is a resounding and humiliating Yes! to the question I posed at the top about my possibly being the last one on the planet who’s noticed the return of the beard.
Apparently, I am, but I can console myself. In the past few years, I’ve observed that whenever any one of the Times fashion mavens declares a trend kaput, that’s just the point when it’s either about to begin or an ideal time to go back to. So keep a lookout for even more beards—and, if my expectations come to pass, beards of even more varied shapes and sizes.