I listened to a great program on National Public Radio’s On Point show with Tom Ashbrook yesterday about the return of the beard which featured a historian and a style expert: the perfect combination! Here is Mr. Ashbrook’s introduction to the broadcast: Maybe you saw it at your house over the holidays. At your New Year’s Eve party. Men’s facial hair all over the place. Beards have been growing back into fashion for a while. From the hip streets of Brooklyn to the Hollywood red carpet. Now they’re everywhere. And not just a little scruff. Beards that have grown for a year. “Yeards,” they’re called. Beards worthy of a Civil War general or Paul Bunyan. Of a lumberjack. “Lumbersexual” is the funny, hot term of art. This hour On Point: What is it in the air, in the culture, in the minds of men, that’s brought back the beard? The topic resonated with me immediately: I did look around my holiday table and see beards, including one that could be called a “yeard”! And I’ve definitely noticed more beards among my students over the past year or so. I must admit, however, that I had never heard the word “lumbersexual” before yesterday.
The historian on the program, Dr. Stephen Mihm from the University of Georgia, talked primarily about the rise and fall of beards over the past century or so, in reference to his recent New York Times article, “Why CEOs are growing Beards”. I’d like to go back a bit further with this topic, to the Renaissance, which is always the beginning/big break for me. I remember distinctly reading a journal article in graduate school about one of the lesser-known cultural consequences of the Discoveries: European men, upon their realization that the newly-discovered Amerindians were decidedly less hairy than they, decided to emphasize their “superior” masculinity by letting their facial hair grow. The Reformation also celebrated the beard, even though its spiritual leader, Martin Luther, remained steadfastly clean-shaven. The lavish beard of the leader of the Reformation movement, John Calvin, is absolutely integral to his image. It’s actually quite shocking to examine the first century of oil portraits, say from 1450 to 155o, and view the shift from the clean-shaven Renaissance men, apparently eager to separate themselves from the shaggy Middle Ages and emulate their classical forebears, to the much more hirsute men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Clean-shaven Renaissance Men and (mostly-) Bearded Reformers: Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin, 1471-72, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp / © Lukas—Art in Flanders VZW; David Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1490; Detroit Institute of Arts/ Bridgeman Art Gallery; Luther in the Circle of Reformers, German School, c. 1625-50, Deutsches Historisches Museum.
I think that the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries must be golden ages for the beard, with the resolutely beardless eighteenth century in between: Dr. Mihm commented yesterday that he didn’t think there was a bearded signer of the Declaration of Independence. Certainly facial hair was the mark of success and power in the seventeenth century: it’s hard to find a notable man who was not so adorned, at least before 1650. In the second half of the century, the mustache and goatee are more common–it’s almost as if a beard would be too much competition for the long luxuriant locks of later-seventeenth-century cavaliers. And after that, very little facial hair is visible among the minority segment of western society who would or could sit for portraits until the second half of the nineteenth century. We are all familiar with images of bearded Civil War Generals and Robber Barons, but at the same time they became symbols of working-class radicalism, encouraging members of respectable society to pick up their (safety) razors–for a century or so.
Two kings of the very hairy seventeenth century: King Charles I, c. 1640 by Anthony van Dyck (Parliamentary Collection), and King Charles II, c. 1670 by Peter Lely (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II). A representative of the clean-shaven eighteenth century: Sebastián Martínez y Pérez, painted by Goya in 1792 (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Beards are back in the nineteenth century: A Collector of Prints by Edgar Degas, 1866 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the two iconic bearded robber barons, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, painted by society portraitist Theobald Chartran in 1895 and 1896, the last days of the beard (apparently until now!)