In praise of the beard

In praise of the beard

At the first White House press conference for 2014, Press Secretary Jay Carney appeared with a beard.

This was something "unthinkable, at least by Washington standards... since Chester A. Arthur's muttonchops", a New York Times commentary noted.

(Mr Arthur was the 21st President of the United States, from 1881 to 1885, when Queen Victoria ruled the Empire.)

I hope beards are becoming mainstream for whatever reason.

That would personally be welcome news as I have been wearing a beard for a few years now (for religious reasons) and have, on several occasions, been asked why.

What the questioner likely means to say is that I look scruffy and anti-establishment, I suppose.

Last December, while I was riding the MRT, a tiny tot looked up at me intently.

The child was obviously wondering why I looked so odd, as a clean-shaven American male standing next to me remarked jokingly, pointing to my wispy beard.

We got to talking about beards, which he thought went out of fashion in the West because gas masks fitted badly with bearded soldiers in World War I (1914-1919).

However, I said that beards probably went out of fashion a decade earlier than the war because Gillette introduced its patented safety razor at the end of the 19th century, the sales of which skyrocketed from 1905.

But we were both mistaken.

Beards did decline markedly during that war but, by 1905, the shaven chin had already been popular for two decades or so.

So Gillette did not trigger off a new look but simply rode what was still a new wave to make lots of money.

It was a new wave in the sense that, at the start of Queen Victoria's reign in 1837, beards were not just out of fashion but held with much distaste in general.

Yet within a decade, beards would become greatly favoured.

That is, by mid-19th century, beards in Western culture had become transformed from something that only marginalised groups, like artists and Chartists, wore, into something that respectable gentlemen in the mainstream were also taking to with gusto.

(Taking its name from the People's Charter of 1838, Chartism was a decade-long working-class movement that tried to use strikes and violence to push for democratic reforms in Britain.)

This Victorian transformation of the British male face was much discussed in the press, periodicals and pamphlets for it represented the reversal of a very long tradition of the shaven chin.

According to John Tosh, A Man's Place (1999), a visit to London's National Portrait Gallery and a survey of images of males in the Illustrated London News between the 1840s and 1870s demonstrate that the divide between the shaven look and the bearded one fell smack in the early 1850s.

So dramatic was this change in mid-Victorian Britain that it was called the Beard Movement, which historians attribute to the need to reassert and display in public the more physical traits of manhood in a society gone soft in sedentary urbanism.

Still, it had to wait for the revolutionary era to pass. It was after Chartism in Britain had ended and political revolutions on the Continent had failed that the beard's association with anti-establishment radicalism would also die. After 1848, the beard would come to stand for virility, not ideology.

In 1853, writing in Household Words, his two-penny weekly magazine of original stories and crusading journalism, Charles Dickens urged men "to beard public opinion (by) carrying a beard".

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "to beard" as "to oppose openly and resolutely; to set at defiance, thwart, affront". So the verb connotes forcefulness, pugnacity and, perhaps, manliness.

By the 1860s, reputable men were keeping beards as a mark of dignity. The trend peaked around 1870 so that, in sum, between 1850 and 1890, the beard was seen as a high mark of manhood.

Yet even this was more of an anomalous bleep in a long history of shaven chins in Western culture.

By the end of the century, the young were rejecting the beard as an old man's fashion statement whereas they had come to see the clean-shaven look as modern.

Even as Gillette came alongside, an increasing emphasis on sports and fitness among the young was leading to a new model of virility that stressed the athlete rather than the facially hirsute.

Be that as it may be, the shaven look had, in fact, been culturally favoured in the West for more than a millennium - largely due to the Church's central role in public life for much of that time.

The reason offered by an ancient theologian called Guglielmus Durandus, as quoted by Reginald Reynolds in Beards: An Omnium Gatherum (1950), was that the beard "is symbolic of the multitude of sins. Hence clerics are directed to shave the beard... that we may seem purified... like the angels, who remain always in the bloom of youth."

During the ninth century, in the Great Schism between the Eastern Church and Western Church, headquartered in Constantinople and Rome, respectively, one area of disagreement was over the beard.

Constantinople chose the beard for its priests while Rome chose to shave, which became literally the most obvious difference between the two.

Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) ruled that it was a crime for priests to wear beards while Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) enshrined that into canon law.

This prevailed until Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) ruled in 1531 that priests may keep the beard.

This was because in 1527, troops of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, mutinied and sacked Rome, jailing Clement VII for six months during which time he grew a beard that he kept till he died.

Subsequently, all pontiffs also kept beards until 1700, when Pope Clement XI (1700-1721) reversed course to sport the clean chin again. Every pontiff since then has been clean-shaven, with the culture following suit generally.

In sum, the beard was held in low esteem in Christendom for a long while, right up to Victorian times in fact, during which the Beard Movement came and went.

But for Mr Carney, the reason was somewhat less spiritual. Asked by a reporter "What happened (to your face)?", he said: "My wife...likes it. So, there."

So does mine.

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