Mens’ style -100 years of Beards

An interesting exhibition of Brock Elbank Beard photographs currently running at Somerset House. On display are some glossy portraits of men (and the odd woman) with luxuriant facial hair, often paired with fisherman’s jumpers, tattoos, piercing eyes and pipes. Yes, pipes.


Many of these modern beards hark back to 1918 when a full beard and moustache were very fashionable and associated with the military. The King and Lord, featured below, obviously used some products on their moustaches, so that they curled up in an optimistic fashion. Even revolutionary leaders felt the need for a beard, although Lenin trimmed his and looks surprisingly 1990s. Nevertheless 100 years ago facial hair was pretty normal and gave a man an air of individuality and distinctiveness, although for ordinary men a neat moustache was far more common than the full beard, as sported by George Bernard Shaw, Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin.

For most of the 20th beards have been looked down on and a clean-shaved face was absolutely the norm for film stars and manly men alike. In my childhood I remember one strange uncle with a moustache, and occasionally my father didn’t shave for a few days on holiday (and how I hated his scratchy embrace) but I had hardly any experience of facial hair until the 1960s. And then, longer hair and beards started turning up on men I quite fancied.  In the 60s/1970s I admired a beard and used to like repeating a line I heard in Ned Kelly;

“Kissing a man without a beard is like eating porridge without salt”.

I liked them as a sign of rebellion, and even now beards retain something of the counter-cultural feel. For the average man (not film stars, as above) hair was washed once a week, whether it needed it or not. And using conditioner or a hair dryer was a preposterous suggestion. In those days the beard look was “natural” and dishevelled, rather than trimmed and tweaked. The whole point of a beard, for many, was that it allowed them to wear their hair uncut, and not be mistaken for a girl.

During the 1980s and 90s clean-shaved became the norm again, with a view that facial hair was dirty, disreputable and meant a man could not be trusted. Apparently Mrs Thatcher said she “wouldn’t tolerate any minister of mine wearing a beard”, and senior Labour MPs Stephen Byers, Alastair Darling, Peter Mandelson and Geoff Hoon were all shorn of their facial hair at the dawn of the new Labour era. I think Peter Mandleson makes the point with a thoroughly unpleasant upper lip growth. David Blunkett got away with it, but probably on the patronising grounds that blind people and razors are a dangerous combination.

Peter Mandelson
Peter Mandeleson MP for Hartlepool, (now Lord Mandleson)

Recently when Newscaster Jeremy Paxman grew a beard there was something of an outcry. He reacted strongly: “Unless you’re lucky enough to be Uncle Albert on Only Fools and Horses, Demis Roussos or Abu Hamza, the BBC is generally as pogonophobic as the late-lamented Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha [who outlawed beards in the 1970s].” Nevertheless his beard only lasted a few weeks. There certainly was pressure for men to be clean shaved in politics and journalism until very recently, and beard wearing, although very common in London, has only just become normal. First we saw an increase in trimmed beards – similar to the Lenin look above – where stubble and topiary was the order of the day. Nowadays the full beard seems to be the thing. In London today you will see alot of beards. In fact “Beard” and “Hipster” seem to go together like “Horse and Carriage”. These days beards are so common place one of my sons (second right – with bearded friend Doug) and my husband have one and no one really sees fit to comment more than once. I admit I rather like them.

Gus, Doug and friends

If you wear one

  • Keep it clean with shampoo and condition if necessary
  • shave the neck
  • trim so that your mouth is free

What do you think?

7 Responses

  1. Tim Morton

    I was at secondary school in the late 60s early 70s, and still remember a teacher yelling at a youth – “Tompkins where’s your tie? And get a haircut and a shave, you look like a girl” oh how we all laughed.
    In the early 90s at a housing co-op conference a bearded senior civil servant told us that Mrs T didn’t approve of facial hair, and you could tell the TrueBelievers by their shaved eyebrows.

  2. symondezyn

    Interesting post! Do you think as women, our perceptions of facial hair are quite affected by what our fathers did? I ask because I cannot look at a moustached man with attraction because my dad always wore a moustache, although I do consider it very dignified looking. I like a sort of rugged look, though – that kind of ‘shaven but a few days growth’ kind of look – it’s very roguish LOL. I also always admire a full beard – I agree, it’s very counter-culture and reminds me of either bikers or hippies – and what girl doesn’t secretly love a bad boy? LOL ^__^

  3. Sewniptuck

    My husband finally grew a beard at age 50, it took a lot of cajoling to get him there. He shaved it off when we got back from hols and I admit its easier to get up close and personal with a clean shaven face – but I loved the look. My son experiments constantly with facial hair, I like him in a beard (BTW what a good lookin’ boy you have!), but am not a fan of his 70s porn star moustache – he looks like my uncle in it! Any time a guy takes enough interest in his appearance to alter it, is a bonus in my view.

  4. Galina

    I didn’t know that Mrs Thatcher disapproved of beards, but I do know that in Russia it was Peter the Great who demanded his noblemen cut off their beards. And since then the traditional Russian long beard began to be considered savage and has seized to exist.
    I personally dislike bearded faces on young men, but think older men look interesting with beards.
    Talking about moustache, I recently saw a vintage silver spoon that apparently is meant to prevent the moustache touching food when eating soup. The spoon owner, a lady of aristocratic discend, said it belonged to her father who used it a lot. I wonder how men with facial hair tackle this problem nowerdays?

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