Should a gentleman wear a beard? This may be a more interesting question than what would, at first glance, appear to be a trivial pursuit of vain fashion law-making. I am unfortunately not competent enough to provide my readers with a sophisticated exploration into whether or not a beard is an appropriate addition to a man’s fashion for pure fashion’s sake. However, if I may be permitted, I would like to engage in a brief conversation on the significance and purpose of the beard, in order to better understand the part it can play in the life of a gentleman. For the sake of clarity, I will be using the term “beard” to refer to all facial hair-despite that, in the literal sense, it excludes the mustache.
Historically, the beard has enjoyed a long and enduring position as a status symbol. Often, it would be indicative of wisdom or experience. Some cultures perceived a lack of beard as a sign of shame, such as the Gaelic Celts of Ireland and Scotland. Throughout the Bible, the cutting of the beard is used as a sign of mourning or shame. A long beard is used as a metaphor for prosperity. Thus, it has often been included in our perception of dignity and wisdom, particularly on elderly men. It has also been a symbol of aggression and strength although, interestingly enough, the method that a beard is worn often translates into the symbolism being portrayed. I already mentioned that a long beard was often used metaphorically in the Bible to portray wisdom and prosperity-but an additional caveat to this is the question of trimming. In the situations where beards represent wisdom, beards are to be kept trimmed and well-kept. Whereas, those cultures that perceive the beard as iconic of aggression and physical strength will often allow the beard to grow unhindered without any form of hygienic attention.
More recently, the beard has become a big of a non-starter. The last Prime Minister in Canada to have facial hair was Sir Robert Borden-who enjoyed leadership from 1911-1920. He had a mustache and nothing more. Sir Mackenzie Bowell was the last Prime Minister to actually maintain a full beard-his tenure was between 1894 and 1896. In other words, it has been 117 years since a Prime Minister in Canada has worn a beard. Similarly, the last President of the U.S. who wore a beard was Benjamin Harrison, who left office in 1893-shortly before Bowell came to power in Canada. I believe that this is rather telling in regard to the current perception of the beard (I use the word “current” here to refer to the last century). Men are expected to be clean-shaven, as this represents an openness and honesty. The beard is perceived as aggressive and rough and-what is perhaps much more damaging, as elitist and reeking of “whiteness”. We often picture the old professor, self-indulgent and prideful, wearing a long soft beard which he strokes when he has discovered a particularly delightful nugget of truth which he can parade out for public viewing, and then bask in the adulation that he will receive as a result. Alternatively, we picture the old miner who walks around with his chest heaving and his beard seemingly acting as an extension of his emotions-short, uncontrolled, and spiky. But can we perhaps redeem the beard from this perception, much as the hat is beginning to make a resurgence?
Unfortunately, I must here give a disingenuous nod to the hipsters of the world, who are hard at work returning to the present a myriad of cultural hiccups that have been neglected by the previous wave of fashionable hippies, preppies, rockers, emos, and other diversifications of fashion. Although their intent is that of irony and disassociation with history, at least they have reinvigorated the beard as an option for those who wish to engage in beardly exploration while retaining a respectable position in society. I realize that I have just flashed my cards and admitted my own support of the emergence of the beard. My support of the beard can be paralleled to my support of a return of the hat-which I have previously written about. I believe that it creates a connectivity to the past which can serve to remind the present of the respectful and dignified way of behaving that was exemplified by previous inhabitants of our globe. However, I would like to extend my support beyond this rudimentary reasoning to dabble in the actual work that beards involve.
Beards, in my opinion, are the ultimate outlet for men to use a natural part of their body to make a statement about themselves. Women are wonderfully blessed with hair, and a world that is receptive to infinite amounts of diversity in hairstyling. Men, on the other hand, often find themselves restricted in the level of creativity they may use in working with their hair. In fact, it is often regarded as prissy or time-wasting when men engage in a great deal (or even a minimum) of work in styling and working with their hair. I have recently discovered that hair-gel is no longer utilized by any significant amount of men (a discovery that frightened me slightly, as it revealed my already-present disconnect with the youth culture at my age of 25). Beards, on the other hand, are expected to be the culmination of effort. Men who have well-trimmed and groomed beards are viewed with respect. They are men who are willing to take the time to take care of themselves, rather than manifesting a laziness that can cast doubt on the status of a man aspiring towards gentility. This is where I can safely say (thank goodness) that I depart from the hipster way of life. A beard, in my opinion, is to be well-maintained and act as a demonstration of respect towards one’s self and others. In this way, a beard can be the perfect symbol of a gentleman, but only if it is well-groomed. If this image can be maintained-and perhaps it will return to the common perception if it is utilized by a number of gentlemen in society, then we may see a rise in bearded politicians and men in the public sphere, as they seek to manifest an image of respectful, hardworking gentlemen. Let us hope that the person follows the image portrayed-and we may reach closer to our goal of a better, more grounded and honourable society.