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Your Beard Is Saying a Lot More Than You Think.
The history of civilization as we know it has been humankind's struggle to overcome nature, to assert order where entropy rules. But, as Christopher Oldstone-Moore writes in his book Of Beards and Men, each of us play out a microcosm of that struggle every morning in our personal grooming decisions. The question at hand—to grow a beard or to shave—not only tells us a lot about ourselves as individuals, but also, writ large, about our culture as a whole. "The history of men is literally written on their faces," he writes.
While the surfeit of attention paid in recent years to a seeming bearded resurgence headed up by the world's hipsters, athletes, and celebrities might lead one to believe that we're living through one of the seismic facial hair realignments Oldstone-Moore identifies, we're not quite there yet. A "smooth face is still very much the norm," he writes. You need look no further than the pages of publications like this one, with recurring features about how to get the best shave, to recognize how in thrall we've become to the cultivation of our facial geography. A beard, then, is still a signifier of outsider status, no matter how many trend pieces you might read.
It's periods like the time of the Roman emperor Hadrian, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the 19th Century that he points to as truly beard-centric eras, and in investigating the genesis of each movement throughout the book, he peeks behind the beard to lay out the political, religious, evolutionary, and broader cultural import of what seems on the surface like a largely ornamental matter of personal style.
I spoke with Oldstone-Moore, a lecturer in history at Wright State University, about what beards can tell us about manliness throughout history, and about ourselves today.
Esquire: You write that "the history of men is written on their faces." Explain that a little.
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: The idea is that that facial hair can be seen as an index to changing ideas over time of what it means to be a man. Over time these kind of shifts are uncommon; they're big shifts that happen periodically throughout history.
You talk about four distinct beard periods throughout history. What are they?
Well, you get shaving established as a norm by Alexander the Great, [which continued] in the Greek Hellenistic period. And then you have a first beard movement in the 2nd Century under Emperor Hadrian, who was the leader of the Roman world at the time, and so he grew a beard and established a new standard. Very deliberately. It was absolutely an intentional statement about himself and true manliness. And then you have, in the Middle Ages, kings and knights favoring beards, particularly in the middle of the Middle Ages. And then in the Renaissance they come back again, in the 1500s. That's the third beard movement. And then finally one more time in the late 19th Century that we're all familiar with.
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