About a decade ago, we noticed a rebirth of the beard
unseen since the 1970s. The occasion for that observation was the release of a book entitled The World Beard and Moustache Championships
, which claimed to be the first official book to document a growing international war of whiskers.
It’s surprising to see the beard back again. For most of the 20th century, unless you were Jesus, Santa or Burl Ives, beards usually got a skeptical look. Facial hair was culturally suspect, from the Lenin-sized Van Dyke to a nose-to-throat Manson beard.
It wasn’t always that way. As historian and author Adam Goodheart noted in his book 1861
, “The men of the 1850s and 1860s expressed their ideals of masculinity through their physical appearance. Most noticeable, and revealing, was the astonishing profusion of facial hair that sprouted forth during those years. … For a century and a half, American men (and most Europeans) had, nearly without exception, gone clean-shaven: it was a sign of gentility, civility, and restraint. … That changed very suddenly.” Goodheart describes a scene very much like today’s, all without using the word “hipster” …
As early as 1844, one physician began inveighing against “woman faced men” with their habit of “emasculating [the] face with a razor.” … By the following decade, … talk of a “beard movement” was sweeping the nation. In 1857, a conscientious journalist took a stroll through Boston’s streets and conducted a statistical survey: of the 543 men he encountered, no fewer than 338 had full, bushy beards, “as God meant to have them,” while nearly all the rest sported lesser facial hair of various sorts. Only four were “men of the old school, smooth shaven, with the exception of slight tufted promontories jutting down from either ear, as if designed as a compromise measure between the good old doctrine and modern radicalism.”
Thus began the great Golden Age of Beards, perhaps best expressed in those pictorial histories of U.S. presidents, a 30-year period from Lincoln through Harrison when the American beard was in full, luxuriant growth. Reflecting on the period, novelist Booth Tarkington marveled how “it was possible for a Senator of the United States to wear a mist of white whisker upon his throat only, not a newspaper in the land finding the ornament distinguished enough to warrant a lampoon.” It finally came to a close around the turn of the last century, right about when Boston inventor and businessman King Gillette introduce the safety razor.
Who knows what’s driving the growth of beards this time. In the 1970s, beards seemed to be at the intersection of the counterculture and country, with a few grains of granola thrown in.. It could be that, in a world where so much has become automatic, assisted, and push-button that men need some marker to show that they’re masculine. Or it could be much like Goodheart described the “beard movement” of 150 years ago: “In the American context, beards connoted a certain frank and uncompromising authenticity.”
Whatever the reason for all these furry faces, metro Detroit’s men will have a chance to show off their beards in seven weeks. (That ought to give you enough time to finish growing that Verdi or imperial beard and mustache, right?) It’s an event called Detroit’s Circus of Whiskers
, and it will have competition categories for the natural mustache, the styled mustache, the partial beard, mutton chops, the groomed beard and styled mustache, the full beard natural (under 6 inches), and the full beard natural (over 6 inches), as well as freestyle.
There will be music, performances, and, of course, the big facial hair showdown, hosted by master of ceremonies Ray Hollifield. It all happens at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, at the Tangent Gallery, 715 Milwaukee Ave., Detroit; admission is $15 for spectators or competitors, with proceeds going to Detroit Animal Welfare Group, a no-kill nonprofit (dawghous.com). To learn more about the competition, see radbdesigns.com/circusofwhiskers