A month of pogonography on the blog

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By | The Researcher’s View

To mark Movember, we invited “pogonographer-in-chief” Alun Withey to commission a month of posts celebrating the history and culture of facial hair. Should prove to be a hairy ride!

2015 has been another year in which the beard has stubbornly resisted all attempts at predicting its downfall. Despite a raft of newspaper and magazine articles claiming that ‘peak beard’ has been reached, even a cursory glance around the high street confirms that there is little sign of that decline so far. Indeed, with a new crop of celebrity beard-wearers, including Prince Harry, and the continual appearance of bearded models on catwalks and advertisements, the beard seems to be going from strength to strength.


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Winter has, in fact, become the season of beards and moustaches. Several years ago, the charity ‘Movember’ was established, encouraging men to grow their moustaches in November in aid of prostate and testicular cancer, and post pictures of their efforts online. ‘Decembeard’ has more recently become popular, to raise money for the fight against bowel cancer.

Both highlight the importance of facial hair as a male emblem. Beards, moustaches, whiskers and all points in between, have long been symbols of manliness. They are a highly public ‘face’ of masculinity, able to be grown, styled, controlled and shaved according to fashion or culture. But there is also an important health and hygiene history to the beard. In fact I am just beginning a three-year study into the history of facial hair in Britain between 1700-1918, funded by the Wellcome Trust, which will explore everything from the changing medical conceptions of facial hair, to barber surgeons and even the impact of new razor technologies upon decisions to shave.

V0040592 Two short men in top hats and carrying canes are sporting mo Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Two short men in top hats and carrying canes are sporting moustaches, they are watched from behind by two considerably more elegant men with whiskers. Wood engraving by John Leech. By: John LeechPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The Moustache Movement, wood engraving by John Leech. Wellcome Library reference: 35215i.

This month I am assuming the mantle of ‘Pogonographer in Chief’ as the Wellcome Library blog is turned over to the history of facial hair. Over the next few weeks we will feature posts on a wide variety of topics relating to facial hair, across different time periods, countries and cultures, and from a range of academic experts working on the history of pogonotrophy (the art of cultivating facial hair) and pogonotomy (the art of shaving it off!).

Amongst our contributors this month are Dr Margaret Pelling, an expert on the history of the barbering profession and renowned medical historian. Dr Christopher Oldstone-Moore, author of a new history of beards, writes about the military moustache, while the author and historian Lucinda Hawksley takes us on a ‘pogonophobe’s’ journey through facial hair in history. Other posts explore facial hair as a disguise, the protective power of the beard and even beard bans in Medieval Ireland.


The philosopher Plato. Drawing after Raphael, ca. 1793. Wellcome Libary reference: 31815i.

A sceptic might ask why we should bother to study facial hair? Surely something as prosaic, mundane and everyday as the beard can’t tell us much about anything? In fact, though, facial hair is seldom meaningless. Whether to grow it or shave it off involves decisions, and the meanings behind those decisions can reveal a surprising amount about attitudes to male appearance, gender, identity and the body across time. Facial hair, then, does have a history; in fact, as we’ll see over the course of the month, it has multiple histories.

Alun Withey

Alun Withey

Dr Alun Withey, F.R.Hist.S is a Wellcome Research Fellow at the Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter. He is just embarking on a major study titled 'Do Beards Matter?: Facial hair, health and hygiene in Britain, c. 1700-1918', funded by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Wellcome Trust. Read more on his blog or find him on twitter: @DrAlun

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