A pogonophobe’s view of facial hair in history

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By | The Researcher’s View

Writer Lucinda Hawksley provides the seventh in our series of posts for Movember.  The series is commissioned by guest editor and “pogonographer-in-chief” for the month, Dr Alun Withey.

My book, Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards, a history of facial hair in portraiture, came into being following a walk around the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery. I was with a colleague thinking up ideas for gallery talks. When we stopped in front of the enormously noxious beard sported by William Holman Hunt, my colleague noticed my shudder and asked why. I admitted that all those huge Victorian beards made me feel sick, especially when coupled with a knowledge of 19th century hygiene practices (or lack thereof). He joked that I needed to “face my phobia” and give a talk on Victorian beards.

William Holman Hunt

Artist, William Holman Hunt. Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

A few weeks later he emailed to say everyone in the office loved the idea and please could I do a talk on Victorian facial hair. The talk was so popular, I was asked for a Movember tour of moustaches in the gallery. From that, my book proposal was born. I had discovered that the rise and fall (or the curl and shave?) of facial hair in Britain has a fascinating story, tied in with many different aspects of social history.

Moustaches whiskers and beards book cover

Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Did you know that three of the most heavily bearded eras in British history have coincided with the reigns of female monarchs? During the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria men remained bearded for decades, with beards leaping out of fashion as soon as a king took power. Queen Elizabeth II has witnessed two beard explosions: in the 1960s-1970s and the 2010s.

It seems that when women are in power, men feel the need to grow beards – and the bigger and bushier, the better. When Maggie Thatcher came to power, the 1970s beard was waning, so under the only female P.M. in British history (so far), fashionable men were seldom seen without ‘designer stubble’. It seems we can attribute the 2010s explosion to ‘new feminism’ – in which case I nod a dubious recognition to Caitlin Moran et al for ushering in so many hipster beards.

The history of female suffrage in Britain is littered with epidemics of [male] facial hair growth spurts.

It was the Crimean War that kicked off the Victorian beard craze. Previously, the British army had forbidden its men to grow beards. In the Crimea, the shortage of shaving soap, coupled with the need for extra warmth during harsh Crimean winters, resulted in an astoundingly hirsute army. William Howard Russell’s pioneering war reporting brought the true horrors of conflict home to civilians for the very first time and by the end of the war, in 1856, the sight of a bearded soldier was that of a hero. Men who had never been anywhere near a battlefield immediately began growing beards, to look as manly as a soldier. This fashion remained until the end of the 19th century – and for the older generation, right up to World War I.

James Thomas Brudenell

Lieutant-General James Thomas Brudenell. Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

It was no coincidence that this Victorian fervour for facial hair was happening at the same time as the suffragists were starting to believe the vote was about to be granted to women. Throughout the late 1850s and early 1860s, the great hope of the suffragist was the Liberal Party, who made copious pre-election promises about suffrage for all; but forgot about them once they got into power. The history of female suffrage in Britain is littered with epidemics of [male] facial hair growth spurts.

The very final death knell for the now outmoded Victorian beard, was World War I: gas masks could not create a seal on hairy skin. The beard did not return for many decades after the war, but as women began to agitate for the vote once again, increasing numbers of men began to grow moustaches. By the time of the 1929 General Election, when all adult women were permitted to vote for the first time (despite a widespread fear of the havoc that could be caused by ‘wandering wombs’ – check the Wellcome Library for dubious gynaecological theorising…), a dapper moustache was visible everywhere.

George Bernard Shaw

Playwright, George Bernard Shaw. Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

As the beard had fallen victim to the gas mask, the moustache fell prey to the Great Depression. In 1930, British unemployment figures doubled. In 1932, W. C. Graham published his book How to Get a Job During a Depression, exhorting jobseekers to: “Shave off that moustache if you’re looking for a job…. One of the most interesting details of seeking employment during a depression has been the fact that moustaches in practically all cases have been a hindrance…. A moustache should, of course, be kept where it hides some physical defect. It may also help in getting a job as a ‘gigolo’ or sheik, but there are practically no openings for them during a depression”.

I’ve been asked if writing Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards helped ease my pogonophobia – I feel the need to refer any such questioners to the Wellcome archives. I defy even a fervent beard-lover to come out of there without feeling just a tad queasy at the medical history associated with beards. I found one report by an early 20th century surgeon who complained that his older colleague, with a very long beard, let his beard hairs dangle into wounds as he sewed up his patients. The younger doctor kept careful notes, and published his findings – detailing the exact sites of infection that the bearded surgeon’s patients always suffered, which mimicked exactly where the skin had been brushed by unkempt tendrils. So, no, the pogonophobia remains, in fact I’m afraid to say, it got worse, but writing the book did make me far more partial to a well-kept, quirky moustache – as long as it’s kept clean of soup, cappuccino and other ubiquitous dangers.

Author: Lucinda Hawksley is a writer and author of Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards. Twitter: @lucindahawksley.

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