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15 Feb 2014

Return of the Beard

After a few long decades away from the spotlight, the mighty beard is once again back in fashion.  From the footy fields of Sydney to the fashion shows of Milan, an increasing number of men are embracing their facial follicles.  Has the beard become just another fashion accessory in a world obsessed with image, or are we witnessing a true return of masculinity?
While facial hair trends are probably not the most studied area of modern anthropology, there is some history of serious research.  A 1976 study by the University of Washington looked at facial hair trends between 1842 and 1972, by analysing the number of men depicted in the Illustrated London News over this period.  In this study, the "peak beard" period was found to be 1894, with almost 50 percent of the adult male population sporting a beard.

The shaving cream market must have sky-rocketed in the next few decades, however, with the number of bearded men dropping below 5 percent by the 1940s.  While the "peak moustache" period between 1915 and 1919 can be seen as a half-hearted attempt to regain some of this lost masculinity, full bearded men have been a rarity until very recently. 

The UK's Daily Mirror has picked up the slack in terms of beard research, conducting a similar study by comparing a 1972 and 2014 edition of their own publication.  While we are still a long way from "peak beard" conditions, according to the Daily Mirror, beards grew from just 7.36 percent of the population in 1972 to 34.38 percent today.  While the analysis of a single publication is a long way from hard science, the return of the beard in western society is a very real phenomenon.

According to Jonathan Pryce, the man behind the '100 Beards, 100 Days' project that chronicles bearded images, “It’s also about authenticity... If you look at fashion, all men’s trends are about being as masculine as possible. Ten years ago David Beckham and metrosexuality were the height of popularity in men’s fashion... Now it’s not. So, for instance, Levi’s has its vintage range, there’s hardware on clothes, a lot of workwear, lumberjack shirts – all authentic, genuine, masculine traits.”

The current beard revival does not seem limited to a single demographic, with tough AFL and NRL football players just as likely to sport a beard as skinny hipsters and style icons.  Men from very different walks of life are being united by their beards, as online communities and real life clubs develop around the presence of facial hair.  According to Pryce, "I get people who stop in me in pubs to have a chat about beards’. There’s a real community.” 

In the United States, facial hair-challenged men are even paying upwards of $7000 for beard transplant procedures.  According to plastic surgeon Jeffrey Epstein in a statement to, "Whether you are talking about the Brooklyn hipster or the advertising executive, the look is definitely to have a bit of facial hair."