New Statesman – July 18, 1914
A FRENCH colonel has just sounded a rally in defence of hair on the face. Observing a
constant dwindling of the area of cultivation on the countenances of his subordinates, he has not only issued an order to govern their future conduct in this matter, but has seized the opportunity to proclaim the general principle that the more hairs a man has, the better. A Franco-German military entente might possibly be arranged on this basis, for it is only a few weeks since a German general circulated to his command a prohibition of the “English or tooth-brush moustache” which has been latterly ousting the more luxuriant native growth. The full beard is not nowadays worn in most armies—in England this is apparently the case in order that we may distinguish the Army from the Navy—but the soldiers cling all the more desperately to the hairs that are left them. We knew a captain of gunners whose life was one long anguish because of his inability to develop the meagre and patchy sprouts that sprinkled his upper lip, and whose final decision to leave the Army was largely brought about by the despair into which he fell after for years spending half his pay on chemical fertilisers. He, we admit, was more than normally respectful of the conventions. He would have, for example, a restless night if he discovered that he had affixed a penny stamp to a letter at a time when fashion favoured two halfpenny ones. But at the back of his mind, we are sure, was a feeling that convention in the matter of hair was right, and that one who could not grow a moustache had no right to call himself a soldier and a man.
For the beard and its congeners the moustachio and the whisker have always had a certain moral significance in human societies. Their exaltation has certainly not been based on any observation of analogies in Nature. Nature has been quite sporadic in her distribution of beards. They have not been given to all the strongest, fiercest, largest, and wisest of her creatures. Men, ourang-outangs, goats, cranes, tits and whelks have beards; but no beards are to be observed on elephants, ostriches, or sharks. No very wide observation, we imagine, was the origin of the general reverence for beards. A sufficient explanation is the fact that women do not usually possess them. The beard is a banner which can be seen a mile off, emblazoned with the motto “Vir sum.” It was Tertullian, one of the most ferocious anti-feminists who ever existed, who denounced shaving as “a lie against our own faces, and an impious attempt to improve the works of the Creator.” He was all for the sex-distinctions; he would have echoed Sir Hugh Evans’s “I like not when a ‘oman has a great beard.” To this day the beard is held in most respect in the countries of the Mahommedan East, where women are held in less esteem than in any other countries above the savage state. There the beard goes with the soul as a prerogative and a token of sex. In common Moslem phraseology the beard, if not interchangeable with the soul, is at least treated as the outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual essence. La barbe cest Vhomme. If you want to swear by the Prophet or by your father, you swear by the beard of the Prophet or the beard of your father. “Beardless” is a term of contempt, and plucking by the beard the most violent and humiliating of insults. Even in Islamic countries fashions are influenced from outside, and full beards are not so plentiful in Turkey and Persia as are moustaches. But the clean-shaven man is still regarded as the soft man, and this has been a very general conception. “Shaven ecclesiastics” and “smooth-faced lawyers” are traditional terms wherein are embodied ideas as to the kind of men who are and should be permitted to shave, and the contempt with which the common man has regarded them. In Greece and Rome, before the ages of decadence, beards were regarded as necessary attributes of the two sorts of men held in most regard—soldiers and sages. It is impossible to imagine the Seven Wise Men clean-shaven; and in Rome men would use the mere adjective barbatus to describe a philosopher. Soldiers in the heroic ages of the two civilisations were bearded like the pard; and even when shaving became common artists continued in their representations of the gods to make distinctions based on character between the gods with beards and the gods without them. Jupiter the Thunderer, Vulcan the Smith, Mars the War God, Neptune the Sea God, were habitually invested with beards proportioned to their several ages and dignities; but the less awful and forcible deities like Apollo and Mercury had no face-hair, or at most a little perfunctory fluff. The Vikings were renowned for the size of their beards; Drake and his fellow-buccaneers wore them and showed the nature of their preoccupations by their chronic desire to singe the beard of the King of Spain. Beards in their day were signs of virility and probably signs also of honesty. Men of the Beard Ages always tended to regard shaving as implying both weakness and cunning. They thought of shaving as the act of a man ashamed of his own body, a man with a taste for concealment and for twisting things to his own purposes. Even when the Romans had mostly abandoned beards they looked back on them as the symbols of a manlier and franker life than theirs; and there are still to be found, in France and Germany and even in England, persons who have a sneaking reverence for beards, and associate them with dignity and magnanimity as well as with the martial virtues.
But the old position of the facial hair has been thoroughly undermined in the last few centuries. The growth of personality and individualism has had something to do with destroying its repute. It was significant that the first fierce modern attack on the beard came from the greatest of the Renaissance humanists, who scoffed at “that bush of wisdom, no other ornament than what Nature in more ample manner has given to goats.” A day does not suffice to build Rome or to destroy the beard. It is notorious, moreover, that progress goes in waves and that troughs come between the waves. The eighteenth century in the more advanced countries of the world saw the shaven face in an inexpugnable ascendancy. After the Crimean War, whence so many of our soldiers came back bristling like hedgehogs, there was in England a renascence of the Superfluous Hair. But the last two decades have seen the beard hopelessly beaten, and even the moustache in full retreat. Sailors, who are encouraged to grow beards, refuse to do so more often than not; and in civil life men of all professions and of undoubted courage and honesty shave cheeks, chin, and upper lip as well. The feeling is spreading that hair is not a part of one’s face, but a covering alien to it; that the face is a great revealer of character and the diversity of faces interesting; and that we do not want to reduce faces to a dead level by a growth of hair which covers many of the most significant lines of our features. The conditions of modern life reinforce the growth of personality in this matter. Convenience abets vanity. “How Homer could write with so long a beard I don’t know,” said Sterne. Homer, at any rate, had no ink in which his beard could dabble. A modern man with a long beard would be eternally finding it caught in the cogs of the industrial machine—not to mention the defects of beards, of which Homer and Drake would have taken no stock, as pickers-up of unmasticated trifles. We have no longer, moreover, any desire to emphasise the differences between men and women. Men do not insist on beards as the marks of virility as opposed to femininity. Correspondingly, the women’s point of view has changed, and beards have no longer the old attraction for them. Man after man of our acquaintance has grown a beard, to show that he could; and then shaved it off, to show his lack of respect for the fetish. The moustache itself, we believe, would lose ground with immensely increased rapidity if our soldiers were permitted to shave; for the Army has a strong influence over fashion in this matter. But, leaving out of consideration elderly men, who find shaving a nuisance, wearers of full beards are now in a hopeless minority, and we see no signs of recovery.
It is even possible that it may soon be considered actually as effeminate to wear a beard as to smoke a cigarette. In this respect the recent Futurist manifesto, denouncing exuberant hairiness of all kinds, is a sign of the times. If we see a man with a beard to-day, as likely as not he turns out to be an artist or a litterateur or a devotee of some emasculate cult. The American hustlers, and the men who discover Poles and disembowel mountains, have no beards; the finest beards we know belong to refined anti-militarists, vegetarians, Tolstoyans, and Christian Scientists. It is quite likely that the day is not far off when the big blonde beard which of old we associated with the battle-axe and the flagon will suggest to us merely sandals and sackcloth, the gentle lentil and the pensive pea. Unable to withstand the evolution of thought, the armies of the world will fling aside their moustaches as being on the dubious frontiers of effeminacy. Beards will be relegated to the tender and the dreamy, the hyper-aesthetic and the decadent, the ugly man whose face is his misfortune and the delicate man whose throat needs protection from the cold. The future is to the bare-faced.