After decades of shame; after decades when it signalled a shucking off of libido and a decline into sexless middle age; after decades when it seemed like the exclusive choice of socks-and-sandal wearers, the beard has returned to claim a place of honour among men.
Look about you on the streets of Hackney, Williamsburg, Silver Lake or any of the other neighbourhoods where the image-conscious gather and you’ll see them in abundance. The popularity of the beard has been gathering pace since the turn of the decade. But 2012 surely marks the point when it has
leapt from cult choice to mainstream standard. This is the year we’ve seen beards on the Croisette in Cannes (Ewan McGregor, Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gerard Butler), in catwalk shows (Vivienne Westwood, Casely-Hayford, Gant Rugger, Engineered Garments, Hixsept), in ad campaigns for high street fashion brands (Carhartt Heritage, Urban Outfitters, French Connection, Original Penguin), on the football pitch (David Beckham, Thierry Henry) and in the dugout (Andre Villas-Boas, Pep Guardiola), and on the faces of a multitude of musicians (Will Oldham, Ghostpoet, Bon Iver).
In years to come, when they make movies or write books about this time, the beard will be used as a definitive visual shorthand for the early 21st century, as the moustache is for the Seventies and a pair of mutton chops for Regency England.
For all its recent prominence, the return of the beard has gone largely unnoticed across much of the media. One of the few places it has been spotted is Portlandia, the popular US cable TV sketch show that does an expert job at skewering the mores of hipster culture in the Pacific Northwest. On that programme, earnest, bearded men with a taste for microbrewery- produced ale and locally sourced charcuterie are a frequent target of satire. Portlandia’s success as a show is built on the recognition that small, apparently minor fluctuations in style and taste are revealing of larger shifts in culture and society. Above and beyond any of the other pretensions mocked in the programme, that logic can certainly be applied to beards. It’s tempting to dismiss the unshaven look as just another vagary of fashion, no more consequential, say, than super-skinny jeans or side-swept hair. But the closer you search for the reasons why beards are back in style — as I’ve been doing over the past few months — the more you realise the reasons run far deeper than fickle trend.
In fact, the return of the beard says a significant amount about men and how we’re living just now: about our hopes, our fragilities, our attitudes and worldview. With a nod to the Portland sketch show we might call that worldview “Beardlandia” and define it as a state of mind expressive of the aspirations and fears of men in the early 21st century. Or to put it more simply, if you want to know who men are today, look to the beard.
To get a full picture of the landscape of Beardlandia, we have to go back to the late Nineties, a period that marks probably the lowest recent point in the cultural fortunes of the beard. Specifically, we need to return to 1997, the year New Labour came to power and the dotcom bubble was starting to heat up. As Tony Blair was hosting the likes of Noel Gallagher and Mick Hucknall at 10 Downing Street, start-ups such as Boo.com were raising vast millions in venture capital. Both the new government and the tech companies shared a boosterish belief in the idea of progress. New Labour boasted it was a party unshackled by the past; “a party of ideas and ideals but not of outdated ideology.” The start-ups shared a similar ethos, best summed up in a breathless Wired cover story from 1997 on “The Long Boom” — a new era of internet- driven prosperity about to “transform our world into the beginnings of a global civilisation, a new civilisation of civilisations, that will blossom through the coming century.”
Neither group had any love for beards. The future, as imagined in Silicon Valley, was going to be delivered by smooth-jawed young visionaries without the ability or inclination to sprout facial hair. And for New Labour, beards were everything they abhorred. Beards were Clause IV and Militant. Donkey jackets and picket lines. Marx and Engels. Armed with polling that showed the public saw hirsute politicians as “strange, divergent and unreliable”, party spin doctors ordered MPs to go clean-shaven. Some (Alistair Darling, Stephen Byers) bent to the razor. The refusniks (Frank Dobson, Jeremy Corbyn) were cast out to the back benches, beards intact and buoyed only by the odd newspaper editorial. In the words of The Independent, “If a beard was good enough for Jesus, why not New Labour?”
The era of techno- utopianism proved short-lived. With the dotcom implosion, 9/11 and the various scandals of the War Against Terror came a more reflective public mood. Time magazine, in a post-attacks editorial, declared: “The age of irony comes to an end.” A new poetry scene briefly sparked in America calling itself “The New Sincerity Movement”. And around that time, the architect Rem Koolhaas wrote a widely circulated essay titled “Junkspace”, an attack on the paucity of urban design that also painted an image of a modern society exhausted by abundance and apparently drained of hope: “Regurgitation is the new creativity; instead of creation, we honour, cherish, and embrace manipulation… Superstrings of graphics, transplanted emblems of franchise and sparkling infrastructures of light, LEDs, and video describe an authorless world beyond anyone’s claim, always unique, utterly unpredictable, yet intensely familiar.”
Branded goods and market economics had robbed our society of its soul, argued Koolhaas. The anti- globalisation protestors rioting outside international meetings of the G8 shared the same belief. But what was to be done? Had we forgotten how to care for each other as a society or was it still possible to build a future not determined by empty materialism?
The first flickerings of an alternative philosophy came out of way left field around the middle of the last decade.
In 2004, Devendra Banhart, the Texas-born, Venezuela-raised folksinger put together a compilation album of new folk music called The Golden Apples of the Sun. The record brought together unknowns such as Six Organs of Admittance, Vetiver and Espers alongside higher profile names like Joanna Newsom and Iron & Wine.
It marked the first formal gathering together of a thriving underground music scene that soon gained the name “freak folk”. The scene’s acts drew from a wide range of shared influences including blues, hillbilly, Krautrock, ritualistic performance and cosmic jazz. Like Banhart, many of them were extravagantly bearded. They tended to dress like medieval troubadours and their references were edenic, mystical, psychedelic. As Banhart described it, “If there’s anyone we relate to, it’s our moms and dads, and older hippies, people into Eastern philosophies and New Age.”
But what was most striking about the folksters was their sense of solidarity. Although they were based in scattered locations across the US, they often performed and toured together, forging in the process a community of artists and fans connected by a connected sensibility. For all their willed naivety, they believed in each other and in the promise of a natural world richer than the glitter of consumer society. Their songs were full of allusions to trees and rivers, forests and sunshine. And they were dismissive of the attractions of an urban lifestyle. Trapped by the values of the mainstream, most of us were “passing so much beauty/ passing on so much beauty,” sang Wooden Wand on “Spiritual Inmate”.
While the likes of Koolhaas could only bemoan the current state of things, the folksters already seemed to be pointing beyond Junkspace to an alternative way to live and work. As Baltimore’s Animal Collective have it, “I don’t care for fancy things/Or to take part in the vicious race…There isn’t much that I feel I need/A solid soul and the blood I bleed”.
Although the dynamism of the scene has dissipated in recent tears,freak folk has proved to be an influential movement. Its core principles of disdain for consumerism and love of nature, have been taken into the mainstream by bearded pastoralists like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver; the latter’s Justin Vernon recorded his debut album while spending three months in a remote cabin in northwestern Wisconsin.
The popularity of such acts helped give beards more credibility at the turn of the decade than would have seemed likely or possible just short years earlier. But while hirsuteness came to stand for a kind of freeform artistry, it also became synonymous with a traditionalist mindset that preferred the rural to the urban, the handmade over the mass-produced and heritage to modernity. Think of the wave of back-to-the-land books that emerged a few years ago with titles like A Place in My Country: In Search of a Rural Dream (by Ian Walthew) and A Farm of Our Own: A Spiritual Journey Running a Smallholding (by Graham R Irwin). Or a shop like Labour and Wait, whose selection of galvanised steel buckets and Brady fishing bags bespeaks a desire to turn the clock back to a time pre-digital technology or mass-produced consumer goods.
Both the positives and the pitfalls of such an attitude can be summed up by the case of the Fence Collective, a loose-knit unit of beardie folk musicians and electronic artists clustered on the fishing village of Anstruther in East Fife. Like the freak folksters, the Fence Collective often play and record together, releasing many of their songs on their own label out of Anstruther. The scene’s been developing for some time, but in the last couple of years it’s started to gather more attention through Collective members like the critically lauded James Yorkston and King Creosote, who was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2011.
It’s churlish to criticise success gained with the degree of integrity and lack of commercial compromise shown by the scene. Still, you can’t help wondering if carving an alternative to the mainstream needs to involve quite
the amount of sepia-tinted, olde-worlde imagery and hand-knitted jumpers favoured by the Collective. After all, there’s a grim trajectory that leads from such pre-industrial nostalgia to the flat caps and tweed waistcoat-wearing horror of Mumford & Sons.
Indeed, the shadow of the West London band falls heavy over the return of the beard prompting, as it does, the question of whether it’s possible to go hirsute without succumbing to the fogeyishness of Barbour jackets, vintage bicycles and suede elbow patches. How you answer that question — in fact, if it even occurs to you to ask it — is perhaps the key criterion for whether a man belongs or not to Beardlandia. For the true Beardlandia man, facial hair isn’t expressive of a desire to escape into some kind of idealised notion of pre-war English manhood.
Rather it’s about embracing contradiction: eschewing the excesses of consumer society without abandoning modernity; enjoying the rural while delighting in the urban; acknowledging the flaws of 21st century life without insisting things were better in the old days. Much of that attitude springs from a desire to stay relevant and in touch as the years tick by. Every generation faces the dilemma of how to grow older while still staying young in spirit. The Sixties generation has rock ’n’ roll to draw from even as they hit retirement age. Men in their mid-thirties to forties today are having to search out their own route. For some, Beardlandia is the answer.
Around a decade ago, Robin Turner was working in A&R at Heavenly Records, “going to gigs two or three times a week and getting shit-faced”. By the end of the Noughties, that lifestyle began to pall. “We were surrounded by really bad music, The Libertines, Razorlight, these really unambitious bands.” Bored, and with the label’s fortunes at a low ebb following a takeover, Turner joined Heavenly boss Jeff Barrett and colleague Andrew Walsh in a new side venture they’d launched, a website called Caught by the River (caughtbytheriver.net).
Barrett and Walsh were keen anglers and the site was founded initially on the conversation and ideas they traded sitting at the water’s edge. Caught by the River’s patron saints were Chris Yates, a champion angler and prolific writer, and Roger Deakin, author of the influential wild swimming book Waterlog, both of whom provided a model for how to write insightfully about nature without romanticising rural life.
“Deakin was preaching what we called a pastoral anarchy,” says Turner. “Him and Yates were a lot more punk rock than anyone on the cover of NME at the time.”
As well as a popular website, Caught by the River is today also a publishing imprint, producing anthologies of nature writing by the likes of Jarvis Cocker and Irvine Welsh and staging readings and performances at places like the South Bank Centre and Port Eliot Festival. And Turner’s own journey from enthusiastic young hedonist to bearded 41-year-old writer and nature enthusiast is typical of the path many of his readers have trod in recent years.
“We’ve found an older crowd who used to be into music in a big way and are feeling slightly disenfranchised now,” says Turner. “They’ve realised that doing things like going fishing and bird watching aren’t innately uncool.”
To put Turner’s point another way, your view of what’s cool changes as you get older. Jason Jules, 48, is an elegantly dressed, full-bearded designer and writer on men’s style. He runs a small menswear label called House of Garmsville that makes accessories such as leather bags and belts. Jules is also an astute trend watcher who’s worked as a creative consultant for labels such as Red Wing, Dickies, Caterpillar and Gant Rugger. In doing so, he’s tracked the evolving views on cool of his generation of style-conscious men, who now form the main demographic of Beardlandia.
In the Nineties, says Jules, men like him were obsessed with trainers and football and shopped at stores like the Duffer of St George and J Simons, he Covent Garden-based importer of American Ivy League brands like Bass Weejun shoes (now in Marylebone). They were clean-shaven, crop-haired, almost Modish in attitude. Today, Jules and his peers still want to look good, especially now that with higher incomes and established careers they can buy more of what they want. But they are sniffy about current men’s fashion, which to their minds, has become coarse and flashy, typified by boy-band haircuts, gym-toned bodies and logo-centric brands like Abercrombie & Fitch.
To set themselves apart from those high street trends, they have grown beards and developed a taste for high-priced functional clothing and esoteric heritage brands from the US and Japan. This kind of Beardlandia man has made a cult out of provenance just as surely as the foodies who obsess about the type of grass eaten by the organically reared beef on the plate before them. They treasure items like the Everest Parka designed by Nigel Cabourn, a meticulous recreation of the original orange Fairydown jacket worn by Sir Edmund Hilary during his ascent of Everest in 1953. Cabourn’s parka retails for around £2,000. That’s a price that would put many off, but it probably acts as a perverse incentive to Beardlandia man, a sign that he is “investing” in an item of established quality. “It all boils down to heritage, authenticity, history,” says Jules. “It’s the same logic as buying a Rolex.”
In the last few years, an international network of blogs (A Continuous Lean, Selectism); magazines (Inventory, Free
& Easy) and menswear shops has sprung up covering brands treasured by Beardlandia man. The stores include Present in London, Oi Polloi in Manchester, Amsterdam’s Tenue de Nîmes, The Brooklyn Circus in New York and Vancouver’s Inventory. They carry labels like Woolrich Woolen Mills, Visvim, Mark McNairy, Engineered Garments and Beams Plus; brands that typically take an archival approach to design, sourcing original fabrics, using old hand looms and lasts and collaborating with generations-old companies steeped in Americana or English craftsmanship, like Viberg boots and Harris Tweed.
With their carefully displayed selections of backpacks, field note journals and hobbyist magazines, visiting one of the stores feels like enrolling on an exactingly image-conscious outward- bound course. But their focus on heritage has been influential, spurring a trend for functional fashion on the high street and kicking more traditional old-school labels like Barbour and Mackintosh into bolder collaborations with newer designers.
In 2012, the contours of the Beardlandia worldview have become clear. The beard today is a symbol of men’s desire to quit the noise and neon lights of Junkspace; to find something truer and more stable to hold onto as they grow older and the world spins faster. But why now? If the beard is an attempt to affirm an authentic male self, then what’s prompting so many men to feel they need to assert their maleness at this moment in time?
Perhaps they’re afraid.
In 2010, women became the majority of the workforce in the US for the first time in the nation’s history. As The Atlantic magazine argued in a story called “The End of Men”, a post-industrial economy based on innovation, emotional intelligence and strong networking skills means women have a decisive advantage over men in the coming century.
With traditional ways of being male, rooted in the Industrial Revolution and its domestic division of labour, becoming obsolete, the status roles once reserved for men — breadwinner, head of the household — are disappearing. Stripped of responsibility and coming up short on attainment, the effect has been an extended male adolescence.
Think of the ambition-free schlubs in Judd Apatow movies like Knocked Up and Pineapple Express. Or their real life corollaries, like Japan’s soshoku danshi (“herbivore men”), twentysomethings who’ve rejected the pursuit of career
or sex for online gaming, gardening and home decorating.
The apparently terminal decline of manhood is best summed up by the title of recent book Man Down: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt That Women are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers, and Just About Everything Else by Dan Abrams.
But before we say RIP to the male species, it’s worth considering that we’ve been here before. In the latter half of
the 19th century, men were also said to be in crisis. Then as now, the culprit was the shifting socio-economic landscape: industrialisation and new technology, the growth of consumerism society and
the increasing role of women in public life.
According to an editorial in the North Carolina Presbyterian newspaper, modern men were becoming “weak, effeminate, decaying and almost ready to expire from decrepitude.”
“The whole generation is womanised,” complained a character in Henry James’ The Bostonians. “The masculine tone is passing out of the world.”
Maleness of course, didn’t die out. Exhorted to take up vigorous pursuits like boxing or ride out to the wilderness to reassert their place in the world, most men opted for a simpler approach: they grew a beard. Once considered rakish and vaguely disreputable, the beard boomed, exciting much commentary. The painter James Ward penned an “Essay in Defense of the Beard”, and an article in Dickens’ Household Words magazine asked, “Why shave?”
The advice book Decorum said, “The person who invented razors libelled nature. There is nothing that so adds
to native manliness as the full beard if carefully and neatly kept.”
For millions of men, the beard became a potent symbol of masculinity, adopted by the most prominent figures of the Victorian era from Dickens, Marx and Darwin to British Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil and US President Rutherford B Hayes. Then as now, a beard was not just a beard. It articulated a determination to express the full possibility of what it meant to be a man in changing times. Then, as now, Beardlandia was a state of mind