Dr Jennifer Evans, University of Hertfordshire
A correspondent of the Athenian Gazette (1691) quizzed the editor, ‘What’s the reason that some Men have no Beards?’ Such men lack bodily heat and a ‘due disposition of Nature’ came the reply. That a man in the late seventeenth century felt the need to ask why some men either could not, or chose not to, grow a beard reveals to us the historically and culturally contingent ways in which facial hair is understood. But at this point our reader’s querulous concern was perhaps a rather outdated question, as the fashion for wearing a beard had started to fade in the mid-seventeenth century. Like today beards and facial hair had been booming in early the early modern period. Moreover, like today, men’s beards, moustaches, and fuzz were a visible and noteworthy part of the contemporary social environment. Today’s equivalent fashion and highly visible discussion is seen in everything from Movember, to the proliferation of men’s grooming products, to endless articles in newspapers and magazines about whether society has reached ‘peak beard’. Unlike now though we would not expect that a concerned citizen would seek a physiological explanation for why some men on the street do not sport one of the many styles of facial hair.
This current epoch of fashionable facial hair is one in a series of historical moments when men have sported beards and moustaches – besides the early modern era scholars have pointed to the noticeable trend for prominent facial hair seen in the nineteenth century. Yet as those like Christopher Oldstone-Moore have explained, beyond these hairy moments the default trend for men has been the clean-shaven face. The reasons why this might be the case have occupied scholars thinking on this subject, and work has predominantly focused upon the place of facial hair in constructions of gender.
The history of hirsute bodies is currently a trend amongst scholars across a range of disciplines. Our recently published edition, New Perspectives on the History of Facial Hair: Framing the Face, brings together a selection of essays by authors from a diverse range of disciplinary backgrounds to broaden these discussions. Beyond the understanding of facial hair as a marker of gender distinction, the essays in this collection consider its role in shaping status relationships in the military, its place in contact between variously hairy travellers and indigenous populations in the new world, how it was used as a marker of self-fashioning by young artists in nineteenth century Spain, how women in the past have appropriated and manipulated the power associated with facial hair, and how the consumption of shaving products was shaped by notions of technology and modernity.
The book represents the culmination of a series of discussions begun at a conference, Framing the Face, held in London in 2015 – at which, yes, several speakers’ own faces were framed by impressive beards. The papers presented at the conference and those in the volume show the rich and engaging history that considering facial hair opens up. This thankfully contradicts the rather startling opening line of an 1833 article in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine that announced ‘Thoughts upon beards’ to be ‘a dry, absurd, uninteresting, unprofitable subject’.
About the Author: Dr Jennifer Evans is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Hertfordshire. She is the author of Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England (Boydell & Brewer, 2014) and numerous articles on the early modern history of gender and body. In 2014 she co-founded the Perceptions of Pregnancy research network with Dr Ciara Meehan and with Dr Alun Withey, Wellcome Research Fellow in the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Exeter, she co-edited New Perspectives on the History of Facial Hair: Framing the Face, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.