The History of Facial Hair

Sometimes I just fall over a book that I never in a million year could have gone out looking for, but that turns out to be a really interesting and entertaining read. This is one of those, "Svenska skägg" (= Swedish beards) by Magnus von Platen, who was a professor of literature (he died in 2002).

Did you know that men shaved already in the Bronze Age? For hundreds of years, the beard was a sign of old age and authority. In some places, beards were not grown until the next generation had taken over the responsibility for the farms. A bearded man was a retired man, someone perhaps with a position as alderman, a community leader.

During the Middle Ages a lot of knights shaved, since the beards prevented them to fit into their armour. And did you know that during long periods the wearing of facial hair was strictly regulated by law? During the 18th Century, for example, soldiers had to wear a moustache, and those who did not have enough natural growth, like teenagers, had to wear false moustaches. They were issued from the same supply depot that provided for other uniform garments. Some painted them on. At times, regulation demanded that they be blackened, by every soldier, regardless of haircolour. Imagine how that must have looked! Facial hair was very much something reserved for the military, and civilan men were a bit miffed about it, since moustaches were very popular with the girls.

Around the 1850´s, revolutionary winds swept over Europe and young men started wearing beards again, although they faced some resistance. The stories reminded me a bit about when women started wearing trousers, almost a hundred years later. One had to put up with stranger´s bullying in the streets, and such. However, when the Swedish king started sporting a beard in 1959, it became fully acceptable again, and facial hair fashions spread quickly. Actually, the Swedish regents wore beards until 1924, when Gustav III shaved his off. During these years the classic professor´s beard was established in culture, represented by men like Pasteur and Darwin. When the Swedish Academy met in 1899, 17 members (of 18) had beards.

Shaving returned with the invention of the safety razor by King C Gillette in 1903 and became necessary during the Great War, because of the gas mask (a bit like the medieval armour requirements). Beards became fashionable again in the 50´s, and there was another revolutionary beard sported by the 68-generation and the progressive movement in the 70´s.

I had no idea facial hair was so interesting, political and socially significant. I naively thought it was just up to every individual man. And perhaps now it is. But I´m sure there are work places where there are rules about these things, just like there are rules for women about skirts and make up. It just was not something I had reason to think about before. And did you know, at times it has been considered handsome in a woman to have facial hair, as a sign of character and forcefulness?

1 comment:

  1. In the Swiss Army it is not really allowed to have a beard, but nowadays if someone has not shaved in more than 5 days they are allowed to keep it. So if you know a Swiss guy who suddenly has a beard you can bet he is going into the military and wants to avoid having to shave every morning. :-)