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Friday, 29 August 2014

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When the shaven look was out of vogue and beards reigned supreme

SHAVING! Back in 1894, it wasn’t too popular.

Indeed, some commentators then regarded it as the “clean-shaving mania”. The West Cumberland Times, in that year, quoted the following: “Weak faces – and how many there are! – it makes weaker and more effeminate; strong faces it renders commonplace; it confounds all ages; it confuses all callings.

“The wearing of a beard is a prerogative of our sex of which every man ought to be proud.”

Back in 1894 these sentiments would scarce have caused a comment. Just scan any group photograph from that period and what do you find? Beards – of all shapes and sizes.

And for the few men who didn’t have beards, most opted to sport sideburns or moustaches. Being clean shaven was most certainly not the norm.

Perhaps our 1894 columnist had the answer, claiming that “Women admire it far more than the emasculate habit of shaving. It adds strength, dignity, character, to every face. It keeps us from all looking as much alike as twopenny pies; it admits of every variety of cut and fashion and culture”.

Beards varied greatly. Sir Wilfrid Lawson, in his later years, favoured the full flowing Old Testament prophet look, as did Darwin and Karl Marx. As did a great many ministers of religion, especially non-conformists. Their arguments for hairiness were both theological and practical. Some quoted Tertullian, an early Christian thinker, who maintained that to shave the beard “was blasphemy against the face”.

They also claimed that many preachers suffered from bronchial disorders, largely as a result of being clean shaven and if beards were to become commonplace, there would be no more sore throats. An interesting, if unlikely, claim. A topic for research, perhaps?

Now I am a bearded person. I didn’t intend to be. But when I was a student I was in digs with six others. If I was first in the only bathroom, the others would be impatiently rattling the door handle. If I was in last, the water was stone cold. As this was before the age of reliable electric razors, becoming “a hairy person” was eminently sensible.

At least I had a choice. Others didn’t. Older readers might care to cast their minds back some 40 years. You never saw a bearded policeman. You were never served in the bank by a bearded cashier. And when did you ever see a bearded soldier? These were just a few occupations forbidden to wear beards. I suspect that this ban crept in after the Great War.

Being clean shaven was thought desirable in the Twenties. During the 1926 General Strike, some Aspatrians went in for a spot of DIY. They held amateur barber sessions in the War Memorial Garden pavilion, for haircutting and shaving. During the strike, the surveyor turned a blind eye. But in 1927 the council decided to put a stop to these tonsorial activities.

It’s just occurred to me that, over the years, most bank managers I’ve known sported moustaches – from restrained handlebars to near the invisible “spiv” variety. And, as I remember, many of them went in for garish waistcoats under their uniform dark suits. Sartorial regulations probably didn’t cover waistcoats – then.

What about beards today? Are they in favour? How does the “Establishment” regard the bearded? Just how many bearded, or even bald, politicians in top jobs can you think of? And just how many quietly lost their moustaches over the years?

And as to the old claim that women find bearded men attractive? A quick survey by the Evening Star, back in 1996, found otherwise. To quote the headline of the day: “We’d rather smooch with a smoothie!”

But at least beards aren’t banned in this country, unlike post-War Albania. Reportedly, if I’d tried to get into that country back in the 1960s, I would, being bearded, not have been allowed entry.

And I’m not taxed for being bearded. Unlike the subjects of Peter the Great of Russia. On this day in 1698, he imposed a tax on beards. There was no escape. You couldn’t get into any town without passing a tax collector. If you had a beard, you had to pay and be given a copper disc – your beard licence, valid for one year.

I do hope this doesn’t give Alistair Darling any ideas.

PS Wasn’t he once a beardie?

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