by Anthony Enright
Fashion is cyclical and capricious; if hemlines are the ever changing variable in the world of women’s style, for men no style choice is more personal or complex than what to do about facial hair. You see, over the past few years the beard and mustache have had a moment. What seemingly began as a sign of hipster affectation akin to the wearing of trucker hats, work boots and lumberjack clothing has lately merged so far into the mainstream that the thoroughly vanilla guys in yogurt and laundry detergent ads can be seen sporting facial hair that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Civil War battlefield. What gives? How did facial hair move so quickly into the style mainstream, and how can you try it out without looking like a fashion victim?
I thought about doing a fun rundown of facial hair throughout history, but quickly realized the subject is far too broad for me to do it any kind of justice. Suffice to say that men’s individual and cultural relationships to the hair that grows on their face is massively weird. Beards, mustaches and other facial hair have a number of actual physical benefits, including protection, warmth and sheer convenience; shaving sucks now, can you imagine how much worse it would have been in the ancient world? On the cultural side, men’s facial hair has always had a link to perceived virility, masculine identity and status. Various cultures have attached religious and social constraints on when facial hair should be grown or removed, and it figures prominently into most of the world’s religious traditions either as a requirement or as a taboo. The social, sexual and political implications that can be subverted, hinted at or thwarted by simply growing or shaving your face are kind of astounding.
In small but significant ways, the past decade has seen facial hair variety return to a level not seen since the late 19th and early 20th century. I attribute it to the resurgence of interest in and acceptance of all things organic, natural and heritage. After all, what could be more natural than just letting nature take its course when it comes to your face. As culture has turned away (at least superficially) from things that are visibly artificial or augmented, it’s become more acceptable for guys to leave their natural facial hair intact without it being a political statement or direct social signifier. In other words, lots of different kinds of guys are now seen sporting beards and mustaches without it meaning anything or implying any shared social group. That said, there are still some general rules that you should be aware of if you’re trying out facial hair for the first time. I’m not going to get all imperious and say you should absolutely never grow a soul patch, but if you’re ever tempted to do something on your face you consider questionable just Google ‘bad facial hair’ to see how a bunch of otherwise attractive celebrities sabotage their own good looks with unfortunate facial hair. Don’t be one of those guys, life’s too short.
A visual index of facial hair rules is below:
1. Don’t Fear the ‘Stache
So maybe you can’t grow a beard. For me my unique racial heritage precludes an actual beard, somehow though I am able to grow a mustache. While it will never reach the epic majesty of Magnum P.I., it’s respectable, and I kind of love it. If you do decide to sport a mustache be prepared for the inevitable “porn ‘stache” comments and also for endless compliments from drunk ‘bros in bars on your “Awesome ‘stache”! (I’m not kidding about the ‘bros, someone needs to explain that social phenemenon to me…)
2. Beard Maintenance
If you can grow a beard and it doesn’t make you look like an indigent street preacher, congrats! Now you will have the enviable task of maintaining that beard so that it is neither unruly and backwoods or (just as bad) overly groomed into fussy looking stubble. You’ll definitely need a good beard trimmer, but remember that the whole point of this look is some level of naturalism, so keep it looking clean, but don’t get too obsessive about daily trimming. And for the love of god, do not try to do any kind of fancy shaping, leave that look to nefarious movie villains.
3. Take Inspiration from History; but Don’t Go Overboard!
It’s probably self-evident that the images above are a mix of inspiration and cautionary tale. There are certainly style lessons to be learned from the past, but taking them too literally can end up in cartoon territory, so some restraint is necessary.
4. Get The Right Tools.
In conclusion, facial hair is a fun way of experimenting with changing your appearance drastically and temporarily, and social conventions accept a much wider variety of styles than in past decades. However, to pull off any of these looks, some tools are handy. Some of my favorites (click for locations to purchase) are below.