Why are beards back? Face fuzz makes a big comeback
Beards are back ... Ben Affleck and George Clooney at the BAFTAs. Photo: AFP
It was as if someone had drenched the Baftas in Miracle-Gro. No matter which way the camera panned during Sunday evening's star-spangled awards ceremony, there was a bloke with a beard, making the place look untidy.
Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Tim Burton, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper (kinda), Stephen Fry, Hugh Jackman, Sam Mendes, Joaquin Phoenix - the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden resembled the Lost City of the Incas, slowly disappearing under an impenetrable carpet of celebrity undergrowth.
Full sets mostly, some more manicured than others. Bardem's was greying and a bit scrappy, like that of a faithful old gun dog, while Phoenix resembled someone who swigs meths from a paper bag. Clooney looked all right, but then he always does, even in the silver twilight of his leading-man years. Mendes has attained the appearance of a jovial sociology lecturer, while Affleck's effort is - well - just a little too neat around the edges.
Hugh Jackman ... sporting a beard. Photo: AFP
"I'm not the only actor who's come here tonight with a beard," joshed (bearded) master of ceremonies Stephen Fry. He may have been talking about something else but there was an awful lot of face furniture about.
It would be silly to say that the beard is back because it has never gone away, but it is certainly in vogue in Hollywood. Men tend to grow hair on their faces for three reasons: laziness, vanity or in compensation for a lack of the stuff up top. In virtually all cases this is a mistake, but the male of the species keeps trying, subliminally pining for the era of flint knives and "you look after the berries while I go and club something to death" gender clarity.
"There are a lot of things in fashionland that are pointing people towards beards," says style commentator Peter York. "Many of my friends have them now, and even twirly moustaches. What happens is that it feeds through to the stylists, who tell these dorks what to do and they do it."
Forgot his razor ... Javier Bardem. Photo: Reuters
Beardy-itis could be seen as an antidote to male prettiness, which has become declasse of late. Lawns have been sprouting on famous facades for about six years now, culminating in the conversion of Brad Pitt from Greek god to man pushing broken Sainsbury's trolley down the road.
That particular style choice - a grey goatee - put about 20 years on Brad and was apparently in reaction to stress. It illustrated one of the dangers inherent in beard-growing: unexpected grey hair. Within a few weeks it can transform a reasonably healthy looking man in his early forties into a kind of Old Testament prophet. Unexpected grey beard hair is trumped only by unexpected ginger hair, which is really not worth thinking about.
In this most "natural" of looks, York detects yet another example of 21st-century showbiz artifice.
"It is somehow meant to say: 'In a plastic world, here is something real'," he opines. "But in fact it couldn't be more unreal because they are allowing bits to grow and bits not to grow. You see a picture of David Beckham and his carefully crafted facial hair and then, as several papers observed last week, his stomach has been 'manscaped'. So he has a smooth tummy and a bearded face, which is the opposite of how most humans live.
"It is much easier just to shave. It takes an enormous amount of work to maintain these beards - there must be a whole room of Japanese girls with tiny scissors clipping each hair to its relevant length every day.
"In the late Victorian era, most people were bearded and some of them most disgustingly bearded. Then, of course, the whole business of shaving was more dangerous and more difficult. Now everybody can buy a five-bladed razor, so actors do the opposite. It is the theory of the 'leisure class'. It's saying: 'I am a bit edgy and I don't have to work as a nine-to-five creature like you.'?"
Victorian beards could indeed be grotesque, as heavy and over-ornate as that era's furniture. Witness the "patrician", a full set grown into a vast, tumbling carpet; or "burnsides full" or "short", equally repellent, lateral extrusions of fluff, perfect for aristocratic cabinet ministers. And the "imperial", popularised by Louis Napoleon, a clipped goatee exuding Second Empire poncyness.
Facial hair went into retreat after the First World War (during which the British Army abolished its moustache requirement) and largely died out - except for the odd pencil on the upper lip - with the advent of Hollywood. Famous faces meant box office and that meant full faces. But as the years went on, and men were required to do fewer manly things, beards made a comeback.
"In an earlier, tougher age, people were concerned to be shaven, to look tidy and clean," says York. "But in a time when men are increasingly divorced from real physical things - sport is for watching, people don't work in industrial ways, relations with women are different - it is a symbolic way of saying, 'Look what a vigorous and virile fellow I am (even though my life is that of the metrosexual creative industries)."'
Steve Jones, emeritus professor of genetics at University College London, says there is more to beards than fashion. Facial hair taps something deep within Man.
"It is what we call a secondary sexual characteristic, an attempt either to frighten off other males or be attractive to females attracted by beards. There is some evidence that domestic animals, like dogs, feel threatened by them.
"You might argue that if you're sufficiently fit to grow an enormous and not-grey beard you are making a statement that you are sexually fit. The question then arises: 'Why do people shave it off?'
"If you look at the evolutionary genetics, almost everything in humans is diminished from what chimpanzees have got. We have the same number of hairs but not long and bristly hairs. We have lost our enormous teeth. So it may be that humans are feminised chimpanzees. This feminisation process is then pushed further by civilisation, so men feminise themselves by shaving."
A study by scientists in New Zealand and Canada in 2011 found that women from two ethnic groups, Europeans from New Zealand and Polynesians from Samoa, preferred clean-shaven faces to bearded ones. However, women and men from both cultures ascribed a higher social status to bearded men. The study concluded that the human beard evolved primarily as a tool of intrasexual selection between males, a marker of dominance, rather than as a "pulling" mechanism.
So when George and Brad and Ben turn out for the cameras all bearded-up, they are not trying to woo the fairer sex - they can do that in a coma - they are saying: "I'm the top guy, so don't mess with me."
But when doing the beardy thing, don't try too hard. All that trimming and sculpting for hours in front of the mirror just makes you appear self-obsessed. And, Ben Affleck, that makes you one big girlie.
The Daily Telegraph, London
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