If, like me, you are a staunch pogonophile and do not believe there is a single man who cannot be improved with a beard (see David Mitchell), these are happy times indeed. At the Oscars in March, Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper and Paul Rudd all wore new beards. Earlier this year, John Lewis cast a heavily bearded model to front its campaign for its own-brand menswear label, and if that isn’t a sign that beards have become middle England’s idea of fashionable and edgy – though the Daily Mail still complained – I don’t know what is (meanwhile the department store reports sales of beard trimmers grew 57% year on year).
If the big beard look is a little too Mr Twit for many tastes, there are a large number of very attractive, more elegant beards – Tom Ford’s, say, or the beards worn by Jeremy Langmead, editor-in-chief of men’s fashion company Mr Porter, and Matt Prior, the England cricketer. Beards, beards, beards. What riches. Except that even I have to admit I may be starting to tire a little of their ubiquity. I think this happened with The Apprentice, where half of the male candidates had beards – a sign that they have gone pretty much mainstream now. Are we, in fact, approaching Peak Beard?
Beards are certainly more popular than ever, says Brendan Murdock, founder of the Murdock chain of barbershops. Around a fifth of his services are related to facial-hair grooming, and this week he is launching a range of beard conditioning products. “I guess it’s becoming more mainstream,” he says. “We did wonder whether the whole Great Gatsby thing, and new looks coming through, would take away from the beard but they haven’t. I’ve noticed there is a beard culture – people like talking about their beards, feeling their beards.”
Perry Patraszewki, co-founder of the Blue Tit salons in east London, isn’t convinced that the beard – or fashions in facial hair – has quite gone mainstream yet. “From my own experience, whenever I’ve been to a more mainstream event people point out my moustache and laugh,” he says. But in parts of east London, he admits, there are beards everywhere – in fact every male stylist at the salon except for one has a beard or moustache.
Patraszewki thinks the appeal of beards is nostalgic: “(Beards are) the vibe of your childhood, when we were kids and our dads had beards in the Seventies and Eighties.” He also thinks beards are here to stay. “You get used to it, it becomes part of your identity. I wouldn’t shave my moustache now.”
The beard – not the Noel Edmonds/Father Christmas/Gandalf variety, which has been around forever – has been growing in popularity since the mid-2000s. In the US, the New York Times pinpoints its genesis around late 2005. “In years to come, when they make movies or write books about this time, the beard will be used as a definitive visual shorthand for the early 21st century, as the moustache is for the Seventies and a pair of mutton chops for Regency England,” wrote the cultural commentator Ekow Eshun in an essay on beards last year. Eshun tracks this modern sprouting back to the pre-beard Nineties dotcom boom, the speed and slickness of it at odds with slacker-style, grungey, facial bushiness, and New Labour, for whom “beards were everything they abhorred. Beards were Clause IV and Militant. Donkey jackets and picket lines. Marx and Engels.”
After the dotcom bust, 9/11 and the war on terror, writes Eshun, “came a more reflective public mood” and a yearning for a simpler time. The craze for a kind of pastoral idyll took hold, even if the men lived in Hackney, Portland or Brooklyn – artisanal food, crafts, folk music. And beards. But it’s not all cosy and twee – Eshun says the growth of the beard was also a reaction to women’s growing economic power, and a way of reasserting one’s masculinity
Last summer, the street-style photographer Jonathan Daniel Pryce started shooting a 100 beards in 100 days project, taking photographs of a wide range of bearded men for a Tumblr site and limited-edition book. “That was a reaction to seeing how beards had become so popular, and not just with hipsters. The trend has continued to increase but yes, I think it is reaching a point of saturation.”
But could there be early signs that the fashion beard is on its way out? Last Sunday at Lovebox, the day of the east London music festival that traditionally draws its biggest gay crowd – the group any trendwatcher will look to if they want to know what the mainstream will be doing in a few years’ time – a colleague, Alex, observed: “There were a lot fewer beards than there would usually be. I think a more clean-cut look is gaining in popularity among younger gay men.” He also points to the current issue of Fantastic Man, the influential men’s style magazine, as “another sign that beards are on the wane – there’s a shoot with lots of bearded men shaving them off”.