Fashioning Men’s Bodies
Women’s Fashion Writers and the Pro-Beard Polemic
Groomed for Power‘s fourth and final chapter hirsute men’s response to the “feminization of facial hair” (described in Chapter 3): a body of pro-beard polemics, consisting of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lengthy, earnest articles on the virtues of beard wearing. Appeared in the American press between roughly 1845 and 1865, these pro-beard polemics had two main aims.
Their first aim was to transform men’s facial hair styles into beards. This was not, it should be noted, a process of altering grooming patterns. Though facial hair did, generally, get longer over the course of the mid-nineteenth century, this was not the primary aim of the pro-beard polemic. Rather, it aimed at changing the meaning of men’s existing facial hair. It strove, in other words, to superimposing a pre-existing set of meanings associated with the concept of the beard onto the facial hair of disgruntled ex-shavers.
Just what were the meanings associated with the idea of the beard? Long linked with Biblical prophets and frontiersmen, the beard was widely associated with a patriarchal and rugged ideal of manhood. As such, endowing men’s whiskers with the ideological content of the beard seemed an ideal way to combat the feminization of facial hair. This, again, was the first aim of the pro-beard polemic.
It’s second aim involved smoothing the beard’s ideological rough edges. Indeed, while the beard could stand in as an antidote to the feminization of facial hair, it was also widely regarded as uncivilized and even unhinged. Consequently, pro-beard polemicists’ efforts to remake all facial hair as beards also involved an effort to revise the beard’s most unseemly connotations. Thus, pro-beard polemicists tempered their celebrations of physical strength and manly independence, with paeans to health, frugality, and piety. Drawing on both ‘natural’ and ‘restrained’ discourses of manhood – as well as a body of arguments adapted from women’s fashion writings – pro-beard polemicists served up a heterogeneous vision of hirsute manhood.