For years, beards were shorthand for sandal-wearing hippies of a certain age. But no more! It's time to throw away your razor, writes hairy-chinned Charlie Porter
Wednesday December 13, 2006
Men's fashion has long been in search of its own Kate Moss, a public figure who is always on-trend. It seems to have found one in Daniel Craig, who walked out of the ocean in Casino Royale, the new Bond film, and instantly made tight swimming trunks fashionable again.
Now, just released, are the first shots of Craig in the movie adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, due for release in December next year, and on his face is an unashamed, manly, identifiably 21st-century beard.
Craig's facial furniture is at the forefront of a new trend: beards are suddenly everywhere. There are so many beards around, in fact, that facial hair could well become the defining male fashion of the noughties. "I'd say 40% of the men who shop here seem to have some sort of beard," says Kirk Beattie, co-owner of B-Store, the Savile Row boutique that recently won Best British Shop at the 2006 British Fashion Awards. Beattie sports a beard, as do other members of staff.
Their store champions the more cerebral designers, such as Bernhard Willhelm and Siv Stoldal, and Beattie says he finds that facial hair gives men the confidence to make fashion choices that they might not otherwise. "It gives it a nice mixture," he says. "Rather than being clean-shaven and boyish when they're wearing something that could be classed as feminine, you get a different twist."
What makes the new beards so contemporary is that they are somehow neat without being too tidy. On Craig's face, stray hairs creep from his lower cheeks, and his is definitely a beard rather than stubble, because you cannot see the skin underneath.
So why is the beard back? Why the mass liberation from the blade?
One reason is the increasingly casual nature of the workplace: dress-down offices allow young men to wear facial hair to work without fear of censure. "I don't shave, I just trim my face," says David Walker-Smith, head of men's buying at Selfridges. "It's totally acceptable to do that."
Forty years ago a beard was a potent expression of the free-living, free-loving radicalism of 60s counterculture. For a while it was the sign of the slacker. Now it's no stranger to the Power-Point presentation. Until web 2.0 companies crash, old-fashioned businesses will have to get used to the hirsute.
Shaving itself, meanwhile, is having some serious problems. The market for electric shavers has collapsed - some in the industry say that they'll soon be as obsolete as video recorders. Meanwhile the razor has taken over, driven by aggressive product innovation. The introduction of the Gillette five-blade razor this year means that hairs can even be cut away beneath the skin's surface, leaving the face free from regrowth for longer.
Developments such as these seem to have forced the issue for men who have previously been fond of a bit of Tom Ford-like stubble. Being clean shaven has come to feel too conformist - the rebellious reaction is to court hairiness.
Or maybe it's just a result of laziness. Men no longer have to shave, so they don't. A dermatologist recently told me that for the average man, shaving takes up six months of his life: who wouldn't want to take a break?
I've teetered on the edge of a beard for a few years, but only let the growth fully overrun this past summer. I am lucky to have the sort of job - as a style journalist - where grooming is presented as a challenge: as beards became more popular, it seemed a sham to write about them without growing one myself. So it came, and since it has stayed.
As well as being free from the hard work of shaving, I've become fond of the balance the beard gives my haircut. Beards are also better for your skin: for those who suffer from in-growing hairs or razor bumps - a particular problem for black men - they are a godsend.
Although beards are overtly an expression of masculinity, they're not really that macho. Since the same hormone triggers both beard growth and the path to baldness - a cruel natural joke - and many men complain of patchy facial hair that prevents them from growing a full beard, there seems to be an unspoken pact not to judge machismo on hairiness. If anything, these days, a beard is a sign of softness.
For some, the beard is given undeserved connotations of fanaticism. In our new identikit vision of a terrorist, the unchecked beard is a dangerous symbol. A bearded Italian friend knows to shave his face before heading through customs, and Asians sporting beards are eyed suspiciously on London's transport system.
But beards in themselves can only be good. A beard grown for choice can be treated with flippancy; a beard worn because of belief should be respected. Both must be allowed to grow in peace.
· Charlie Porter is associate editor of GQ.