The National Portrait Gallery celebrates the lustrous, and the wispy, history of facial hair with new book Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards: A History of Facial Hair mapping the manscapes of the pharaohs through to the Beatles by historian Lucinda Hawksley. The book coincides with the great month of moustaches, Movember.
The Resident caught up with Lucinda to ask what she really thinks about facial hair and who are the world’s hairiest men (and women)…
What was the inspiration behind Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards: A History of Facial Hair?
I’ve been doing lectures at the National Portrait Gallery for years and it was keen to get more people into the Victorian Gallery, where there’s a gallery of bearded men. When I walked through it, I’d say how the beards really scared the hell out of me! The team suggested I do a lecture on them to face my fear and its been extremely popular and actually it [facial hair] has a very interesting history so I got very intrigued by the different stages of facial hair and why men had facial hair. So the book really grew out of me saying ‘god Victorian facial hair is just insane’! Sadly I haven’t got over my fear.
Which characters particularly stood out when you were researching the book?
There were some really fascinating characters. I got very fond of Prince Ranji who was an Indian prince and a very famous cricketer here in the late nineteenth century who had a fabulous moustache. And there was someone called Hans Steininger who was alive in the 16th century, he was mayor of a town called Braunau (in Austria), and he died when he tripped over his own beard and broke his neck. It was so long, it was longer than he was tall. Another chap I found fascinating was Frank Richardson who was a writer in the late 19th/early 20th century, he influenced people like PG Wodehouse and I’d never heard of him before – he came up with the term face fungus!
And what about the bearded ladies?
We had to go into them because almost every second person, when I said I was writing a book on facial hair, asked me if it was about men or women. So I said to the NPG that we had to get them in, and the gallery does have a couple of images of women from the middle ages, which was actually very sad because they were exploited as freaks and then of course in the Victorian age there were The Bearded Ladies who were so popular. One of them was particularly fascinating, an American lady called Annie Jones and she became a kind of sex symbol. There are all these bizarre photographs of her dressed provocatively lying down on a chaise longue with her long lustrous beard, it’s really interesting. The Victorian Freak Show was a major thing and pictures of the it were sold as very sexually titillating post cards so presumably there was a market [for them]!
Why do you think these characters had facial hair?
It was usually fashion. Although with Hans Steininger I think it was very vanity, it was at time when most men did have beards and I guess he thought ‘I can grow it’ and he just kept doing so… A lot of the time though its fashion or religion or societal input.
How have you seen the trend for facial hair evolve?
It became apparent while I was writing the book was that – in Britain at least – when women are in power men grow facial hair. The two most heavily bearded phases were under the power of Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, which is extraordinary. Men suddenly grew facial hair to the extent that hadn’t been seen for centuries.
It was the same in the 60s and 70s with the Women’s Lib movement and at the moment with new feminism emerging, during all these eras we see huge amounts of hair. Under Maggie Thatcher this wasn’t the case, but I think that’s because beards had so fallen out of fashion by that point – although stubble was a big thing then… It’s always men trying to reassert their masculinity.
But then in the 30s, during the recession, men were advised not to grow moustaches because it was seen to be frivolous, if you were looking for a job you needed to be clean shaven and we see that a lot in economic depression.
What kind of signals does having facial hair give off?
I have talked to a few men about this and some have said they’ve grown facial hair when they’ve felt depressed and want to hide, which is quite an interesting phenomenon – to use it as a kind of mask. You can tell a bit about a man who takes time to make sure their moustache looks good rather than just growing a straggly beard, you can tell if they’re hygienic or not!
I was going to ask you if you liked facial hair but hearing you’re fear of beards I better not!
It’s just beards [that I fear], I have quite a fondness for moustaches – if they’re well-kept and they don’t get into your soup!
Whose moustache do you particularly like, give me your top three?
My grandpa (my mum’s dad), who I adored, and then Dick Van Dyke, I’m such a huge fan so he’s got to be my favourite, and Hercule Poirot, you know his moustache would be scrupulously clean!npg.org.uk/shop