“Washes and razors for foofoos,” scoffed Walt Whitman. But the story of 19th-century facial hair is more tangled than modern nostalgists may realize.
Let me declare what many already know: 2013 was a landmark year for men’s facial hair. From flamboyant beards to the proliferation of “old-fashioned” shops, evidence of the trend abounds, embracing groups as diverse as the Boston Red Sox, the men of Movember, and the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty. In dens of hipsterdom, one can hardly throw a PBR without hitting a waxed moustache. …
But one characteristic distinguishes this revival from previous ones: Today’s facial-hair enthusiasts share an affection for the ornate practices of the 1800s—the exuberant beards and ostentatious moustaches, as well as the elegance and “manliness” of the shops where those styles were cultivated.
What follows is the lost story of American facial hair. Like countless other histories, it is rife with contradictions. It begins with white Americans at the time of the Revolution who derided barbering as the work of “inferiors.” It continues with black entrepreneurs who turned it into a source of wealth and prestige. And it concludes with the advent of the beard—a fashion born out of desperation but transformed into a symbol of masculine authority and white supremacy.
Then there`s a whole bunch of stuff about black barbershops (it doesn`t seem to occur to the author that lots of white people lived in areas without many black barbers) and how Indians can`t grow beards (according to stereotype, of course). I can`t quite follow the theory, but then there`s:
“(Incidentally, Victorian Englishmen were going through a beard revival of their own at that time, though for different reasons.)”
Rather than promoting two complicated theories of how Americans and Brits came up with the same look at about the same time for separate reasons involving African-Americans and American Indians in America but presumably not in England, isn`t it more plausible that provincial Americans like Abraham Lincoln were mostly following fashions being set in Dickens` London, the richest, most progressive, most dominant city in the world around 1860?
Of course, much of what`s attractive about styles from before the Great War, the Depression, and WWII is the self-confident sense of superiority (after 1945, you can sense the feeling that Western man just didn`t deserve nice things). Which will be justification for countless more Atlantic articles worrying over: Are handlebar mustaches racist or not? (Answer: Yes.)