As part of the exhibition programme, we will be hosting a range of talks and events at the museum each month. Dr Alun Withey kicked off the first of these last night with his fascinating talk on The Hirsute History of Facial Hair.
The doors of the museum re-opened in the evening for this special event and, having been well-watered with a complimentary glass of wine, the exhibition room was quickly filled with guests, happily including many a finely be-whiskered gentleman, eager to hear more about Dr Alun’s research.
I had an enlightening conversation with one couple who had come along having heard about it on Radio 4. The husband had nurtured a beard since the age of 18 and had amassed a collection of beard-related publications and knowledge over the years, informing me at one point, for instance, that the Royal Navy’s ban on shaving was a cunning ploy to save vital water supplies. His wife held an enthusiastic admiration for her husband’s facial fuzz but grimaced with disgust at the thought of him growing it long and wispy like one of their relatives, or indeed fashioning a chin-strap style as shown on the portrait of the town crier in the gallery.
Dr Alun began his talk with an overview of what the exhibition is about, celebrating the “golden age of the beard” in the Nineteenth Century – an age that is re-occurring now. Painting the picture of how much and how quickly society’s opinions can change, Alun took us back to the streets of London in 1851, when a moustachioed man was hounded as he walked about, spat at and called a ‘French dog’ and ‘a beast’ by passers-by. The irony was, that this man was an ex-soldier, proudly sporting his lip tickler as a badge of military honour having recently battled against the French, not for them. This man was sadly only just slightly ahead of his time and a few months later he would have been applauded rather than ridiculed, as facial hair had, quite literally, sprouted onto the Victorian fashion scene.
A recurring theme from Alun’s talk was this sense that facial hair provokes strong opinions and has done throughout history, with attitudes towards it constantly shifting. Its divisive nature gives it meaning, meaning which his research is aiming to explore.
Alun gave further detail of his longer research project: about the history of facial hair from 1700-1918. The exhibition is an addition to this research, a way of displaying the fun and quirky elements and highlighting the great Victorian beard craze. But the research itself goes further than this and, whilst there is plenty of fun to be had, there are serious sides too. In exploring the history of facial hair, Alun is hoping to provide fresh insight into changing attitudes on health, well-being and male identity throughout his research period.
Portraits between 1550 and 1670 all show men with facial hair in some way, from Francis Drake’s ‘dagger’ beard to Henry VIII’s ‘spade’; a beard at this time was a symbol of manly strength and superiority.
The Enlightenment brought with it a long period of beardlessness; Alun told us that the clean shaven and youthful look symbolized an openness at a time when minds were open to new ideas. At the same time as this, new steel-casting techniques had made available sharp razors which men of fashion could use to shave themselves.
The Victorian period saw in a new age, an industrialized age in which concepts of masculinity were set to change again. Women’s growing influence and authority in the home environs, new types of work in factories with strict hierarchies and a period of relative peace in which men became unused to military action, all contributed to men needing to find new ways to assert their manliness. The beard provided an outward representation of inequality: women didn’t have them because women didn’t need them, it was men – battling it out against the elements with their natural authority, strength and decisiveness who needed the natural protection of the beard “writ large across their face”. The factories also had an influence in another way: with all that dust and smog being spat out, enterprising Victorians were seeking technologies to clear the air, the ‘Respirator’ was one such item and the beard became oft-lauded as ‘nature’s own’ version.
The Crimean War too can be seen as a key turning point, in which photographs of the strong, bearded warrior men made their way into the public consciousness via war reporting for the first time.
Whilst providing much entertainment now, the many and varied beard-related products hitting the market at this time did have a serious side. The ‘mechanical beard’ patent that Dr Alun found in the British Library rightly caused many sniggers in the audience, but to the Victorian man unable to grow a beard and fearful of the repercussions to his health and respectability, a device such as this might have seemed like a lifeline. The history of the beard can be plotted against the history of medical science: as ideas about the body and hygiene changed, so too did ideas about the beard.
The research project is funded by the Wellcome Trust for three years and there is still more to be uncovered. In the course of his research, Alun will be looking at a wide range of historical sources to uncover the story of beards. By using images; newspaper reports; books – such as the 1770 Treatise on the Hair; advertisements; products; medical records and even institutional records detailing the practice of enforced shaving in asylums and prisons, Alun will consider recurring questions surrounding facial hair. Why do men have beards? Why do they shave? Why do facial hair trends come and go? And, ultimately, why do beards matter?