In Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair, Christopher Oldstone-Moore examines how the changing popularity of beards is tied to evolving definitions of masculinity and conformity
What was your inspiration for tackling this unusual topic?
I teach a lot of European history classes and wanted my students to talk about the social life of the ancient world. Then I wondered why the ancient Romans shaved, when they started, all that kind of stuff. I was surprised that there was no good material on the subject.
Do you have any plans to expand your focus beyond Western civilization?
I won’t, but I sure hope other people consider it. I don’t have the language or expertise to tackle Russia or China or Arabic culture, for instance. We need people who know those cultures; this has to be a collective effort. I cover the entire span of Western history, and I’m probably going to make generalizations and mistakes, but the point is to set out a few big ideas and get people thinking.
What was one of the biggest surprises you stumbled across?
Everyone expects that shaving is related to technology, but what I discovered is that men will find a way to shave no matter what, especially for cultural or social reasons. The Egyptians shaved almost from the beginning of their history as a civilization. They developed copper and bronze blades. Other cultures have used rocks and stones.
You say that there have been four great beard movements throughout history. Are we headed for a fifth?
It’s still unclear. You see beards everywhere now. But you don’t see them as the predominant mode, and that’s my standard for what a beard movement is: when it becomes the primary mode to which respectable men should aspire. We’re quite not there yet, because the standard expectation in business, government, and the military is still clean shaven.
Who had the most awesome facial hair of all time?
I’ve always liked the Assyrians. Their beards have colored ribbons in them, they’re stylized and well-coiffed, and they’re super huge. The effect is enhanced by the flowing long hair in the back. They intimidated everyone who dared challenge their empire. So I give them top billing. The cover of the book was inspired by a guy named W.G. Grace, a 19th-century English cricket player. They used him as the image of God in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Who does it better: ZZ Top or Duck Dynasty?
I’d go with ZZ Top; with the sunglasses it’s a more mysterious, more impressive look. Duck Dynasty is a curious example. They’re religiously and culturally conservative, and conservative evangelicals don’t tend to have beards. There’s a kind of contradiction there, and I got into it in the book. They’ve become culturally relevant, yet their look hasn’t really caught on. It’s like with the beard movement, it’s not jumping from the TV to real life. These guys have great beards, but it’s all for show. Not a lot of people, especially in the South, are following their example. When I see Southern Baptist churches filled with big-bearded men, I’ll change my mind.