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The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion spacer The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion
Facial Fashions
by Bernard Keenan
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Facial hair and fashion have had a long standing relationship. Throughout the history of Western civilization this has had its ups and downs, but like all the best couples they always seem to wind up back together. Of course, for much of western history the word 'fashion' has been something of an acronym for 'normal' or 'step out of line and you'll die', with religious or regal leaders generally setting the trends.
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For the ancient Egyptians, who obsessively recorded their habits and rituals for posterity, body hair was considered positively bestial. However a beard was something of a status symbol. Kings would grow large square beards which they would then braid, perfume, and dust with gold. In other words, they behaved like girls. This gender reversal (at least by modern standards) worked both ways: around 1480 BC Queen Hatshepsut liked to strap on a long, plaited, false beard. Never one to scrimp when it came to showing who was boss, it was made from gold and silver. How long she managed to wear it for without severely damaging her posture is sadly unknown.
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The first sideburns can probably be attributed to the Hittites, who around 400 BC would shave their beards, eyebrows, moustaches, and the areas above the ears, but carefully braided their long side-whiskers. Uriah, a well-known Hittite, was killed by soldiers of Hanum, King of the Ammonites. When Hebrew ambassadors were sent to meet with Hanum, he ordered half of their beards to be removed. This insult was nothing less than an act of war, and King David wasted no time in slaughtering the Ammonites in the name of all things Holy. Let that be a lesson to all you beard-haters out there.
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Jews took their instructions on the wearing of beards from Leviticus, which left strict instructions not to 'mar the corners of thy beard'. Presumably the confusion over where the corner of a beard is found prompted men to just leave it alone. The forced removal of a Jewish beard is considered a grave insult, as Hanum found out to his cost, and in many paintings Christ is represented with his beard defiled prior to crucifixion.
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While JC lays claim to one of the all time classics, his followers have, predictably, found it quite difficult to decide what the big man intended for them post-ascension. The number of times the Church reversed its policies on beards is astounding, especially considering it was never actually based on scripture. Still, the arbitrary exercise of power has long been a favourite pastime of holy men, and so we have the teachings of luminaries such as the Abbot of Bellevaux who reasoned that the Holy Spirit 'moved down from the head to the beard', which then became white in the afterlife. Since the 16th Century, priests have generally been clean shaven; and since then, Protestants often chose not to shave, in protest.
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Sikhs, Rastafarians, Orthodox Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and the Amish have always observed their religious obligations to wear beards. But outside the confines of religious life, facial fashion was usually dictated by whatever whim oneís monarch was currently indulging. In 1535 Henry VIII, famed for his unique sense of justice, decided to levy taxes on beards (even though he continued to wear one with pride). This was repealed in the 1560s, after Henry had succumbed to syphilis, and so the dilemma of choosing to pay the barber or the government was resolved. Later, beard tax was introduced in Russia by Peter the Great after a visiting noblewoman pointed out the snot dangling from his hairy face.
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The French take credit for a number of pointless facial trends. The balding Louis XIII amused himself by cutting his courtiers' beards down to a moustache and a tuft on the chin, and during the 17th Century these became thinner in inverse proportion to the size of their ever-growing wigs. When Louis XIV went grey he shaved his off, and (presumably within hours) his court followed suit.
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It wasn't until the 19th Century that facial hair really took off as a fashion statement. The Victorian gent saw beards as natural, wholesome, and even hygienic. Sideburns (named for Colonel Burnside, a dashing if rather ineffective commander in the US Civil War) became longer and more adventurous, and by 1830 had passed the line of the chin. By 1850, shaving was considered plain weird. On the advice of a child named Grace Bedell, presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln grew a beard and promptly stormed the history books. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, only sported a moustache. Indeed, by the end of the 1800's the moustache was increasingly seen as the mark of Satan. Fortunately for all concerned, a man named King Camp Gillette patented the first disposable razor blade in 1895, and a new era was born.
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At the beginning of the last century, the discovery of bacteria and a moralistic culture saw a period of clean-shaveness creep in, although during the First World War the moustache became a common signifier of one's rank (and therefore class). The early Hollywood film stars such as Chaplin and Fairbanks wore distinctive furs on their upper lips, but one Chaplin imitator named Adolf Hitler soon killed that trend off.
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Post-WW2 the emphasis shifted to individual style and non-conformity, and in bohemian areas like New York's Greenwich Village a variety of 'taches, goatees and soul patches proliferated. As we all know, Elvis Presley landed on Earth around 1954, and across the Western hemisphere young men spontaneously sprouted sideburns. Of course, one generation's mark of rebellion is the next decade's badge of conformity, and after the hirsute Sixties, the Seventies marked the decline of facial hair in mainstream culture. By the Eighties, the clipped military style moustache had become a signifier for gay men (see Freddie Mercury or Top Gun) while the beard was something the yuppie would grow, just to prove to himself that he was still boho.
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In today's post-modern, media-saturated world it's impossible to attach any one meaning or reason to the wearing of facial hair. Athletes and musicians now generally set the trends (see Craig David's snail-trail: proper bo), and so gay men, yuppies, rockers and ravers often share the same look whether they like it or not. While politicians still steer clear of the fuzz (thanks to the likes of Lenin, Stalin, Castro, bin Laden, and Alderdice) the Nineties saw the largest boom in beard growing since the 1800's. Is it a reaction to feminism? A desperate attempt to hold on to the last thing men can do and (most) women can't? If so, it may well be at a price, as women generally seem to prefer their mates to make the effort every morning. Of course, this is arguably subject to the dictates of fashion
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