Victorian Studies 48.1 (2005) 7-34
In the middle of the nineteenth century the face of masculinity suddenly changed in Western culture. In a few short years, full beards spread from the social margins inhabited by artists and Chartists into the respectable mainstream. This transformation of men's faces has thus far drawn remarkably little comment from historians or literary critics. The Victorians, by contrast, had a great deal to say about this renovation of the masculine image. In pamphlets, polemical books, and the periodical press, Victorians engaged in a lively discussion that sheds light on changing notions of masculinity and illuminates the decision of millions of British men to spurn more than a century of tradition by letting their beards grow.
The timing of this change is significant. The current standard line on this great change was established by G. M. Trevelyan, who explained the new style as an imitation of the heroic and hirsute soldiers returning from the Crimea (549). But the trend was well underway before the war began in 1854. More importantly Trevelyan's explanation obscures the deeper social roots and cultural significance of this impulse towards remaking the masculine image. When one attends to the conversation about manliness and beards, what emerges is a new perspective on mid-Victorian perceptions of gender, and greater understanding of how and why concepts of masculinity were reformulated in this period.
In modern history, the shaved face has been the rule, while beards have enjoyed widespread popularity only relatively briefly during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and again in the mid- Victorian period. In the early nineteenth century beards indicated particular radical political affiliations, including socialism or Chartism, and were generally unfashionable. But after 1850, the beard movement in Britain began. In 1852, the editors of Tait's Edinburgh Magazine declared themselves "champions of the long beard," and drolly prophesied the dawn of a new era: "Already the martial moustache, the haughty imperial, and the daily expanding whiskers, like accredited heralds, proclaim the approaching advent of the monarch Beard; the centuries of his banishment are drawing to their destined close, and the hour and the man are at hand to re-establish his ancient reign" ("Few" 611, 614). True to their prediction, there was during 1853 and 1854 a veritable explosion of rather more earnest commentary in all manner of print media. Henry Morley and William Henry Wills contributed an article in Charles Dickens's Household Words titled "Why Shave?" which was a true beard manifesto. Alexander Rowland followed soon after with a volume entitled The Human Hair, Popularly and Physiologically Considered, which devoted two chapters to the history and importance of beards. The artist James Ward produced an Essay in Defense of the Beard, joined by "David's" The Beard! Why do We Cut it Off? There was even a full volume entitled The Philosophy of Beards by T. S. Gowing. Reprints and reviews inevitably followed, including "The Beard and Moustache Movement" in the Illustrated London News, and a review article simply headed "The Beard" in the Westminster Review. Naturally, Punch did its part as well, contributing a series of articles, notices, and cartoons.
To Britons of the 1850s, the rapid progress of the bearded look, and the enthusiastic rhetoric that attended it, constituted a veritable beard movement. Of course, when Victorians referred to a "beard movement"—sometimes wryly, sometimes seriously—they did not mean to imply an organized political campaign. Their intent was to recognize both a dramatic change in men's appearance, and the emergence of a host of writers to promote a new masculine image by articulating an ideology of beards. The contributor to the Illustrated London News, for example, wrote of a "new agitation," which in some measure represented a battle between reason and custom ("Beard and Moustache" 95). The reasons given for wearing beards were remarkably consistent during the 1850s and 1860s. At the core of this consensus was the idea that beards were integral to that elemental masculinity which still pertained in the modern age, first by contributing to men's health and vitality, and second by serving as the outward mark...