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  • An Exploration of Darwin’s Beard
  • Laurence Shafe (bio)

The beard is an intriguing symbol of masculinity: according to Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, it arises because females historically selected their mates based on physical characteristics. As he wrote, “it appears that our male ape-like progenitors acquired their beards as an ornament to charm or excite the opposite sex” (Descent of Man 1: 383). In Victorian society, the woman was considered to be passive and selected by the man, but Darwin came to believe that it was the female, albeit at some previous period, who selected the most sexually attractive male. This example of female power demonstrated by mate selection was reinforced by Victorian measurements of men and women, which showed more variability in males. This variability indicated to Darwin that “it is the males which have been chiefly modified through sexual selection” and the females who have been responsible for the majority of mate selection (Descent of Man 2: 560).

We often associate the beard with the typical Victorian man, but as Christopher Oldstone-Moore has pointed out, the fashion for beards arose suddenly, around 1850, when male beauty flowered in the form of a wide variety of forms of facial hair (7). From the early 1850s to the 1890s, facial hair became fashionable in Britain, with only aesthetes preferring a clean-shaven face because they believed it was more aesthetic. The fickleness of fashion reinforces Darwin’s theory because sexually selected characteristics are the most noticed, and they are therefore the most likely characteristics to be subject to fashion-driven modification. Oldstone-Moore suggested that the transition from bushy sideburns to full beards in 1850 was the result of a cultural change from the beard as a symbol of radicalism and anarchy to a symbol of masculinity, and the smooth face then became a sign of effeminacy (10). The fashion for beards also indicates that men felt a need to assert their masculinity through the display of an overt secondary sexual characteristic, which could have been motivated by the rise of women’s emancipation during the 1850s and ’60s. However, Darwin’s theory adds an ironic twist as the beard, apparently a clear example of masculinity, implies female choice and therefore female power.

Men rationalized the fashion for the beard as bringing health benefits, although it was known at the time that such claims had no scientific basis. An article in 1861 called “The Beard Movement” explained that “the ecclesiastic and the soldier stand nearly together.… [T]he campaigner ask[s] a natural protector from the damp of the bivouac and the dust of the march, the clergyman requires the same for his constant country rides and his cottage evening lecture” (J.S.V. 377). Such an explanation, if true, would mean the beard was the result of natural rather than sexual selection, but Darwin thought its racial specificity made it more likely to result from the latter. [End Page 24]

Darwin himself is known for his full beard. He grew a beard on the Beagle, perhaps for practical reasons such as the difficulty of shaving when seasick, and he wrote to his father to ask him to tell his nanny, Nancy, that he looked like a “worthy Solomon” (Letter to E. C. Darwin). His sister wrote back for his father, saying that when he told Nancy, she “burst out crying” (Caroline Sarah Darwin). When he returned, he shaved off the beard and remained clean-shaven until he was about fifty-three. His “untidy stumpy beard” was first mentioned in a letter to his eldest son William on 26 April 1862, and on 4 July, he admitted in a postscript that he had succumbed to female pressure: “Mamma says I am to wear a beard.” Darwin’s beard was “a bonus for cartoonists,” as Janet Browne has pointed out, and as we can see in “A Venerable Orang-Outang” (377). It became easy to turn his hairiness into animal fur and add a tail to create the perfect caricature of modern man demonstrating his ape origins. The reversion to our ape-like origins that the beard implies was recognized by Darwin, who wrote that...


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pp. 24-27
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