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The Evolution of Facial Hair

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Were the van-dyked Cavaliers cavalier? Do muttonchops make you a Jungian? Are the flannel-clad scruffy-beardoes really more outdoorsy than you and I?

The Pencil-thin Mustache

The look so questionable Jimmy Buffet even has a song about it (1974, b/w “Brand New Country Star”). Popular from the 1920’s to the 1940’s—longer among a niche demographic—the pencil or pencil-thin mustache, once considered dashing and debonair, is now the calling card of creeps and pervs. Rocked by Errol Flynn, Little Richard, Vincent Price, Gomez Addams and Prince, it can make you look slick or sleazy depending on who you are and how you carry it. With a cocked eyebrow and insouciant grin, the pencil was quite suave on Duke Ellington. To be fair, though, he was the consummate gentleman, decked out in evening clothes with marcel waves in his tidy hair. Ellington also had impeccable manners and composed exquisitely regal music. On someone like John Waters, however, the pencil transforms into a perv-stache. The Pope of Trash looks like a carnival barker with a laudanum habit who’s been caught performing unsavory acts with small woodland creatures. Maybe it’s the tight checkered suits, the pasty sallow face, the globs of pomade in his hair, or the squirrelly expression on his lips. Whatever it is, on the Sensei of Smut the slender mustache is lewd and slithery. The pencil doesn’t create your identity but rather evokes and intensifies whoever you already are, a follicular mirror to your soul. Or at least to your after-hours proclivities.

The Raleigh

Both trim and thick, scruffy and sharp, the Raleigh is a beard for all seasons. Here’s how you do it. Thin on the sides and lip, bushy and triangular at the chin. And here’s the crux of it. The thick chin-tuft should be carefully landscaped into a dagger-like point. Why? The tip of the beard draws the eye downward, toward the midsection. This is a (barely) subliminal message that the beard-wearer is masculine, virile and romantically available. Sir Walter Raleigh, pioneer of this look, knew what he was doing. Adventurer, explorer, seafarer, swashbuckler, politician, landed gent, soldier, courtier, poet, spy, tobacco impresario—Walt was the whole package and he wanted the ladies to know it. With an upturned waxed mustachio—chiseled tips pointing upward—onlookers were discreetly drawn to his mind. Raleigh had the yin of brains and the yang of wang. He was the hunk who thunk. It’s no wonder he knocked ruffs with Queen Elizabeth I. Fine, you say, but why is his most famous poem, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” about preserving feminine chastity. Simple misdirection. Raleigh plays the eunuch in order to conceal his true nature and thereby become a more effective voluptuary.

The 90210

The first thing stylish young men did on October 5, 1990, after the first episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 aired, was start growing sideburns. Not your grampa’s old muttonchops, or furry rockabilly Elvis burns, but something new. Long, thin, neat, well-manicured. Paired with a James Dean ‘do—short on the sides, dry pompadour on top—rolled jeans, white t-shirt, and sensitive-rebel frown, this look said: I cry when I read my own poetry, but I also want to ride motorcycles some day. Or: I really like Jason Priestly. A lot. Because of Aaron Spelling’s groundbreaking ensemble melodrama, 10/5 is a vital day in cultural history, but it’s perhaps even more important for those sexy, tapered, misunderstood-teenager sideburns.

The Bald Woodsman

Back in the late-60’s, men wore hiking boots, watch caps, flannel shirts and long bushy beards. (Sure, there were some early adopters in the 50’s—beatniks, merchant marines and back-to-nature types—but the Rugged Bohemian came of age during the Counterculture.) A few years ago, young men started to revive this look, but with a shaved head. So it’s different. Also, today’s boots and flannels don’t come from military surplus stores or the Salvation Army. Instead, young men watch them trend online for several months before buying them at top dollar from ironically named shops such as Urban Outfitters. Just like Jack Kerouac did. These woodsy revivalists do keep it real, though. Just like their predecessors, they own axes and bear traps. They don’t actually use axes or bear traps, because that would get the apartment messy, but they sometimes hang them on the wall.

The Flâneur*

*For the man so urbane even his vowels wear little hats

In olden times, when smartphones were new and the term hipster had become so ubiquitous that even nine-year-olds in Old Navy ads were using it, something was growing in the trendier neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Baltimore, Portland and San Francisco. It was funny facial hair. Is there a better way to complement your ironic suspenders, sardonic trilby, or tongue-in-cheek monocle? The funniest facial hair of all was the waxed handlebar. This is the perfect growth for the fancy gentleman who enjoys grooming accessories such as the mustache comb, beard shampoo and mustache wax. Naturally, you’d also want to invest in Macassar to oil your hair and antimacassars—those white doily things—to keep your easy chairs from developing unsightly grease-stains. The waxed ‘stache takes a lot of work, but it’s worth the effort if you want people to think you’re Dali’s nephew, sing in a barbershop quartet, or work in a Dodge City saloon circa 1880. It’s the ideal look for dashing gents who ride high-wheeler bikes and sip absinthe on Sunday afternoon, for the man-about-town who irons his own spats and wears a top hat to kickball league. Of course, the waxed mustachio is extra funny if you pair it with cargo shorts and a tank-top.

The 7:00 Shadow

Do you remember the 80’s? Scruffy beards were so last decade. Fu Manchus didn’t go with parachute pants. Punks and New Wavers didn’t have goatees. Hair-metallists may have worn the same leather trousers for three weeks straight, but they shaved every day. No one had facial hair. Except Don Johnson, TV’s Sonny Crockett on Miami Vice. He found a loophole in the era’s strict beard-ban. What if it’s not a beard? What if it’s just “not shaving for a while.” You let the scruff grow and maintain it with the trimmer on #2. George Michael jumped on the bandwagon a few years later and popularized designer stubble. Before that, only failed bookies, hoboes, and 19th-century Bedlam detainees walked around with five days of growth. Now it’s de rigueur for every actor and pretty boy on the planet, not to mention every Joe Six-pack and Johnny Accountant. The most edgy and underground facial hair became, in a few short years, the most popular and adaptable look of all—the not-beard, the is-it-really-a-beard? the plausible-deniability beard. Perfect for lounging around at home, strolling the croisset, lurking in public restrooms, or rolling up your jacket sleeves to chase coke-dealers with your equally-attractive but differently-raced colleague.

The Rotarian

I believe it was Lao Tzu who said: The absence of facial hair is its own facial hair. In that spirit, consider the clean-cut man of the Eisenhower Era. In those prelapsarian times, a man was a man, yet his face was as smooth as a woman’s. He wore a coat and tie every time he stepped outside the house. Unless he was one of those motorcycle hoodlums. He wore a hat. His short hair was pinned down with Brylecreem, flat-topped-up with butch wax, or left alone in a flaccid crewcut. My old man was one of those guys. An Army officer. A tough-guy with a briefcase, galoshes and tan trench coat. When I grew a rattail, he snipped it off with terrifyingly large scissors. When I tried to grow a mustache, he said, Why are you trying to cultivate something on your face that grows wild around your ass? Good question. The clean-shaven look is for the man who doesn’t want frills or extras. He keeps life simple and straightforward. When my old man taught me to shave, he espoused this principle: I use the KISS method—Keep It Simple, Stupid. The Rotarian is for the man who works 35 years in the same job, has a few whiskeys after work, coaches Little League, yells at the TV news, cultivates a heart condition, and buys one good wristwatch that lasts a lifetime. For this man, facial hair isn’t an identity badge or lifestyle signifier; it’s what you wash down the drain every morning.