By David Michael Newstead.
Christopher Oldstone-Moore is a history professor at Wright State University where he focuses on gender and masculinity. And today, we’re discussing his new book, Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair. It’s a far reaching examination of the subject, covering things like evolution, biology, and ancient history. Notably, he delves into the beards of ancient Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome. The book also explores the facial hair issues of early Christianity and the Middle Ages as well as the larger political and religious significance of facial hair all the way to the present. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: You’ve studied this material for some time now. Writing this book, what did you learn about facial hair and masculinity that you didn’t already know?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: That’s what is really fun about this subject. Very little was known about the history of facial hair by anybody. Some people knew parts of the story, but the whole thing has never been told. One of the surprises is the prevalence of shaving in the history of Western civilization. Many imagined it went back and forth in a fashion cycle over time, or that shaving was relatively recent, but that is not even close to true. Times when beards predominate were fairly rare. The common explanations of why beards come and go—like the invention of the safety razor– are also wrong. What I learned is that changes in ideas of masculinity are often represented by changes in facial hair.
David Newstead: You mentioned the lack of research related to facial hair, what challenges did that present? And how did you overcome them?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: This was a huge challenge. For one thing, granting bodies do not generally recognize this as a worthy historical topic. The National Endowment for the Humanities turned me down flat. So money was hard to come by. Second, much of what I did was original research, which means I had to find, study and analyze material that few, if anyone, had looked at before. In many cases I had to have these items translated from the original Latin, German, Russian, and so forth. My main way to overcome these obstacles was time and tenacity. It took me more than a decade to research this topic. It must be said that the joy of finding new things that no one ever knew about helped keep me going.
David Newstead: When and how did you develop an interest in this subject?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: About 14 years ago, when I was looking for new material on social history for my classes at Wright State, I looked into the matter of shaving and facial hair styles, and found to my surprise that no historian had studied the subject. This seemed like too important a subject to be passed up!
David Newstead: During your research for the book, did you find yourself especially identifying with any of the historical figures you discuss? Peter the Great? King David? Abraham Lincoln? Clark Gable?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: Abraham Lincoln is a very likable figure. His humbleness comes out even in the story of his beard. He was not vain about his looks, but did follow the advice a little girl to grow his beard to look better. I also felt some sympathy with those in the past who wrote about beards, like the Renaissance scholar Marco Olmo or the 18th-century writer Jacques Dulaure, who were in a sense earlier versions of myself. On the other hand, many of the figures I discuss are really terrible people, like Peter the Great and Stalin.
David Newstead: As I was reading, I was particularly interested in your research on Alexander the Great and Tsar Peter the Great, both of which are famous for being anti-beard and this got me thinking. What would you say are some of the negative effects of anti-facial hair policies throughout history?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: On this point, I would add the US court decisions of the 1970s and 80s (like Supreme Court’s Kelley v. Johnson) that support employers’ power to require shaving. Peter the Great, Supreme Court, etc. are imposing conformity and limiting personal freedom. This is deliberate, because this sort of body conformity is important for those attempting to maintain social order or control. This does not exclude the possibility of beards being enforced for the same reason. I also talk about the Taliban and ISIS, which enforce beards on all male subjects as a sign of piety and loyalty, and also the military requirement of European armies during the 19th century that all soldiers wear mustaches. It does seem, however, that shaving is the more popular choice when the goal is regularity and conformity.
David Newstead: If you could have a beard during any time in history, what historical era would you pick and why?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: The early seventeenth century Van Dyke beard is pretty cool. I think I could pull that off with my thin face. The massive, braided Assyrian beards of the 9th and 8th centuries BCE are perhaps the most awesome, but I don’t think I could manage it.
David Newstead: What’s the future of facial hair? And, for that matter, masculinity?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: That is the great unknown. It seems to me that we are not witnessing the full triumph of beards in our time. We do not have a masculine consensus on this. And this indecision may be a real sign of our times. There is no consensus on masculine style or on masculinity in general, and I am not sure we are getting one soon. I see websites were different guys or groups are promoting their ideas, but they cover the waterfront. This is likely to be the subject of my next book; what guidance has been offered to help men be men in the past, and now in the present? It seems to have become an increasingly complex and difficult matter. Our choices about facial hair have become correspondingly diverse.
David Newstead: Why do you think it’s become more complex and difficult nowadays?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: I can’t say for sure, but we live in times when gender norms are undergoing many changes, not just one or two. Masculinity is a far more complex thing when gay, trans and fluid sexualities are newly accepted as normal. Not just sexuality, but also family, social and political structures. Feminism and social change mean that the link between masculinity and family and political leadership is weakening. Men and women alike seem less committed to older social or family roles. On it goes. There are many more ways to be a man today, and much less agreement about what the norms should be.
David Newstead: Any final thoughts?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: My main hope for this book is that people enjoy seeing history in a new way, and that it will inspire people to look at our world with fresh eyes, seeing masculinity as a dimension of our human experience over time.