Beards have meaning—now as they did in antiquityby Charlotte Higgins / November 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Some years ago, frolicking by night in the streets of London’s Shoreditch, I happened upon a merry band of bearded youths. This facial-hair fashion had yet to reach the heights of ubiquity that it has achieved today. These young men were the outriders: hipsters; whittlers of spoons; riders of the fixed-gear bicycle.
We discoursed on the subject of beards and the hirsute boys earnestly informed me that their chosen mode had nothing to do with fashion, nor with the recent global financial crisis, nor with deep-seated anxieties about the very meaning and nature of masculinity brought forth by the rise of fourth-wave feminism and a new pressure on gender itself. Growing a beard had simply occurred to each and every one of them spontaneously. It was just one of those things.
Ha! I thought. These boys, with their fisherman’s jerseys, know nothing. As Meryl Streep’s fashion magazine editor, Miranda Priestly, pointed out contemptuously in The Devil Wears Prada, every choice made in relation to our modes of outward show—whether hair or beards or clothes—relates to a web of factors societal, political and aesthetic. And this applies not only to those who take considered pride in their fashion choices, but also to those who pointedly don’t. Beards have meaning—now as they did in antiquity.
Beard-spotting in the classical world is fun, because beardiness, by and large, follows wonderfully strict rules. Go to a decent museum, apply your eyes to its collection of Greek pots, and you will see that butch deities (Zeus, Poseidon, Ares and the like) almost invariably have a long, pointy beard.
You can see owners of such long, pointy beards occasionally roaming the streets of Athens to this day, and even imagine for a moment that the thunderbolt wielder is once more among us. Dionysus—god of theatre, revelry and wine—sometimes has a beard and sometimes does not, but that’s just typical of the kind of metrosexual, non-binary, hard-to-pin down person that he is.
Maturity and manliness
Beards—whether adorning the faces of gods, mythical heroes or regular chaps—are a sign of maturity and manliness. Ancient Greek philosophers are almost always given a big, none-too-groomed bushy number on their portrait busts; they tend to have an air of the Victorian patriarch about them, and look as if they are too busy having…