The secret life of the beard

To mark the dramatic return to form of the manly growth, as sported by England's David Beckham, Katy Guest explores the history of facial hair

All of a sudden, the trend of the autumn has shown its face, and it is hairy. As the temperature drops, an ancient way of keeping warm is back and bushy for on-trend men. The first signs were there at the GQ awards last month, but were slow to catch on – despite full-on facial hair being sported by three out of four members of Take That (Little Mark perhaps prefers to preserve the illusion that he still can't manage more than a babyish fuzz).

The male models Bill Gentle and Patrick Petitjean have been in the vanguard. The Esquire editor, Jeremy Langmead, is stepping out manfully with a face of dark bristles. And where the editor of American Vogue, Jeremy Bowles, leads with a swish Edwardian moustache, copycats are bound to follow with a chinful of hairy loveliness. It's not just butchies such as Jason Statham and Mark Strong who have come over all hirsute for the winter. We have the rise of the machosexual. Put down those tweezers and pick up a comb.

You know a trend has reached its zenith when David Beckham takes on a style, to show how it should be done. And while Beckham works his magic on the beard, the beard seems to be working for Beckham. He came on for 31 minutes when England beat Belarus on Wednesday night, stood around looking butch without scoring, and was instantly named the man of the match. He didn't have to do anything; but Steve Bruce was clearly blown away by something. A beard has gravitas. It has dignity. It says: "I don't need your respect, but somehow you just know you're going to give it to me anyway."

Beckham's decision has met with approval in beardy circles, where promotion of full-blown facial hair is regarded as weighty business. Keith Flett, the socialist historian and organiser of the Beard Liberation Front, confided to The Independent on Sunday that Beckham leapt into the lead for the BLF's Beard of Autumn award when he marched on to the pitch on Wednesday. "He soared above Joaquin, Chris Evans and Robin Lustig," Mr Flett told us from BLF HQ.

There are suspicions that Beckham grew the beard especially to raise his profile with a Beard of the Season win, but this did not prevent the judges honouring him with the prize yesterday, narrowly beating Robin Lustig. "One of Robin Lustig's problems was exposure," said Mr Flett, "he's mostly on the radio." He remains guarded about the potential effect of the Beckham beard, however. "I wouldn't expect him to still have it by Christmas," he predicted, sadly. "He said he would keep it for 'a while', but I noticed he'd trimmed it after Wednesday's match."

Nonetheless, on Friday half a dozen of his England teammates were pictured bashfully arriving for training with stubble as they struggled to emulate their hairy idol. But Joe Cole, Michael Owen, David James, Ben Foster, Peter Crouch and Theo Walcott (who has tried to grow a beard before because he thought it made him look older) did not quite have the testosterone needed to pull it off.

Beckham's beard is identifiable as an early-20th-century American style known as a "Rimmer", according to experts at the BLF. This "describes a beard that is largely around the chin line. Beckham has modified it by adding mutton-chop sideburns."

Among more modern bastardisations, such as the Soul Patch, the Goatee, the Chin Strap and the Van Dyck, Beckham's classic hair pattern shows that he has true style, as well as a manly ability to fill his face in a breathtakingly short space of time.

Hard as it may be to believe, bearded has not always been the face of choice for the ruling elite. Whereas for the ancient Greeks a beard was the mark of a man (and a clean-shaven face a sign of being a woman, a child or a weak-chinned wuss), the Romans disapproved of furry faces. Apparently, their enemies were inclined to pull their facial hair during battles – fighting, and winning, like girls.

In 1698, Peter the Great ordered Russian men to shave off their beards, invoking a beard tax not long afterwards, to bring the country into line with its supposedly more modern European neighbours. Elizabeth I was similarly pogonophobic. She may have had a point about the relative freakiness of an entire gender that has hair growing out of its faces: if the average man never trimmed his beard, it would grow to nearly 30ft in length in his lifetime. Which is just weird. But you can't keep a good beard down. During the Napoleonic campaigns, respected veterans were known as "vieux moustaches", and beardless youths would admire them as fine examples of fighting manhood.

In modern circles, there are almost as many varieties of beard as there are men who sport them, but, naturally, certain stylistic examples stand out. The fashion beard, of the type now immortalised by Beckham, is the province of Marc Jacobs, Evgeny Lebedev and handsome French models eager to work the wild-man-of-the-woods look. But it is emulated in elevated circles. Prince William has recently been seen attempting one, as has Matthew d'Ancona, the former Spectator editor, who has transmogrified overnight from an uptight Tory magazine hack into a laid-back hipster with a groovy new image.

Where the Fashion Beard meets the Sports Beard is a territory that Beckham has made his own, but in more extreme Sports Beard territory is Andrew Flintoff and the "frozen beards" referred to by the polar adventurer Sara Wheeler: men whose frost-flecked faces squint out from books, promising stories of how they nearly killed themselves in even more heroic circumstances than the next man.

The Serious Beard is another popular choice this season. Witness most of Take That; Liam Neeson playing Zeus on the set of Clash of the Titans; the actor Michael Sheen; and Sebastian Faulks, who is oh-so-much-morethan The Girl at the Lion D'Or. Meanwhile the Soul Beard (Barry White, shamelessly imitated by George Clooney) is a humbler version of the God Beard (Rowan Williams; Luciano Pavarotti; Brian Blessed), which bears a close resemblance to the Santa Beard (here literary types such as the author and Booker administrator Ion Trewin, and J K Rowling's agent, Christopher Little, have cornered the market).

Aged further, an eminent Santa might have hopes of carrying off a Public Intellectual (Marx, Engels, Disraeli, Dickens, Freud), who could ultimately even grow into a Philosopher (Aristotle, Plato, Archimedes, Socrates). There are few beards that should never be worn, but among them are the Bum Fluff (Wayne Rooney and David Cameron, who didn't start shaving until he was 21), The Twits (Jerry Garcia) and the David Brent. But everybody knows by now not to do a David Brent.

At the annual World Beard and Moustache Championships, which were held last month in Gruendau, Germany, more than 160 participants took part in 17 categories. Judges decreed it the best yet. And with David Beckham as inspiration, the beard can only go from strength to strength.

So don't listen to the recent survey by Lynx, which found that 92 per cent of women preferred a clean-shaven man. Now they've seen Beckham, things will change. Even I, dear reader, had my head turned last week by a bearded beauty, and on The Independent on Sunday the female vote was all for the fuzz.

"Only one sort of person should never grow a beard," concludes Mr Flett. "And that's Tories. They should all be clean shaven." So razors down for the election and get working on a full John Lennon. It's going to be a long cold lonely winter without it.

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