Everyone is so hairy. I never wanted the Clark Gable look
David Henshall on the horrific profusion of facial hair that seems to be everywhere these days
Beards, you could say, are booming. Wherever you go, whatever store, company, coffee shop or gas station you enter, you come face-to-face with a Sir Francis Drake or a Fidel Castro or a WG Grace.
Facial hair is sprouting like a river in flood as more and more men become just as conscious of their looks and turn-out as their wives and girlfriends. We know this to be true because, while famous fashion stores and other well-known names are disappearing from the high street, barber shops are sprouting all over the place at a rate of knots.
Barber shops were the fastest-growing retail category in 2018 with 813 new UK units. The year before, another 624 opened and analysts say that numbers this year are already outstripping those figures.
This extraordinary explosion, experts believe, is driven by the rapidly growing trend for male grooming and specifically beard grooming. Ronald Nyakairu, senior insight manager at the Local Data Company which published the figures, said the growth in business was partly the result of the modern focus on looks.
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Social media is also playing its part, with image-conscious men having their bristles trimmed as often as once a week to ensure they are Instagram ready. And, it seems, pretty well anybody can set up shop as a barber, provided they know a bit about about cutting hair and curling a moustache.
Ronald Nyakairu says that compared with other high street sectors there are few barriers to setting up as a barber and that getting a licence here is less stringent than in other European countries. "It's a relatively simple way of setting up a shop" and, he reckons, the market is far from saturated. All fashions have their day and then usually give way to something new but there are no signs of the beard business going belly-up.
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I have never had a beard, or ever thought of growing one. I don't think I could live with the scruffy, scratchy period between clean shaven and full growth. Once when very young I was persuaded by a girlfriend who had a pash on David Niven to spring a moustache on my upper lip. It was a long time appearing and she tried to encourage growth with her eyebrow pencil and, in the end, gave me up for a chap with a fine Clark Gable fuzz.
I trust that all the new barbers are well-schooled in the exotic varieties of beard, from the full sea captain to the narrow-fronted Royale model very popular in France during the Second Empire period. Old Dutch grows in width at the bottom and there are a host of designs and creations with names like Jawline, Brett, Circle, Junco or goatee, Monkeytail, Meg, Oakley. Hollywoodian and, I imagine, any number of personal fancies in between.
My guess is that the rush to whiskers is suggested or supported by wives and sweethearts. Women have a bigger influence on the way we men look than we often care to admit.
What fascinates me more than the present increase in beards is the fact that men have been shaving off their whiskers since the beginning of time. The Romans are usually pictured barefaced and ancient cave paintings from 30,000 BC often depict men without beards.
But how on earth did they get rid of the hair and offer cheeks as smooth as a baby's backside without the aid of something absolutely razor sharp? It is suggested that early man removed unwanted hair with clamshells which were used like tweezers. It is also thought that early razors were made of flint. Whatever method they used it must have been pretty tough on the skin.
The Indians and Egyptians used copper razors in 3000 BC and it was not until the mid 19th century that the safety razor arrived to replace the traditional Sweeney Todd leather-stropped cut-throat.
But now the beard is having its day.