Sunday, April 18, 2010

Peterkin interview: the (post)modern beard

Allan Peterkin, author of One Thousand Beards and the forthcoming The Bearded Gentleman, was kind enough to muddle through an international Q & A with me.  (see below)

Most exciting, I think, was his listing of the beards of the Noughts:

  • the anti-war beard: post 9/11, some men sported stubble in contrast to a crisp, military grooming style; more dramatically, college students grew out Bin Laden style beards in ironic protest
  • the strike beard: like Conan O'Brien's beard from the Writer's Strike of 2007-08.
  • the layoff beard: especially for Wall Streeters, who had to maintain a close shave in order to appear trustworthy to clients
  • the playoff beard: this used to be primarily for hockey, but has now moved on to any anticipated event -- including, in one case, the birth of a man's first child.
The last three attest to the beard's timekeeping role.   Whether it is the product of subtle rebellion or self-neglect, the presence of a beard offers, at the very least, the appearance of progress. While you're sitting on the couch, reading the latest unemployment statistics, a layoff beard proves that you have the potential to grow as a human being.

A reconstructed conversation:
Q: So what sort of cultural meaning does a beard carry today? What role does it play?
A: First of all, it seems like facial hair is here to stay. The mustache is back. The Grizzly Adams beard, the sideburns, a guy might have a tuft on the chin or a soul patch; the permutations and combinations are endless. Whereas men used to take clues from clergy, royalty, politicians, now we take cues from pop culture -- our athletes, musicians, and, in the case of the mustache, porn stars.
It's all done playfully -- rebellious, but playful at the same time. And also, as you said, ironic. Young men are saying they’re no corporate slave. I can teach, I can be a dentist, but my face is my own.

Q: Are beards different today than they were in the past?
A: Young men today are not aware of the cultural precedence, they don’t really care [about what beards used to mean]. They're not worried about contrasting style invokes in historical figures. They do think it’s sexy, it’s masculine, it’s rebellious, and it’s playful.

Q: What do you see in the future of beards?
A: For now, it looks like a very furry time. But you never know when it's going to swing back. For example, right now, the neopreppy look is back. And, given the popularity of Mad Men, some guys are going for the slim suit, really groomed, ultra clean-shaven look. Also, I supposed, when a majority of men have facial hair, it ceases to be rebellious, and therefore lose its charm.
We might be looking at a sort of Victorian era, where everyone but Oscar Wilde had facial hair, and he was shaving just to be different.