August 15, 2013

Facial hair as an elite status contest during rising inequality

Having taken a crack at what's up with the increasing popularity of tattoos among girls over the past 20 years, we might as well tackle the other big mystery of contemporary appearance -- why do so many dudes sport facial hair these days?

This will be a nice departure from the usual focus on the falling-crime vs. rising-crime cycle (which is about the same as the cocooning vs. outgoing cycle). The fashion cycles for facial hair appear to map instead onto the cycles in economic inequality.

Here is an excellent review article by Peter Turchin on the history of inequality since 1800, with sidebars about earlier periods. The big picture comes through from quantitative graphs and figures, as well as qualitative narrative. The gist of the history:

From 1800 to the 1920s, inequality increased more than a hundredfold. Then came the reversal: from the 1920s to 1980, it shrank back to levels not seen since the mid-19th century. . . . From 1980 to the present, the wealth gap has been on another steep, if erratic, rise. Commentators have called the period from 1920s to 1970s the ‘great compression’. The past 30 years are known as the ‘great divergence’.

Other sources put the beginning of the rise in inequality during the mid-to-late 1970s, by the way.

Now, think of when facial hair has been popular. First, it was not popular during the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Beards are primarily a mark of the Victorian era (the Gilded Age in America), and were still popular though stalling out and not as baroque during the Edwardian / Progressive era.

Then it vanished during the Jazz Age, the mid-century, and the still fairly clean-cut 1960s. (We're talking mainstream here, not a tiny fringe of hippies or biker gangs who sport beards as tribal group markers.)

Sometime around the later '70s, it became an acceptable thing for a mainstream guy to have a mustache, and no later than 1980 it became cemented as an "in" thing with Magnum, P.I. The cop 'stache (AKA the porn stache) then grew into the goatee, which became mainstream with the yuppie generation of late Boomers during the 1990s. Sideburns and goatees began to meet in a single form during the 2000s, and by now it's not uncommon to see respectable upper-middle-class or even elite men wearing full beards.

Why do the two cycles link up together? It would appear that facial hair is one piece of the larger pattern toward ostentation and bombast, and of obsessive status contests among the elite, during periods of rising inequality. Again, read the Turchin article for changes in elite consumption and behavior when inequality is rising vs. falling.

It's also an attempt to end arguments in a petty, formal, and status-anxious way. Whether those arguments are with same-status competitors or those under your control beneath. It's appealing to seniority and authority, as signaled by the age of the wearer. "You all must obey my orders, or at least follow my lead, since my beard shows that I have more experience and wisdom than the rest of you" -- or so he wants us to believe. Men in the next social layer down adopt the beard as a form of status-striving.

When elites aren't competing so strongly, they let their reputation speak for itself rather than use the beard as a possibly faked signal of knowledge and leadership skills. The seasoned executives don't look so different from the rookie hires. And, not feeling the threat that it may be their number that's up, that it's they who'll lose big-time in the elite competition, they don't appeal to seniority per se as a way of clinging to their position and holding on for dear life. No anxiety to prove seniority, no desperate attempt to grow a beard.

Interestingly, the cycle of facial hair does not match the cycle of male ornamentation. Those Victorians and today's elite with their elaborate beards otherwise dress in a very sober and drab fashion, and shy away from jewelry (seen as womanish). And during the '20s, men dressed stylishly, while remaining clean-shaven.

However, there was a brief time when dudes (some dudes, anyway) sported a 'stache as well as necklaces, bright shirts, and short shorts -- the days of Magnum, P.I. Appearances didn't get more showy than during the Eighties. And during the mid-century, appearances reached minimum showiness in each domain, as men shied away from both facial hair and eye-catching clothing.

So, the showiness of facial hair and of clothing are not inversely correlated (the '80s and the '50s disprove that), nor are they positively correlated (the Victorian era and the Jazz Age disprove that). Rather, the two cycles are separate and sometimes move in the same direction and sometimes in the opposite.

Males turn to more ornamented or stylish clothing when the crime rate is rising, and more muted and wallflower styles when it's falling. And guys are not trying to outcompete each other, but are all pitching in their fair share to make the entire culture feel alive and exciting.


  1. Something about Turchin's theory rubs me the wrong way. Not sure what it is, but it may be because it resembles so many other fantasies popular in the Manosphere.


  2. You know how in some cultures, the men are required to have beards?

    Does that have something to do with this?

  3. Males turn to more ornamented or stylish clothing when the crime rate is rising, and more muted and wallflower styles when it's falling. And guys are not trying to outcompete each other, but are all pitching in their fair share to make the entire culture feel alive and exciting.

    Re: pitching in your fair share, although it's kind of hard to rate levels of ornamentation, but you might see more of a level of variance in ornamentation in rising inequality times.

    The mean ornamentation might fluctuate more with rising versus falling crime, while the variance may be more rising inequality related. The 80s seem to me like both high mean and high variance as a period.

    You know how in some cultures, the men are required to have beards?

    Does that have something to do with this?

    I think its a culture specific and generalising idea. There are too many hippy beards, biker gang beards and jesus beards for it seem general. Unless you have East Asian or African blood, for many cultures, a beard is often just a natural part of male life.

  4. Also, I'm impressed that you appear to have unironically recreated the satirical, protagonist's no-nothing sociology grad theory of beards from Cryptonomicon.

  5. "You know how in some cultures, the men are required to have beards?"

    Like where there's a gerontocracy? That's more or less what I'm describing with the clinging to position via seniority. It also takes a lot longer to gain status and marry in gerontocracies, and IIRC, in periods of rising inequality.

    Like how today where you have to wait until you're 30 or 35 to get a good-paying job, unlike 1960 or '70.

    Requiring a beard for status is another way to accomplish that -- teenagers are automatically out, even guys 20-25. Not until the late 20s or early 30s can the average guy grow a decent beard.

  6. "the satirical, protagonist's no-nothing sociology grad theory of beards from Cryptonomicon."

    There's the difference -- a Theory of Beards vs. an explanation of a particular real-life phenomenon.

  7. Cryptonomicon, the book with the beard theory, was kind of annoying. It presents nerd habits as cute and adorable.

    The main character is in the Phillipines and naturally misses home. So he has Captain Crunch cereal shipped to him.

    He can't dance. He has a goatee. His English literary deconstrunctionist writes a paper about how people with beards are deficient in various ways.

    He likes this half-Asian girl who carries a sword and emasculates him. And so on.

    The book can be pretty funny, but it makes nerds out to be cute and ultimately desirable people.

  8. Victorian era (the Gilded Age in America)

    I wonder if the two different cultures didn't responded slightly differently to rising inequality - the US with the rise of the "Land of the Dollar" worship of wealth and the wealthy, while Britain with the stereotypically Victorian British increase of focus on class distinctions (unlike the Gothic Romantic era or Edwardian era where it seems the aristocratic classes had to be both more demotic - dropping the aitches, etc - and show some flash, military violence and pomp to get the respect of the lower orders).

    I also wonder if the neo-rising inequality era hasn't seen quite the same response - wealth worship in the US and increasing focus on class in Britain, despite protestations of a growing classlessness in the culture.

  9. Hmmmm... during the Jazz era the DE Safety razor became very popular. No longer did you have to see the barber for a shave. Then you have the war years, so a clean cut militant look was the rave.
    Around the time the cartridge razor showed up on the market full force we see the Magnum staches appearing...coincidence? I think there is more going on here than class.

  10. The rise of facial hair did not start with Magnum PI.

    The Oakland As of 1971 was a sign of the times. I remember my Father growing a beard in 1969 (from photographs) and having a Mustache from 1971 until 1981.

    Two of my uncles had a beard from in the seventies and one grew a stache in 1972 and still has it.

  11. Facial became very common in the early seventies

    Look at the the 1971 Oakland As.
    The 1972 World series was called the Hairs verse the squares

    The Beatles started the facial hair trend with the white album in 1967. It did not start with Magnum PI in 1980

    Even my old man grew a beard in 1969 and kept a mustache until 1981.

    All my uncles had a beard at some point in the 1970s, they were all baby boomers born from 1946 - 1954

  12. I just randomly found your blog bookmarked on my browser from 6 years ago... I do not regret checking it out.

    Thank you for this interesting insight on beards and tattoos.


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