When Hairy Met Silly

As Seinfeld might say, probably has said, what’s the deal with these half-baked beards? We’re not talking the Full Jehovah beard, Duck Dynasty foliage, formal Robert E. Lee beards, Chuck Todd goatees, or Charles the First Van Dycks. Not even the minimalist Dizzy Gillespie soul patch.

No, we are discussing the now ubiquitous “I forgot to shave” beard. The stubble-face look you used to see only on dipsomaniacs after a bender, Grapes of Wrath era hobos or chain gang members.

Where did this looks come from and how did it catch on? One can only assume women tolerate it or it would have died a fast death. Men are prone to slovenliness, but as long as they still have the faintest hope of appealing to a single female on earth they try to achieve a minimum level of presentability.

I hasten to add that I am not an enemy of the beard as such. As soon as I escaped the stifling penal colony of high school I grew a beard, to the horror of my parents who viewed it as a sign of beatnik rebellion. Since my father was very fond of the bearded New Orleans clarinetist Pete Fountain, I felt I had a trump to play, but it cut little ice. I admired slightly more current jazz players including the variously hirsute Modern Jazz Quartet so I’d have had a role model excuse if I’d wanted one, but in fact my motive was simpler.

I hated to shave from the first moment I was forced to do it. The electric razor left a weird feeling of having run a belt sander over my face. I quickly switched to cold steel blades, but they were only slightly better. They required an elaborate ritual including cream or foam (I actually tried an old-fashioned barbershop-quartet era brush briefly) and new blades and razors not to mention styptic pencil to stanch the bleeding when you accidentally slashed face or neck. What fun! Not to mention the expense of frequently renewing supplies. So I quit as soon as feasible and haven’t seen most of my lower face for almost a half century. I haven’t missed it either.

During that time the reaction to the beard by strangers has gone through a kaleidoscopic evolution tracing he social history of the times. My mother’s beatnik gibes were soon succeeded by the dirty hippie label. In both instances I was viewed as a possibly unreliable bohemian, but such howling rose to a crescendo of denunciation during the Vietnam era when it was also assumed I was using my face as a proxy for anti-Americanism.

By the time the war wound down the beard had gone from radicals and rock stars to truckers and country western musicians which meant it had gone, if not mainstream, at least down home. Beards could be found on Willie and Waylon, Kenny Rogers and ZZ Top. Soon avant garde types threw it overboard, and as hippies morphed into yuppies they were forced to shave or, in the hipper quarters of corporate culture like advertising and media, had to adopt more elegantly trimmed and sculpted facial hair.

Nothing however explains the current rage for the unshaven look that falls short of actual beardage. It’s everywhere. It is sufficiently widespread that at Walmart you can now buy specially designed electric razors that allow men in suits to give themselves the drunk tank look. Historians of hair seem to have traced the origin of unshaven as cool to Don Johnson in Miami Vice and to Beckham, but it certainly didn’t catch on until more recently.

The real vogue seems to gave begun among urban hipsters, male models and effete pop stars or former boy band members like Justin Timberlake trying to flash a teeny bit of faux machismo in a gangsta milieu. That might have been tolerable in allegedly cool people posing at a martini bar, but now the “woke-up-on-the pavement” look is sprouting in the most embarrassing places.

Men who are old enough to know better and rich enough not to have to follow fashion trends are sporting the look, Turn on CNBC and there are sagging, jowly middle-aged hedge fund managers in $1,000 suits wearing salt and pepper stubble. Far from looking hip they look like they are scraping by on Social Security and eating canned food out of the cans.

Last week two of the squarest guys imaginable — sportscaster Joe Buck and Hall of Fame Cowboy Troy Aikman — appeared before a game with perfectly coiffed Texas dos enameled into place with hairspray above and mangy buddy-can-you-spare-a-dime beards below.

When the cool look is adopted by the hopelessly uncool, the end is near. The Christmas present of the Norelco stubble trimmer will soon be in the dumpster and the next new thing — the Maori tattooed skinhead look or Custer cavalier tresses — won’t be far behind.

Luckily I don’t have to worry. I will just keep on doing as I’ve done since puberty. Not shaving. Not because it is chic but because it is cheap, easy and at my age who’s looking?

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