Nearly 12 million people tuned in for the season premiere of “Duck Dynasty” on A&E this summer, making it the most-watched nonfiction series telecast in cable history. The show celebrates duck hunting, faith and redneckery, but it also reveres another cultural icon — the beard.
Through four seasons of watching the Robertson men hunt, blow things up and gather around the family dinner table, viewers have also seen the men’s stubble grow to unruly forests of fur. Their beards often become part of the plotlines, and the show’s popularity means anyone out in public with a full beard could be mistaken for a member of the family Robertson.
Other shows have also jumped on the beard bandwagon, most notably IFC’s “Whisker Wars,” a reality TV spot that follows the international sport of bearding. The competitors, whose egos are as big as their beards, travel from town to town competing against other facial hair farmers for coveted titles and a chance to battle it out — beard style — at the annual World Beard & Mustache Championships, this year held on Nov. 2 in Leinfelden-Echterdingen, Germany.
The High Country has also embraced another trend: No-Shave November, a month-long homage to hair that raises awareness and funds for cancer research. The fundraising campaign started November 2009 on Facebook with fewer than 50 participants and has grown to include thousands of people across the globe.
So what’s with this fascination with the five o’clock shadow?
To understand beards, you have to understand a little bit of their history. Men in ancient Egypt started shaving their faces as far back as 3,000 B.C., but even then, the upper echelons would don decorative false beards as a sign of royalty. In ancient Greece, philosopher and teacher Socrates and other intellectuals of his time wore beards as symbols of wisdom.
The Catholic Church has notoriously had trouble making up its mind about beards. According to “Beards: An archaeological and historical overview,” an academic paper by Marion Dowd, “At different times in the Church’s history, beardlessness was seen to reflect a celibate life, with the beard linked to sexual activity, the devil and evil,” but “by the ninth century, Catholic priests wore beards while the Greek Church remained clean-shaven, … in medieval times, the reverse was the case.”
Dowd goes on to write, “Military leaders throughout time have made the trimming of beards and hair obligatory for soldiers for reasons of hygiene, as well as for military prowess.” Emperor Francis Joseph, of Austria, adhered to the military trend in the late 1800s with some awesome, no doubt fear-inspiring, temple-to-jaw sideburns possibly modeled after the namesake Civil War-era chops made famous by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.
The mane event
No matter the inspiration or moral motivation, carefully cultivated chin growth moved from necessity to fashion to art recently with the advent of worldwide bearding competitions, the annual finale of which is the World Beard & Mustache Championships.
The World Championships might draw the crème de la crème of beards and wacky freestyle facial topiaries, but those growing out their cheek fuzz don’t have to travel to Germany to find some friendly bearding competition.
Each March in the High Country, local beards are put to the test during Mustache March, with heated contests cropping up all over the county. Tonda Sublett, manager of the Breckenridge Hair Co., said a little bit of everything walks through their door in the form of facial hair, but the craziest looks come in the spring.
“For Mustache March, we have a lot of guys who grow their beards all winter and then do something silly for the competitions around town,” she said. “Mostly, we have the standard grizzly mountain man beard. They grow it for three months and then come in to have the crazies taken care of.”
Here in Summit County, beards provide protection from wind and sun, a repository for snow from powder day face shots and even just an excuse to not buy a razor.
“Some people like it low on the cheeks or the jaw line,” Sublett said. “Most men here just kind of let it go, and we’ll clean up their cheek lines and around their mouths so they aren’t tickling the ladies.”
Sublett said she has a couple of clients who just come in for beard trims, but most of the trimming comes complimentary with a haircut. Beard maintenance can be as simple as putting a guard on a pair of clippers and taking it all down a hair or as complex as hand fades.
“I think there’s that kind of mountain man persona that most men here like to adopt,” Sublett said. “They pretend that they don’t care and it gets to a point that they start to care; it’s the same thing when it comes to barbering.”
Despite differences in style and function from decade to decade and place to place, the beard has lived on in one way or another throughout history and around the world. So let’s salute the bold, beautiful beard and the men who maintain the trend — happy bearding!