Illustration by Mr Bingo
It cannot have escaped your attention that after a long period in the clean-shaven wilderness, beards are most definitely back. Wherever you look - the pages of The Journal on MR PORTER, fashion runways, the Oscars - or in my case, the mirror - men are choosing to advertise their masculinity via the most conspicuous billboard available to them: their faces.
By beards, we are not talking about the assiduously-designed affairs worn by R&B singers that require a set square and laser-accurate trimmer, or those apologetic chin gloves worn by middle-aged men who want to disguise the fact they have no chins. No, we are talking about big, bushy, Mr Hemingway-esque growths that communicate wisdom, gravitas and virility.
So, how did a steady drizzle of bristle become this all-enveloping blur of fur? And can the trend be put down to the ephemeral nature of fashion, or is there something more to our newfound pursuit of hirsute?
France has a lot to answer for. Among the very first poster boys for the Age of Beard were two Frenchmen, model Mr Patrick Petitjean and rugby player Mr Sébastien Chabal. One was a walking riposte to the freshly scrubbed, androgynous types who traditionally dominate male catwalks; the other seemed to be daring opponents to grab a handful of hair as he bulldozed his way to the try-line. What they had in common, however, was a philosophy that seemed to say, 'I am a man, take me as I am', with facial growths deep enough to conceal primitive civilizations.
Beards are currently de rigueur in the fashion world. From Mr Tom Ford to Mr Patrick Cox, through campaigns for French Connection, Gant and Kenzo, beards are being cultivated, stroked and checked for stray pasta shells wherever you look. The ultimate seal of approval came when Mr David Beckham unveiled his own contribution to the genre, a growth that seemed to extend all the way down his neck before disappearing into his collar and fusing with his chest hair.
If beards, like fashion, can be viewed as a mirror for the times we live in, perhaps this outward reassertion of our right to be men is a response to the
realities of a world where nothing is certain and disaster appears to lurk around every corner. Not so long ago the New Man era taught us to conquer our basic instincts, embrace our dormant femininity and utilize every new type of grooming product to hit the market, whereas now there's no shame in channelling Mr Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
It would appear that the 'New Man' has been replaced by the 'Man's Man'. Or, as the mission statement of the website beards.org ('growing better beards, worldwide - since 1996') puts it: '...the male beard communicates an heroic image of the independent, sturdy and resourceful pioneer, ready, willing and able to do manly things.' (Although what the female beard communicates is anyone's guess.)
There are flaws to this argument, however. If beards are a throwback to our hunter-gatherer forebears and signal that we can be trusted to see the world safely through this period of turmoil, how is it that so few national leaders seem to sport them? Maybe this is because the beard has a long historical association with rebellion and revolution, one that encompasses Mr Vladimir Lenin, Mr Che Guevara, Mr Fidel Castro and Mr Nelson Mandela. Or maybe it is because its chief exponents today seem to be of altogether more dubious character; witness Colonel Gaddafi, whose penchant for plastic surgery means his chin dusting might well have once resided in his armpit.
Women are divided over beards, too. Despite the fact they are understood to signify our sexual maturity (a relief, given I'm 40 years old), many still believe they carry connotations of dirtiness and slovenly behaviour, not to mention the promise of a nasty rash should they get too close. In a 2009 survey, 92 per cent of women polled said they preferred their men clean-shaven.
On some levels, this is understandable. Mr Joaquin Phoenix's gargantuan face nest was a more conspicuous signpost he had gone off the rails than any appearance on Letterman or ill-advised notion of embarking on a career in hip-hop. Similarly, only certain women would look at Mr Billy Gibbons and Mr Dusty Hill, front men for ZZ Top, and think, 'I can't wait for them to meet my mother'.
In the western world, the beard has enjoyed its most successful spell since the late 1960s, although it's arguable that we're now approaching tipping point. Just as those ridiculous magnet and iron filing stubble designs morphed into pencil-thin chin straps and tragic goatees, so too the current vogue for luxuriant beards will inevitably be replaced by something else. But until we're faced with the prospect of beading our sideburns and plaiting rogue nostril hair, I'll be happy to put up with the itching a little while longer.