Beards: rugged? Trendy? Or unreliable?

Updated: 2011-07-28 11:31

(The New York Times)

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Beards: rugged? Trendy? Or unreliable?

Alexander Marshall, the Director of Operations at Jon Ashe, who lives in Forest Hills, Queens.[Photo/The New York Times]

Beards: rugged? Trendy? Or unreliable?

Von Vonni a Russian designer in the Garment District.[Photo/The New York Times]

Four years ago, I grew the first full beard of my adult life on a whim. I was 41, and it was neither a fashion statement nor a midlife crisis, but it came at a fortuitous time: the style world just happened to be entering the Postmillennial He-Man Beard Epoch.

It was the dawn of an era, when dewy actors like Ryan Gosling and Jake Gyllenhaal started showing up on red carpets sporting cheek-fringe that seemed to boast, "My cover-boy looks can shine even through this tangle"; when it became obligatory to show up at Brooklyn warehouse parties with the shaggy jowls of an 1890s beaver trapper; when the Unabomber chin mane became unexpectedly chic on fashion runways.

The beard — a traditional signifier of age and wisdom in most cultures — had become a symbol of youthful rebellion (and a different sort of conformity) for the first time since the heyday of Fillmore East. In downtown Manhattan, where I live, the beard was de rigueur for young creative professionals — the sort who read Vice, wore shuttle-loom denim jeans and drew their style cues from blogs like Backyard Bill. And that made sense. A beard was the perfect retro-sportsman accessory to go with a scratchy wool plaid shirt and knit cap, a perfect ironic predigital curio that seemed overdue to be brought back into fashion.

But then there was me.

My beard was hardly a bid for coolness. On a trip home to California, I was too sick with the flu to shave for the better part of a week, and started to wonder: what would life be like as a bearded guy? My girlfriend (now wife), Joanna, spurred me on.

For someone who came of age in the clean-shaven 1980s, a beard felt like generational treason. I was the Clash, not the Eagles. But in her view, the beard gave me a rugged Jeff Bridges quality. Presuming she meant the Jeff Bridges of "Against All Odds" and not "The Big Lebowski," I let my whiskers sprout for a few weeks. A few weeks became a few years.

In the early going, however, I wasn't sure if it was me. Like the fuzz on a 14-year-old boy's upper lip, a new beard is never a pretty thing. It is patchy, scraggly, vaguely pubic — a look that only Bob Dylan should attempt, if even Bob Dylan should.

When your beard becomes full, you find yourself wondering if people still recognize you. A beard is a mask as much as a fashion accessory, hiding the "you" that everyone knows as you and replacing it with whatever they happen to associate with the phrase "guys with beards." (Until recently, that typically landed at some unfortunate point along the hippie continuum from Jerry of Ben & Jerry's to Jerry Garcia to Charles Manson.)

When you look at yourself, it feels jarring not to recognize the person in the mirror. Your face widens. You lose all the angles — the cheekbones, the jaw line. I felt as if my head shape went from its familiar oval to pancake-round.

People around me also scratched their heads. Older friends looked at me as if I were trying too hard — the same as if I showed up at a high school reunion in leather pants. Friends my age said diplomatically, "I don't think I could pull off a beard." Translation: "Neither can you."

For them, a beard on a grown man seemed like an indicator that he had, to some degree, lost his senses. Think of Al Gore, post Florida-recount, whose shaggy beard seemed to announce a surrender of lifelong ambition; or, more dramatically, Joaquin Phoenix, whose hermit beard on Letterman a few years ago suggested a break from sanity, abandoning an acting career that has garnered Oscar nominations to try to make it as a rapper (even if it was a marketing ploy for a movie).

Those rogue connotations followed me into the workplace. The modern corporate environment, after all, is fundamentally militaristic in structure. And unless you're talking Stonewall Jackson, there is nothing military about a beard. To many bosses, a beard is a dangerous sign, like a neck tattoo or a pierced nose, that says, "I am a free spirit, not a team player." (Think of the self-styled bohemian Paul Kinsey in "Mad Men," who wears a very un-Don Draper beard as he is forever stuck in copywriting as others charge forward.)

I got skeptical comments from colleagues — "well, that's a new look" was a typical refrain. More style-minded co-workers simply perceived it as professional camouflage. Like Colonel Kurtz, I'd simply been upriver too long.

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