Beards that built America
The history of America seen through the prism of its awesome commitment to beards
The conquistador that took Panama, Peru and Mexico by storm did so with a fierce beard. Stacked long and thick, his hirsute appendage became the perfect compliment to full Spanish armour, though the nations that fell under the Imperial yoke may not have appreciated it quite so much. Still, Pizarro is remembered as the trembling might that forged the path to conquest – and would it have been the same without regular beard taming? Perhaps not.
The dreadlocked pirate Edward Teach was inspiration for Johnny Depp’s buccaneering look as well as being the scourge of the Spanish Main. The Bristol-born privateer commanded a crew of hundreds, ruling with an iron fist and a pigtail-strewn beard that he lavishly decorated with ribbons and even lit fuses. The sight of Teach with a fizzing, smoking beard has become legend. The final demise of his beard – dangling forlornly from his severed head as it decorated a navy bowsprit – is somewhat less romantic.
George Custer could be seen as beckoning in the age of the modern American moustache. Curled beautifully from his angular features and partnered with a soul patch – a century before soul music was born – who can argue with that? OK, so his adversaries at Little Big Horn may not have been so impressed, but the heroic poise of this tragic military figure has gone down in history – fully decorated with an impressive piece of face furniture.
The end of the cowboy era, and the beginning of the legend of the frontier: Buffalo Bill was the great inventor of America. The complete showman knew the power of facial hair and carved his own style that became synonymous with the ‘States. A bushy, brigadier-style moustache with an extended goatee was code for the gun slinging days gone by and worked hard as an advert for the West as he travelled the world. Whether the look was, in fact, inspired by the very buffalo he peppered with shot is another question.
As modern America emerged from the tough years of the thirties, the times called for a new departure in the mustache stakes. The clear model of modernity was Errol Flynn, star of the screen and bed-hopper of high standing. His stripped-back pencil ‘tache spoke of roguish exploits and derring-do, whatever that might be. It’s impossible to imagine Flynn without his trademark lip-strip in place, a feature that could have screen-tested on its own.
Of course, matinee idol looks counted for little when the counter-culture went mainstream. Spearheading the hippy look on the big screen was Dennis Hopper, whose role in Easy Rider set the benchmark for louche, lazy cool – and resurrected the credentials of a mustache so large it needed a zip code. Fierce, unapologetic and firmly rebellious, Hopper was to sport a trimmed-down version in the years that followed (apart from in Waterworld, of course. But then have you tried controlling a beard clipper with only one eye while steering an out-of-control oil tanker?).
As the years ticked by, even the hippy looks of the 1970s had to become passé. What replaced them was the controlled stubble of the 80s: a never-before-seen fusion of slouch and control freak that defined the mood of the times. While many may believe that Selleck’s Magnum 'tache left the larger legacy, it’s just a rehash: Don Johnson’s epic stubble really made the era special and never really went away. While your compadres might still roll up their suit jacket sleeves and scratch their finely trimmed cheeks, you’re unlikely to don the brush-like overhang of a Hawaiian detective any time soon.