I admit, it might seem a bit strange, but sometimes book projects start with a flash. That’s certainly how Beards: An Unshaved History came about. When Berlin based publisher Bruno Gmünder first discussed the idea of a beard book with me, images of 1970s gay clones shot through my head; to be exact: photos I had discovered a few years earlier in the archives of the Schwule Museum Berlin while researching my last Gmünder book, Porn: From Andy Warhol to X-Tube (2011). These stubbled vintage guys had left quite an impression, mildly put, probably because they reminded me of my own youth. I had always been curious as to why they shaved off their trademark accessory once the AIDS crisis hit in the eighties, the time I was finally old enough to have sex with them. So I told the Gmünder editors that if I were to do a beard book with them, I didn’t want to write about grooming products or shampoo, but make the gay clones of the Golden Age of Promiscuity the starting point for my journey through the centuries, and look at bearded history from a pronounced gay perspective.
What followed turned out to be a joy ride, full of surprises. For example, I had never realized that the bear subculture-look of furry faces and checked shirts morphed with the post-9/11 return-to-the-frontier-mentality-look, i.e. the renaissance of the Wild West style that was part of the toughening-up act that accompanied George W.’s War on Terror. Suddenly you couldn’t tell a straight diehard Bush supporter apart from a gay muscle bear in full armor. And when, on top of all that, the hipster movement adopted the Taliban beard as a symbol of the cool outsider, all known beard order was turned upside down. The result is that today, for the first time ever, you cannot tell from a beard which politics or sexual orientation a man has. Ironically, you can only tell the straights from the gays by looking at their pubic hair. Ten years ago a shaved body and pubic area were an almost certain signal of homosexuality: today it’s the other way round. Straight guys grow enormous beards, wear hyper-masculine outfits, but meticulously shave their pits and pubes. That’s what their girlfriends demand, it seems, and that is the sacrifice these gents make for sex, no matter how emancipated their beards make them seem. Gays, on the other hand, went from the depilated Calvin-Klein look of the eighties and nineties back to full body and facial hair, with a capital F.
Of course, the history of facial hair is not merely the last forty years of follicular fashion, that happened in my own life time. Therefore, the book’s center-section starts 10,000 years BKC. The burning questions include: why did cave men suddenly decided to make the effort to painfully remove their facial hair with sea shells and flint stones; why were the pharaohs clean shaven, yet wore luxurious strap-on beards at public festivals; why could Greek men in antiquity indulge in anal intercourse with a bare-cheeked boy but not with a youth old enough to sport a beard; and most importantly, why did not only the Catholic church, but also the Jews and the Muslims, go to such monumental troubles telling their flocks which style of beards were acceptable to the One True God? (Does God really care about hair styles?)
For me personally, the most remarkable discovery were the many images showing young men of the Renaissance that my art-historian boyfriend found in his extensive library. Many of these men could have stepped out of the pages of any current fashionista magazine, style bibles for the urban hip from Williamsburg to West Hollywood or Berlin-Mitte. The same giant beards that were popular in AD 1480 are popular once more, and look just as cool as on a Holbein or Dürer model. A great beard is a great beard, in other: timeless.
Another happy discovery in writing this book was the openness of all those intimidatingly butch people in the beard scene – photographers and models mostly. Their support ultimately made this book possible. The superb present day photo material comes from them directly, as do many of the stories included. I’ll confess right away that my favorite comes from a woman, the celebrated gay porn director Mr. Pam. In an interview she claims, tongue in cheek, that beards work as “flavor savers” for all those “piggy boys” out there. They can sniff their beards all day long and happily remember whose ass they ate for breakfast. (Her choice of words.) Obviously, it takes a woman to point out the finer things in life to the world!
In the end, my voyage from clone to caveman and back again made me notice beards everywhere: in museums, on the street and above all in the most recent porn movies (think of such actors as ginger-headed James Jamesson and his massive …. beard!) As MTV’s Mike Yerxa so eloquently puts it in his intro to my book: “Forget about glasses, watches, ties, shoes, or hats – the beard is the greatest accessory of all time.” Amen to that, and long live the return of the clones!
Clarke’s Beards: An Unshaved History is now available at Amazon and other book suppliers. See a few photos from the book below.