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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Growing trends

My feature on the rehabilitation of stubble in today's Irish Examiner.

It’s official: grizzle is great. Men from all walks of life are banishing the razors and shaving gel to the back of the bathroom cabinet and are embracing the once-maligned 5 o’clock shadow.
Look around you in the office, in the bar or on public transport, and you will be guaranteed to find a heap of blokes sporting stubble and light beards.

Face bristle is also the look du jour amongst many men in the public eye. Colin Farrell, Patrick Dempsey and Matthew Fox are all sprouting stubble, as are Roy Keane, Roman Abramovich, George Michael and Michelen-star chef Dylan McGrath.

“There’s definitely a trend for stubble and facial hair at the moment,” says Cian McDonald, one of the proprietors of the men-only salon The Grooming Rooms in Dublin, and himself the proud holder of a grizzly muzzle.

“I think men are expressing themselves in different ways, through their clothes, their hair and their facial hair. Maybe 4-5 years ago it was less socially acceptable, but it’s gotten to the point where enough guys are wearing stubble for it to be more mainstream.”

But why the sudden rise in popularity for the stubbly look? McDonald believes the trend is both a product of, and reaction against, the metrosexual revolution.

“Metrosexuality has been good in one way because it made men realise that caring about how you look is okay and that it’s good to look smart and stylish,” he explains. “On the other hand, there has been a bit of a backlash because some feel that it perhaps went too far towards feminisation. Stubble and beards are very manly, masculine traits.”

Facial hair may be popular and desirable right now, but in the past, stubble has been loaded with largely negative, and even dangerous, connotations.

“Historically, a stubbled face suggested that a man might be grieving or in mourning, or, as all those famous photographs from The Great Depression suggest, that he was unemployed and unemployable,” states Allan Peterkin, a psychiatrist and author of One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair.

“Stubble has even implied that the man might be crazy – think of Jack Nicholson in The Shining - or sleazy and overly-slick, like Don Johnson in Miami Vice back in the 80s.”

Peterkin says the look was rehabilitated in the 1990s with the emergence of goatees and sideburns, and really took off when the look was seized upon by celebrities and the popular media.

“If you look at any men’s magazine, like FHM, Maxim, GQ or any of the sports magazines, you’ll see a lot of guys with stubble,” he says. “It is a bit of a fashion norm now, so I think that affects our attitudes. We used to get our style cues from our kings and clergymen, but men are increasingly taking cues from fashion magazines, actors, and athletes.”

At this point, it seems necessary to ask an obvious question that arises from this whole craze: are men just growing stubble to impress the fairer sex?

“Women are actually mixed on the issue,” Peterkin answers. “Surveys show that men often grow facial hair because they think that women like it.

“However, while it’s true that women will rate pictures of men with facial hair as being more virile and masculine, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to go out with them.

“Women may like the look, but they don’t like kissing a man with stubble because it’s very hard on their skin. It’s like instant dermabrasion!”

The ladies’ ambivalence notwithstanding, Peterkin believes that the facial hair phenomenon has evolved into a galvanising, almost rebellious, statement by men since the turn of the new century.

“I think men today are making a point with their stubble: they are saying, ‘I’m no corporate slave’,” he states. “Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, they know they can get away with facial hair, and still become president of a company with stubble.”

That angle on the stubble issue has been highlighted in the current series of The Apprentice on BBC1, where there’s nary a clean-shaven face to be seen, from the bushy visage of Alan Sugar himself, to the designer stubble sported by contestants Alex Wotherspoon and Lee McQueen. Is facial hair now acceptable in the traditionally formal and conservative corporate world?

“In terms of employability, there’s still a lot of discrimination against facial hair, especially the full beard,” Peterkin replies. “Some employers will still discriminate, albeit perhaps unconsciously, if you have a beard.

“There’s actually a group in the UK called the Beard Liberation Front and they have done experiments where they send a guy out with the same CV, shaven and unshaven, and they have proven that when a guy has facial hair, he’s less likely to be invited back for a second interview.

“It’s also very hard to get elected if you have facial hair. This is particularly the case in the United States anyway, though I think facial hair on wannabe politicians might fly more amongst the electorates in Europe.”

Patricia Callan from the Small Firms Association takes a different view on the question of stubble in the business and corporate world.

“It’s become more difficult with equality laws outlawing discrimination for employers to say something like stubble is unacceptable without a very good reason to back it up,” says Patricia Callan from the Small Firms Association.

“More industries have become relaxed about this kind of thing, but it’s fair for an employer to adopt a particular attitude if it’s relevant to the job and what’s expected in that role.

“So, for example, if you’re making an important presentation, it makes sense that you will be more successful in your interaction with your customers or clients if you appear how they want you to appear. If that means formal and clean shaven, then that has to be taken into account.”

But if the stubbled guys from The Apprentice turned up at a firm for a job interview, would their facial growth be taken into account?

“By and large most employers will look at people based on their CVs, and, unless there’s a very high level of interaction with customers, less so on their appearance,” Callan says. “But it’s a different matter if it looks like you just crawled out of bed, and that’s why you have stubble!”

Therein lies the key to successfully pulling off the stubbled look: it must appear deliberate and cared for, rather than scruffy and unkempt.

“It suits some people more than others,” Cian McDonald says. “Very often light stubble can look quite messy. The biggest thing would be putting in a bit of effort, and putting some definition and design on it, like shaving the neckline, or shaving the cheeks. We’ve had quite a few younger guys get that done in our salon.”

Allan Peterkin holds up hunky clothes designer Tom Ford as a stubble role model. “Ford always has a bit of 5’o clock shadow, but you’ll notice that he keeps it very clean looking,” he says. “His haircut is neat, his skin is in great shape and the stubble is really well demarcated. That’s what makes his stubble look designer, and not lazy or accidental.”

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