1 Apr 2024

A Green Light for Beards

The British army has announced that soldiers will be allowed to wear beards, as long as they are kept neat and properly groomed. This is the last bastion of the British forces to allow facial hair: the RAF changed their policy in 2019, and beards were always allowed in the Royal Navy. The Army finally succumbed to the facial hair question after a long review; given the popularity of beards, it was probably felt that a new policy might help them to attract new recruits.

A message to troops over the Easter break stipulated that beards must be 2.5mm–25.5 long and trimmed off the cheekbones and neck. No “patchy or uneven growth” or “exaggerated colours” are allowed.

The whole beard question is closely tied up with the military. In the early 18th and early 19th centuries it was de rigueur to be clean-shaven and beards were seen as a sign of poverty. Middle- and upper-class men relied on barbers for their grooming regime, visiting a barber’s shop two or three times a week, or paying a barber to visit them in their homes. The Victorian vogue for facial hair arose when the returning heroes of the Crimean War came home with bristling moustaches, bushy side-whiskers and luxuriant beards, which instantly became a macho fashion statement. By 1860 moustaches were compulsory in the British Army and beards were frequently sported.

Beards, however, were seen as nests of bacteria and germs and a further blow was dealt in World War I, when it was discovered that facial hair prevented gas masks from forming an airtight seal. Since 1916 beards were banned (with some exceptions) by the British Army, while moustaches only were allowed in the Army, Marines and RAF.

Members of the royal family, who are expected to wear uniform on ceremonial occasions even when they are long-retired from service, did occasionally wear beards with Army, Marines and RAF uniforms (eg King Edward VII, George VI, Prince Harry), when it was an exception from the normal rules.

Beard Etiquette

While it is more straightforward to look smart and well-groomed if you have no facial hair, as long as a beard is kept well trimmed it is perfectly acceptable. Use clippers to keep the beard neat and tidy and ensure that there is no hair on your neck, just on the underside of your jaw above your Adam’s apple.

Resist the temptation to treat your facial hair like topiary, and the urge to create complex beard sculptures. While they may certainly be striking, many people will find the hours clearly lavished on your facial hair an off-putting sign of vanity.

Designer stubble, which does not require the full commitment of the beard, has become hugely popular. This may well be because in the last few years the world of strait-laced offices, high-powered meetings, business lunches (and the smart appearance required) has been superseded by a more relaxed, hybrid working model, based on the virtual world of video calls. Men have become relaxed about the perceived necessity to shave every day and have chosen to shave less regularly – however, they should bear in mind that stubble requires regular maintenance, especially if they are going to be subject to the close and unforgiving scrutiny of their colleagues on regular Zoom calls. They will have to use an electric beard trimmer to define the shape of their stubble on their cheek and neck area and use a razor to eradicate stray hairs. 

It goes without saying that beards must be kept spotlessly clean, so use shampoo 2-3 times a week and pat dry with a towel. Beard oil will keep your facial hair in good condition and use a beard comb on longer beards to ensure that they are neat.

Whether you’re sporting a full bushy beard or designer stubble, try not to be self-conscious about your facial hair. It is tempting to fiddle with your beard or stroke it pensively, and there is a danger that this will become a compulsive and irritating habit. Train yourself to leave your beard well alone.


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