Friday, June 06, 2014

The Current Crisis in Gentlemen's Grooming

First published in the Western People on Monday.

There are many great things about being a gentleman. You don’t have to buy a new suit every time you’re invited to a wedding. Getting ready to go out means nothing more than remembering to record Match of the Day before you hit the town. And you’re able to leave bins outside and remove spiders from bathrooms without sending for the cavalry.

Where the gentleman falls down, however, is in his inability to think for himself. Our heroes are those who follow their lights and strike out on their own, but our natural instinct is to follow the herd. There’s a depressing lack of imagination in this.

The latest evidence of the herd mentality of the male of the species is that it is now impossible to walk down the main street in any Irish market town without seeing at least two-thirds of its young men sporting pompadour haircuts and beards like those sported by Old Testament prophets.

The pompadour haircut, for those unfamiliar with such terms, is one where you get a short-back-and-sides from the neck up to the crown of your head, and anything further north is grown out, slathered with gel of some kind, and then pasted into position. Ideally at a jaunty angle, but if you can pile the hair up on your head like an old-fashioned cock of hay, there are kudos going for that too.

While this messing with hair is bad enough in itself, the beards are taking the biscuit entirely. This column has no great problem with beards, as a glance at the byline photo will prove. In fact, in younger days, your correspondent and Alan from the Hangover movies could have been taken for twins.

That Hangover style of beard was memorably described by PG Wodehouse as “the burst horsehair sofa” – that is to say, the thing just grew all over the place. The beards that the nation’s young men are currently sporting appear more influenced by the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia – trim along the cheeks and jawbones, while growing out into some extra-ordinary forest on the chin. And you have to ask – what is the point of it all?

The Hangover beard makes sense, in its way. Some men just don’t like shaving, because some men are very, very lazy. The pompadour haircut combined with the Mesopotamian beard isn’t a style for a lazy man – it takes a lot of effort to look that odd.

The famous mullet haircut of the 1980s was once described as a being a look that meant business at the front, party at the back. The pompadour-and-beard look suggests it’s business along the walls, party on the roof and in the basement, and you can crack your own jokes about what actually goes on in the head.

Ancient man was a hairy devil, of course. Shaving isn’t something you can do without tools of some kind, and the club you used to fetch both dinner and a date on Saturday night wasn’t much use for barbering.

The first civilisation of which we are sure encouraged shaving was that of the ancient Egyptians. They were so into shaving that they didn’t stop at the face – every hair on the body fell before the blade, the ointment, or the pumice stone. Remember a Welsh rugby player called Gavin Henson, who used to shave his legs before games? He would have fit right in.

That Egyptian civilisation fell, and the world was whiskered until Alexander the Great returned shaving to fashion three hundred years before Christ. The Romans, being the righteous fellows they were, followed Alexander, and insisted on important men being clean shaven and respectable. Of the twelve Caesars who ruled the Roman Empire only Nero sported a beard, and Nero was famously off his rocker.

In the medieval church, an initiate to a monastery would have his head and beard shaved as part of his initiation, symbolizing the initiate’s surrender of the frivolities of the world to deeper and more meaningful life of the spirit. The formal shaving of the beard didn’t last but tonsuring – the shaving of the head of a monk to show that he had been chosen by the Lord – continued until very recently. Having at least some hair cut was part of the ordination ceremony until 1972, when Pope Paul VI declared it no longer necessary.

In the centuries immediately after St Patrick visited Ireland, the church was divided on what exactly a tonsure should look like, with opinion split on two sides. The Romans favored the circular tonsure, while the Irish, mad for the crack as we are, favoured a much more spectacular effort.

The Celtic tonsure required a monk to shave the entire front half of his head. So, instead of stopping at the top of the ear as we do now, the monks shaved on, up and across the dome of the head until they looked like a Malteser with one hemisphere of chocolate carefully bitten off, leaving the honeycomb centre intact and protruding.

The Synod of Whitby in the 6th Century put a stop to that, ruling that the Roman tonsure was the only one that counted, and all other tonsures were anathema. This would not be the last time the Irish would be dictated to from England.  Only six hundred years later, King John of England found the long beards of the Irish chieftains so hilarious on his first visit to his new kingdom, his highness and his retinue amused themselves by tugging at the chieftains’ beards at every opportunity.

Died of dysentery in the end of course, King John. Lost a good bit of his land too. It’s a long road with no turning.

With so much confusion and variety current when it comes to hair care, the young man going out in the world today still has one style icon in whom he can believe, and on whom he can model his whole look. That icon is James Horan, manager of the Mayo Senior Football Team, currently plotting the downfall of the Rossies even as we study our Westerns.

James Horan wears a hat. He could have a Mohawk on under that thing and no-one would ever be any the wiser. Up Mayo.