The Standard of Bearded Success: Facial Hair and Colonial Thinking

“The origin of the beard is, without a doubt, the absence of a razor” -La Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921, page 89

Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum Archives - Photo by Rachel Mostert

Table of Contents, La Gazette du Bon Ton 1921: Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Archives – Photo by Rachel Mostert

An article in the third edition of La Gazette du Bon Ton published in 1921, entitled La barbe à travers les siècles was written by Capitaine George Cecil and includes illustrations by Charles Martin. It seems that the article would fall under the frivolités category of the publication – it makes me think of a modern click-bait article that one might find in a men’s magazine today, perhaps called “You Won’t Believe These Weird Beards From History!” The article seems to be primarily for entertainment purposes, as it contains little verifiable historical content. The article also reads as being very Eurocentric, first making references to facial hair from the Bible: Adam’s chin scruff and Jacob’s formidable beard. With these two characters setting the standard for Western beards, the author then examines a number of historical styles from different cultures, more than once categorizing them as being bizarre or laide (ugly)(1921:90).

Courtesy of The Royal Ontario Museum's Archives - Photo by Rachel Mostert

Page 89, La Gazette du Bon Ton 1921: Courtesy of The Royal Ontario Museum’s Archives – Photo by Rachel Mostert

The Gazette’s pages are slightly yellowed in colour and the text is printed in a black serif font with a shaded drop cap at the beginning of the piece. The illustrations are embedded in the text, alternately right- or left-justified under the appropriate subheadings. The illustrations are line drawings, probably initially created with a fine pen and ink. Minimal shading is created with solid blocks of colour or crosshatching. The illustrator, Martin, has only signed one of the illustrations on page 92. The article itself is rather short, only spanning four pages.

The illustrations accompanying the text are interesting in and of themselves. The style seems very modern for the early twentieth century, perhaps due to the minimal linework and bright pops of colour used to accent the whimsical characters that the artist has created. The illustrations would not look out of place in a children’s book. In her MA dissertation, Linda Pilgrim describes “later illustration, such as that by Lepape, Martin, Barbier, or Iribe for La Gazette [as being] flat, more two-dimensional—almost reminiscent of cartoon illustration, albeit an elegant version” (1999:7). These illustrations were rendered in a relatively expensive process called pochoir, described as “a time-consuming manual process whereby the design was built up over the course of several layers of color by filling each stencil in with color, letting it dry and then repeating the process until the desired opacity was reached” (1999:14).  The attention paid to the accompanying illustrations suggests that the visual aspect of the Gazette was just as important as its written content. The illustrations serve to grab the reader’s attention and to bring to life what is being discussed.

Click here for more about pochoir illustrations!

Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum's archives - Photo by Rachel Mostert

Page 90, La Gazette du Bon Ton 1921: Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Archives – Photo by Rachel Mostert

This examination of the exotic facial hair of yore fits well with Barthes’ concept of the fashionable being defined only by its opposite – what is unfashionable (Jobling 2016:134). Barthes would argue that, using a Saussurean framework, semiotic meaning could be gleaned from these illustrations. The illustrations are the signifiers and what are signified are the concepts of sameness and otherness in relation to the Gazette’s reader. Not only are the styles depicted in the article temporally distant, they are also geographically distant, allowing the reader to define the styles as bizarre compared to their own fashionable French beards. When examining portraits from 1920s France, we can see that the fashionable style of the time was not a beard at all, but a dignified moustache or short cropped look.

From a postcolonial perspective, the depictions of ‘typical’ beards from history can be seen as problematic. Historically, France’s colonial rule was legitimized in the same way as other such powers; “by anthropological theories which increasingly portrayed the peoples of the colonized world as inferior, childlike, or feminine, incapable of looking after themselves (despite having done so perfectly well for millennia) and requiring the paternal rule of the west for their own best interests” (Young 2013:n.p.).

At the time of the Gazette’s publication in 1921, France was still in possession of a number of colonies in Africa and Asia. Whether this legitimization is a latent function of the seemingly lighthearted article is debatable, but the manner in which the beards are interpreted reinforces colonial power dynamics. For example, when discussing the styles of Asia, Cecil comments on their non-existent or rather meagre beards, with Japanese men in particular “very rarely succeeding” in growing hair on their chin and cheeks like Europeans (1921:90). This observation could be read as a critique on the nation’s masculinity, with Europeans as the standard of bearded success. This is consistent with Young’s framework of colonialism – painting men of the Asian continent with the same, wide brush of inferiority and femininity. All of the Non-Western styles are compared to the European standard, which would presumably be the reader’s point of reference, and this comparison is the source of their novelty.

Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum's Archives - Photo by Rachel Mostert

Page 91, La Gazette du Bon Ton 1921: Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Archives – Photo by Rachel Mostert

Cecil failed to answer a number of important questions about the beards being presented: when was this style popular? Who sported it? Were there political, religious, or status connotations associated with the style? Was this the only kind of style of beard that existed at the time, or were there others? In this regard, he serves to perpetuate the idea that the unfashionable is not actually fashion at all. Jennifer Craik writes that the styles of the exotic other are “regarded as traditional and unchanging reflections of social hierarchies, beliefs and customs… For Western observers, the idea that non-Western dress does not change is central to establishing its difference from Western fashion, which is predicated on regular and arbitrary changes” (2003:18). Here, she cites dress, but I would argue that this concept extends to bodily modifications such as beard grooming. They are presented as a snapshot – one illustration to represent an entire group of people in a mostly unspecified timeframe. It seems highly unlikely that entire Chinese “race” had the same opinions about facial hair.

Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum's Archives - Photo by Rachel Mostert

Page 92, La Gazette du Bon Ton 1921: Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Archives – Photo by Rachel Mostert

Is the origin of the beard the absence of a razor? Maybe so. Examining La barbe à travers les siècles from a modern fashion studies perspective shows that there is a lot more to an entertaining article than meets the eye. Although the piece was certainly not meant to be an all-encompassing account of beards throughout history, it makes some problematic cultural generalizations. Do you think that if the article were written for publication in a Non-Western country that its content would be different? What if it were re-written for a popular magazine in 2016 in France? In Canada?

Click here for a modern-day beard infographic!


Cecil, George. “La barbe à travers les siècles.” Ed. Marcel Astruc. La Gazette Du Bon Ton 1921: 89-92. Print.

Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge, 2002. Ryerson University Catalogue. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion. Routledge, 2003. ProQuest Ebrary. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.

Oldstone-Moore, Christopher. Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2015. Print.

Pilgrim, Linda Katheryn. “La Gazette Du Bon Ton: Arts, Modes, and Frivolites”: An Analysis of Fashion and Modernity through the Lens of a French Journal De Luxe. Diss. U of Southern California, 1999. Ann Arbor: ProQuest Dissertations, 1999. Online.

Rocamora, Agnes, and Anneke Smelik, eds. Thinking Through Fashion. London: I.B. Tauris &, 2016. Print.

Young, Robert J.C. “Postcolonialism.” Very Short Introductions (2013): n. pag. Oxford University Press. Web. 13 Apr. 2016

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