The Beard Brigade

From the red carpet in Hollywood to the paneled offices on Wall Street, facial hair is back in style

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John Paul Filo / CBS / Reuters

TV's David Letterman

Two months ago, I was convinced that my husband had lost his mind. Preparing to leave for his job as a Wall Street accountant one morning, he wore his usual crisp black suit, a BlackBerry in his pocket and a new accessory: an unkempt 8 o'clock shadow. "I am growing a beard," he explained. "They are sooo in right now."

He had a point. Everywhere you look these days--on late-night talk shows, on Super Bowl offensive lines, at Federal Reserve Board meetings and maybe even in the next cubicle or across the dinner table--beards that typically resemble two to three weeks of stubble are adorning male faces. In some particularly trendy areas, facial hair has become as essential an accessory for would-be chic men as oversized totes are for their female counterparts. "Beards are back," says Allan Peterkin, a pogonologist (a.k.a. beard scholar) and author of One Thousand Beards. "It is an act of rebellion. Men are trying to prove that they are no corporate slave."

Like the rise and fall of women's hemlines, the presence and shape of hair on men's faces has often been a barometer of the national mood. Though hipsters began sporting goatees in the 1950s, the more widespread return of the beard in the '60s became an emblem of the defiant counterculture's refusal to go along with the status quo. The cause of the current revival is more difficult to pin down. For some, it's simply a matter of wanting to be in vogue. In the past year, male models have been strutting their scruff on runways, in fashion magazines and in ads for stores like Banana Republic. Brad Pitt walked the red carpet with one at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. "Beards are a great accessory for men," says John Allan, a grooming guru and owner of a namesake chain of upscale male salons. "Like fake eyelashes for women."

Peterkin notes that as it did 40 years ago, the acceptance of beards may coincide with mounting opposition to an unpopular war. "Just like with hippies in the '60s, facial hair represents a visible sign of protest," he says. "It could be an anti-militaristic expression." For some, it's again a way to set themselves apart at a time when people are unhappy with the country's political and business leadership and uncertain about its economic future. Matthew Turtell, 25, an associate marketing manager at Rodale, says that his on-again, off-again beard helps him feel different from other working stiffs. "Even when I'm in a suit and tie, my beard helps remind me that I'm not conforming," he says.

New Mexico governor Bill Richardson's new beard symbolizes another kind of independence. He started growing it after dropping out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. "I am revolting against my campaign consultants," he said. "For an entire year, every day was programmed. Now that I am wearing a beard, I can finally reflect and decompress."

Recently, facial hair has also emerged as a badge of honor, a way to demonstrate support for a cause or express camaraderie. Conan O'Brien and David Letterman grew beards to show support for the writers' strike, and some members of the New England Patriots offensive line have said that ditching the razor blade helped unify the team. Last fall, for the first time ever in the U.S., around 2,000 men participated in Movember--a monthlong mustache-growing competition that raises money for the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

Still, there are holdouts. Most police departments continue to outlaw beards, claiming they make officers look unprofessional. The management of the New York Yankees also refuses to let players wear facial hair below the upper lip. And then there are unspoken prohibitions in many parts of the corporate world. "I should have a right to wear my own facial hair as I please," says Justin Wolff, 32, a student at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, who hopes to keep his short beard when he starts working next year. "But I am not going to risk my job over it."

A bigger threat to the beard may be its growing popularity. "Once beards become completely acceptable, they are no longer a statement of individuality," says Phil Olson, founder of Beard Team USA, which competes in international facial-hair-growing competitions. (At last year's world championships, the hirsute Americans finished first in five out of 17 categories, including best freestyle mustache.) That loss of distinction, coupled with the fact that nearly two-thirds of women prefer their men clean-shaven, according to a Harris Interactive poll, was enough to stop Anthony Tokarchyk, 27, an entrepreneur who lives in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., from keeping his scruff of nearly a year.

Don't tell my husband that, though. Now that we have made it past the itchy, patchy phase, I find myself among that one-third of women who kinda like it.