The unfurling of a modern marvel

Take a long look around. Fitzroy is full of wizards. St Kilda seems populated by sideshow strongmen. Birds' nests and sculpted topiaries adorn the faces of models, bartenders and rock stars. On the international level, celebrities such as George Clooney, Tom Hardy and Ben Affleck have gone beyond the traditionally acceptable salt-and-pepper stubble to achieve full growth, and a growing number of reports are claiming that the world is on the brink of reaching Peak Beard. The mo had its moment, but it was only a hint at what has since unfurled.

Where does this urge to hirsute up come from? Is it merely fashion, or do clean-hairy cycles follow some other, deeper cultural logic? Just as compelling a question: where does the backlash come from against facial hair?

Fab Sfameni of Uncle Rocco's Barber Shop in Port Melbourne has been specialising in beards for 20 years. For much of that time the bulk of his clientele were ''bears'' from the gay community, for whom a generous helping of facial hair is a powerful attractor. In the last two or three years, however, men of all walks have jumped on board.

''A lot of the guys that do grow a beard are into grooming,'' he says. ''I think the whole concept is of looking good, wearing expensive clothes, but having that edgy look from the beard.

''What I love about the whole beard resurgence is that it's not the long hair with the beard anymore. It's a beautiful, groomed cut. That's what makes a beard look a little more respectable and presentable, that kind of man-of-the-world look."

Beard treatments at Uncle Rocco's range from a basic $25 trim to a full workout with cut-throat razor edging. Five years ago nobody would have forked out $45 for even that top level of care, Sfameni says, but now he has no problems filling the shop's chairs.

''We're right into caring for the beard. We've got beard oil, moustache and beard waxes. So we're telling guys that they have to look after their beards and educating them into looking after their stuff.''

Part of a beard's appeal comes from the way they're not one-size-fits-all, he says.

"You can grow a very narrow beard with a lot of girth under the chin. You can have it nicely faded into the hair. You can grow a really good ZZ Top beard, or a rounded beard for the guys who have a thin face. You can have a big beard with a curled out moustache. There's variety in it.''

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Brad Kooyman is the owner of Drunken Barber, the no-bookings walk-in sibling of Fitzroy's Prophecy salon. "We get stacks of beards come in. Prophecy's always had beards but since we opened Drunken Barber two years ago it's increased massively. We've actually created our own moustache wax named Mr Sanchez and a beard oil called The Old Hand Shandy.''

The beard's allure isn't simple, he says. ''It's a number of things. It's a movement against shaving and the expense of razor blades. It's non-conforming. It's the polar opposite of the corporate image. And it's just Fitzroy.''

In the interest of public enlightenment, I put an impossible question to some regular beard-wearers: what does it actually feel like?

"You don't feel it," says one aficionado of the frontal follicles. "When you've got one you don't notice it, the way you don't notice the hair on your head. You notice it more when you don't have one. Beards tend to grow relatively slowly so you get used to it. If you woke up one day with a full beard it might feel different.

''I don't think I've ever actually given it thought,'' says another long-term beardo. ''I don't even know if I can answer that question. It certainly adds some weight to the face, which is strange given that if you shaved it all off it would probably only be around 10 grams. Not even that. Obviously it's a different consistency to head hair … As you're growing it, it is quite bristly but once it's in full effect it's quite soft.''

It takes time and dedication, he adds. "There's that period at about the four to six-week mark when you think it's not going to happen, and then all of a sudden there's beard.''

''It does take time," Sfameni says. "A really good, full, girthy beard for a guy that has pretty sparse growth could take up to four to six months."

One surprise to those new to facial hair is how "it changes colour," says a wearer.

"When it's shorter it's darker, but when it bushes up I've got a touch of ginger in my beard. Which is at complete odds with my head hair. There's a few people I know like that as well."

The reason I'm asking these hairy individuals is that I can't grow a respectable beard myself. It's something men don't really talk about openly, but I'm one of the silent many for whom the choice has been made for us. We stalled in first gear, stuck with the bum fluff of a 15-year-old. At best I could perhaps push out something that looks like a bit of T-shirt lint gummed to my chin.

It may be genetic. My father only attempted to grow a beard once in his entire life, when he took an almost unheard-of two weeks off work to spend with his family by the beach. Forgoing the shaver for that fortnight resulted only in an apologetic goatee that was less Sean Connery and more BBC kids' show villain. We all solemnly agreed that the experiment had proven conclusive, and I, some decades later, inherited his electric razor.

But my father was of a generation that picked a hairstyle for life and stuck with it. Today one's appearance can fluctuate on a thrice-daily basis. Though some still fling terms such as ''metrosexual'' and ''hipster'' around, there's clear evidence that many men have wholeheartedly embraced the fashion life and renovated their wardrobes to suit. Facial hair in all of its aspects has become another - for some essential - item to be sculpted, teased, trimmed and tied off.

''The majority of guys have a real patchy growth," Sfameni says. "I just tell them to persist, because eventually the growth of the beard will take over that patch. I'm a true believer that if you persist you can grow a good beard."

But where much of the fashion world is increasingly geared towards the fast turnaround, there's an old saying I just made up that reminds us that ''be he king or pauper, no man can hurry a beard''. Hair takes its sweet time to emerge, and whether and how it does so is at the mercy of fate. It's why the very choice to grow it out has some derring-do to it: it's a public try-out. A fella might not know for a week or month what will plaster itself all over his mug, and the rest of the world will bear witness to the beast as it is born.

And, if you'll excuse the pun, let's face facts: there are times when many treat the facial hair of a man as some measure of his masculinity. It can be a marker of benevolent power (Abraham Lincoln) or barely suppressed violence (Breaking Bad's Walter White). It can be the object of both humour and desire - think Tom Selleck - or gentle reassurance, as in every serious role Robin Williams has ever played.

Though they're often worn in rebellion, there can be something nostalgic about a beard. Just as Hollywood uses a generic English accent to portray any historical moment that occurred anywhere before around 1900, so too is the beard a handy shorthand that we're watching The Olden Days here. Beards can be forward-looking, too - only last week Conchita Wurst, a well-bearded Austrian drag queen, triumphed in the Eurovision Song Contest.

A beard carries cultural baggage, then. And how interesting that one of the most derided figures of the moment, the hipster male, who is scorned for his daft embrace of empty fashions of the moment, is also the most enthusiastic adopter of the two most enduring fashion items: the longform beard and the tattoo. Perhaps it's a turn towards slow fashion, a way to stave off accusations of the fleeting nature of his style. Facial hair has the same appeal as the custom culture of fixies and vintage cars and the love of the bespoke that sees rare and hand-made clothing treasured over mass-produced throwaways.

Beards, like tattoos, are also a visible reminder of commitment, a word with which the young folk of today are apparently unfamiliar. It may be why the beardiness of Gen Y, in particular, can produce confusion in older generations. Aren't these kids supposed to be rejecting marriage and not reading novels and unable to hold down jobs? Yet they can devote six months to the cultivation of a burly bundle of cheek wool?

''That's what makes it more appealing for these guys," Kooyman says. "It's not something people can just copy. We live in such an instant gratification sort of society, but it's not like a weekend warrior could just pop a beard on and off they go.''

That's where the new beards of Brunswick may be of offence to those who were sporting old growth well before the renaissance of facial fashion. The bikies, the ZZ Top fans, the mountain men and grizzly old-timers know that a beard isn't a pair of knock-off Wayfarers or an op-shop Cosby sweater. Real Men Don't Do Irony.

Parks and Recreation's Ron Swanson is one of TV's finest parodies of the same sort of ''manly man'', and his hunting, fishing, racist and unemotional ways are symbolised by the gigantic wedge of hair that erupts from his top lip. He lists it as one item on his Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness: "Facial hair. Full, thick and square. Nothing sculpted. If you have to sculpt it, that probably means you can't grow it." Catch a glimpse of his actor Nick Offerman when he's clean-shaven and he's close to unrecognisable.

The problem with beards as a fashion item may be due to this tradition of defining manliness thus. Combining a bushranger's bushel with skinny jeans and loafers messes with boundaries that have come to be seen as natural. The hipster's interest in style is already edging into territory conventionally deemed feminine, and to drag facial hair across that border could be a threat to anyone who defines their manhood by it. The excessive grooming of facial hair is another affront to this sensibility - it's OK for the Salvador Dalis of the world to wax and primp their moustaches in kookily creative ways, but you're not supposed to see that in a beer barn or workshop.

But while beards have meaning, it's never been a fixed one. You only need to compare the significance of beards in recent memory to see how varied a symbol they can be. In the '90s, the unshaven look of grunge was one way of resisting the increasingly clean and shiny image to which men were supposed to aspire. The '60s and '70s also saw beards as a way of sticking it to the man, but soon enough a neatly trimmed goatee was common on any middle-of-the-road hotel bar warbler. Metal heads and hippies have adopted the beard, but so have Sting and Billy Joel.

A clean shave, too, can represent self-discipline and conformity but also privilege. For most of human existence the luxury of regular face maintenance was reserved for the few, and ultimately this may be what's so jarring about the bushy, burly bushranger look when it's teamed with an immaculately maintained short back and sides. ''The reason they keep their hair short on the sides is to show that they're well groomed," says Kooyman. "We have guys who come in once a week for a tight taper and they also have these big beards.''

Though it might be the fashion of the moment, Sfameni and his colleagues always do their best to dissuade any beard-wearer wondering if it's time to lose the thing. Kooyman, too, thinks that in Fitzroy, at least, beards are a fixture that won't be going anywhere soon. So get used to it. It might grow on you. The tattoos will be around for a while as well.

This article first appeared in Melbourne Inside Out magazine in The Sunday Age.