Facial hair has always been a visually prominent marker for all makes of male identity. Its infinite variations can communicate rebelliousness, fastidiousness, wisdom, youth, nationality, or class. Facial hair can show the wearer’s awareness of urbane sophisticated fashion trends, or their utter disdain for such things. Displaying facial hair can be an invitation to conversation, or a way to remain aloof. The styles of wearing facial hair, and the reasons for wearing them, are as varied as the people who do. Even the lack of facial hair is a statement of identity.
Facial hair conventions vary with the times, as all fashion trends do. In the early 2000’s, a follicular “avant-garde” emerged in Europe and the US, and elaborately grandiose facial hair styles took off in a way not seen since the mid 19th century. Clubs formed in cites around the world, and as this population of facial hair enthusiasts grew and found each other, the social phenomenon of the Beard and Moustache Competition started.
The World Beard and Moustache Association was founded in Austria in 2004 to set the standards for competitive categories and judging criteria. These raucous affairs are usually held in a bar or club, with the proceedings often punctuated by whoops of appreciation and outbursts of enthusiastic obscenity. All events are fundraisers for charity groups, as varied as the Wounded Warrior Project, shelters for domestic violence victims, and anti-human-trafficking programs.
In the U.S., clubs began offering women’s categories. “Whiskerinas” physically construct their beards from any material imaginable- wire, rope, plastic flowers, tree branches, slabs of wood- though most use wigs, or even their own hair.
In 2014, Project Barbatype began photographing the competitors at local events, using the 19th-century photo process of tintype. Project Barbatype is a perfect match of process and subject. The last era of elaborately fashionable facial hair was the era of the tintype. The clarity and richness of tintype is ideal for showing the texture and detail of facial hair. The care, craft, and time required for hand-made tintype photographs matches the deliberate and obsessive attention that the competitors put into preparing their beards for competition.
Competitive bearding attracts people from all walks of life, across the political and social spectrum. In the divisive political climate of today, there aren’t many places where rednecks and gay bears get together, to have a good time, and raise money for charity. While these men and women outwardly celebrate and revel in the beard as a signal of masculinity, a subtly subversive action is in play. When these competitors put on their displays of carnivalesque machismo, they are simultaneously indulging themselves in, and acknowledging, the arbitrary ridiculousness of the performance of gender.
Behold the peacocking Beard Queens! Men and women, performing in drag, as MEN.