Beards and tattoos: Why are modern men trying to look like gay bears?


Beard and tattoA couple of weeks ago I was out with some friends in Shoreditch, a district of London I had never been to before (though one I had heard plenty about), and became curious at the similarity amongst the throngs of men gathered on the streets on this particularly rainy Saturday evening. All of them had significant facial hair and they were covered in a cornucopia of intricate body art. This trend has, of course, been apparent on catwalks and in magazines for some time now, but to see so many bearded and tattooed men in one place was rather a shock. London is an intense melting pot for what’s going on in fashion generally and there was no mistaking the fact that being inked, having a beard, wearing a denim shirt, lots of tweed, braces, and boots has become the uniform of the moment.

Mumford and SonsEver since Movember (a month of moustache growing for charity during the month of November) facial hair has made a comeback with a vengeance. Not since the seventies have men grown and groomed so much hair on their faces. Full beards, curled moustaches, and long sideburns are the order of the day. To be cool is to have hair on your chinny chin chin. I call this the ‘Mumford and Sons effect’, in which young, good looking twenty-somethings grow beards in a bid to be taken more seriously. The young bard must have a beard. I was amazed at how many pairs of attractive eyes, button noses, and pouting lips were all obscured by beardedness. If these young men happen to be in a band, then their stock goes up exponentially. They probably also read Ernest Hemingway and have the quick wit of Russell Brand.

Tattooed and MuscledWhile I rather like all the beardery (indeed I am often in a state of unshavenness myself) it’s the rise of the tattoo that appears to be a worrying upward trend. I’m not sure how I feel about tattoos – sometimes they look unmistakably sexy on the right guy (I’m thinking of Adam Levine) while others look like they’ve been doodling on themselves with a biro (yes, Harry Styles and the rest of One Direction, I’m looking at you). Gone are the traditional sailor tattoos, which have been replaced by head-to-toe designs from the naff to the mesmerising. For some men, any uncovered skin is merely blank canvas for them to decorate in ink. That’s great when you’re twenty-three with tight abs and large biceps, but what about when you’re in your sixties and the skin looses its elasticity, the muscle definition has gone, and the ink has started to bleed?

But really, what I find most interesting is how much straight men’s fashion has borrowed from gay subculture in the past ten-fifteen years. In the late 1990′s, the metrosexual imitated the well-groomed, clean shaven gay who looked after his skin and nails, the muscled-jock started working out more than the Muscle Mary, and now straight men are starting to look like gay bears. In the past, if a man had a beard and tattoo he was a bear. When I went to Sitges last year with husband, we inadvertently found ourselves in the resort during ‘Bear Week’. Throngs of men with beards, tattoos, big arms, and braces drinking huge tankards of beer were running amok on the beaches – come to think about it, it was just like being in Shoreditch on a Saturday night.

Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male TerribleHow did this happen? I guess gay men have the freedom to push the boundaries of style and adopt old forms of masculinity and turn them into fashion. Indeed, the gay bear look is partly based on the sailor, that symbol of gay male fantasy. Tattoos, biceps, unshaven faces after weeks at sea, a certain swarthiness – it’s an image that is instantly appealing to gay men. From films like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982), to the art of Pierre et Gilles, or the fashion of Jean Paul Gaultier, the sailor is an icon in gay culture. This iconic ideal has been transmuted through gay bear subculture and has seeped into the mainstream, redefining masculinity for the twenty-first century. And no doubt as these things happen, gay subculture will reclaim it for itself when straight men start to get itchy chins and go looking for their Gillette razors.

Update: read my latest blog post, I’m growing a beard

Want to see more bearded, tattooed types – check out this dedicated Tumblr site

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57 replies

  1. ‘Movember’, now that it’s so popular an international fund-raising event, would definitely have made straight men feel safer in wearing facial-fur. Previously, beards (etc.) got bad press from snotty and snobby types, and straight men seemed to heed to the people who were against beards, while we’ve always been Ok with them and ignored other people’s random and fickled trends.

    The same goes for other trends that have popped-up over the years, that most gay men have been Ok with for years: straight men now using male cosmetics and other body-care products; now being open-fans of ABBA; and so *many* other things.

    Which just goes to show that many gay men seem to be more comfortable with being themselves, than the straight men who only do things when everyone else does ;) Cheers!

    • In America, the hirsuteness of the Bears was originally linked to the “man’s man,” the lumberjack. the mechanic, cowboys, western men, very blue collar. Men had forsaken facial air in the 80′s in the US, in search of the circuit boy with a 32 waist, but AIDS made it important for men to look strong and virile, and the bear form and accoutrements became the standards for a real community. Later a connection with the “Chubs,” took girth to a ridiculous unhealthy state, met by response with the muscle Bear. The laid back “welcome to everyone” Bear attitude has been corrupted, by the sash queens, run celebrities and the run boys. It is as extinct as the hairy masculine man on the prowl for cubs who, in a nod to S/M, that has had a connection with the bears. These roles were somewhat confining and now Bear means whatever it means to the people professing it… learned submission and how to please Daddy or control from the bottom…like everything, gay Bears have corrupted and marketed themselves out of their true existence…

  2. Wow, growing a beard makes you gay? The writer of this article needs to pull his head out of his ass and realize beards have been grown before they were “Fashionable” on runway models. smh…

  3. It is irritating that it’s becoming a hipster uniform, granted, but I detest that typical question “what about when you’re old?” in relation to tattoos. Erm, well, how will your old skin look? Saggy and PLAIN, that’s how. If you don’t want to see this “type” of person then avoid Shoreditch for a start! We can agree on one thing though – unshaven, swarthy types hold mass appeal – to gay men, straight women and many inbetween. Nice shots of Declan-John Geraghty, by the way.

    • Hi there – thanks for commenting. Very fair point – old skin is old skin, no matter how it is adorned. It tells the story of the lives we’ve lived!

      • I was really struck by how casually you inserted the “what about when you’re old?” comment. I’m gay, bearded and tattooed – I’m also single and HIV+ and I’ll be turning 50 this year. And thus, to a significant portion of the gay “community” I am invisible or someone to be shunned.

        I don’t mean to imply, Mr. Davies, that your intent was to demean – but the sentiment “ew, old people!” still came through loud and clear. You say in one of your comments downthread “we should also embrace diversity in the gay community” – yet the only diversity you refer to is “straight-acting” (a truly horrid term) masculine vs “camp effeminate” guys. This not only implies that masculine guys can’t be campy, it completely ignores that racism, ageism, transphobia, etc. remain significant problems within the mainstream (i.e. white male) gay community.

        And yes, I realize you were simply musing on the nature of beards – but just as I bristle (heh – no pun intended) at the use of phrase “that’s so gay…” to mean something stupid, I tend not to react well to flippant remarks about us old dudes. Sure, getting older isn’t always a walk in the park – but, as the old joke goes, it’s better than the alternative.

  4. What a pile of bigoted shite. Not all counter cultures have their routes in the gay community and it wouldn’t matter if it did. Not everyone wants to look like they walked off geordie shore or a bad rap video.

  5. I wouldn’t say they’re trying to look like bears to be honest, they’re just hipsters who’ve jumped on the fashion band wagon and trying far to hard to look cool with the nerd glasses, skinny jeans, tweeds and brouges! the beards and the tattoos are just accessories albeit a tad extreme with the tattoos!

  6. I don’t think it’s anything new that straight men have been taking fashion cues from gay male culture for some time now, certainly since the advent of ready to ware clothing. The attribution of “bear” culture styling coming from sailors seems a bit off, I would put it more at, lumberjack, longshoreman, builder. It’s an emulation of outdoor laboring masculinity. A sailor certainly falls in that category, I just don’t think the particular articles of clothing that are being worn are very specific to sailors or were inspired by them.

    • Sailors were a target group for Tom of Finland, along with all other masculine blue collars, and Bondage/ SM figures that established the original gay community ethos that fed directly into the no BS group that anchored the gay movement….

  7. I’m a gay bear and I thought the same thing lol … “sailors”? Err, well, I guess, although most military men aren’t allowed to wear beards … I relate a lot more with lumberjacks and blue-collar labor but maybe that’s because I worked concrete demo for so long, I dunno. Interesting article tho. It’s true that metrosexual men tended to follow the trends of homosexual men, for one example.

  8. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Back in the ’70s gay men were all about plaid flannel shirts and mustaches. I have a picture of a Pride parade and EVERY man wore a mustache or beard. Later straights picked up the look as they did so many other ideas. Think Travolta years after Donna Summer. With regard to ink, years ago we had a garage sale. A former sailor came, shirtless, with an eagle tattoo on each pec. The years had not been kind and the eagles more resembled chickadees.

  9. This is one of the most irrelevant text I’ve ever read. There is no thesis, no justified topic, or even mediocre advice. I scribbled more insightful text in my teen journals.

    Of course this uber-masculine aesthetic has become popular amongst city dwellers – gay men religiously seek it out. “Masc only”, “straight acting”, etc. It’s scruff culture. Long gone are the times when effeminacy was the common aesthetic because society, specifically gay men, do not respect women. They feel that femininity is a shameful and unattractive quality because they feel that being a woman is shameful and unattractive. It’s revolting. Gay men use women as props, and it’s revolting.

    This lumberjack fashion trend will continue and perpetuate until we finally stop feeling that masculinity and femininity are mutually exclusive.

    • I’m really not sure what you are trying to say with this comment. Gay men do not respect women? That is the most bullshit statement I have ever heard! You clearly don’t know any gay men…

    • Give me a break! What, should we all be a bunch of gender-neutral, soulless robots who can’t appreciate masculinity and being masculine?? Maybe many of us who are NOT effeminate don’t appreciate being lumped in with a bunch of bitchy, flippant lisping men who uphold the old, tiresome stereotype that dominated so much of the past. “Gay men use women as props”. What delusional, feminist mangina cave have you been hiding in?! It’s the other way around 90% of the time. We are seen as “accessories” by so many women – as their “non-threatening”, asexual pseudo “girlfriends” and such. The lack of respect goes BOTH ways.

      What’s revolting are people like you who are obviously NOT comfortable with masculinity, yet dish out some crap about how we “don’t respect women” because of your own issues. Many gay men embrace their feminine side, but often forget they have a masculine one. If a man likes to look lmasculine and embraces his masculinity, and looks for it in other men, then there is not a damn thing wrong with that. The same goes for a woman wanting to look and be feminine, and being attracted to femininity in other women. People in the gay community who try so hard to “blur” the gender lines, theorise and dismiss what is just natural behaviour and attraction to most of us are sometimes worse than straight homophobes.

      • I agree with this, but we should also embrace diversity in the gay community. Very camp effeminate guys have as much right to be represented as ‘straight acting’ or masculine guys. Just as straight men can be metrosexual, and straight women can be butch. It’s all terribly confusing…

      • Camp, effeminate guys have been over-represented for decades. It’s what society still expects from gay men. People only need to *acknowledge* that we are all individuals. That’s it. The whole “straight-acing” usage is awful and insulting. Honestly, I rarely see that anymore. But I’ve seen plenty of masculinity-shaming and general male-bashing from very vocal gays and lesbians. I’ve also seen lots of men who call themselves “bears” – with the entire look and image – but are as camp as drag queens on speed.

      • Right on sir,
        I posted below my sentiments on this topic but I’ll add here. I’m 55, gay, masculine (and definitely support effeminate guys), Californian, and came of age in urban California during the late 1970s. Blue collar basically in job experience, openly gay when it’s O.K. to be so. Yes, here in Cal even in the cities some things haven’t changed that much.

        What I have concur with is the observation on the feminist rap proffered so much regarding “us.” Truthfully, I’ve developed no ongoing friendships with women and one of the primary reasons is the assumptions some women automatically make about you when they find out your gay. I’m not a girl and while I do have some “yin” interests (cooking, maybe gardening counts) I have always resented the potentiality of being somebody’s “girlfriend.” No way man, and anyone who knows me knows it, including my family. No gay slang, and I don’t identify with women, like them just fine that’s all. My role models were generally straight men and Harvey Milk, if anyone remembers him. Yeah I digress.

        Anyway point well taken, and as Sly and the Family Stone sang (San Francisco 1970) “different strokes for different folks.”

  10. Or maybe, just maybe, the “bear” look came from guys coming out who were just being the people they were. They were wearing Carhartt, denim, flannel, etc. without it being some fetish. They weren’t skinny and never were going to be, and they didn’t fell welcome in the circles of people who were and who valued six pack abs over everything else. Sailors? Really? I don’t know who “started” the bear movement, but I’ve been attracted to “regular” guys, i.e. facial hair, chest hair, a beer gut, as far back as I can remember. Does the fashion industry have a disproportionate number of gay men? Yes. That is probably why trends in flow from gay culture to mainstream culture. Sadly the trendiness of facial hair will probably make people sick of seeing it and it will flow back the other way. Though I find the trendy “crazy” beards as annoying as the super short stubble that people thought looked so good.

  11. Wow – this blog post has received more traffic in the last two days than all my blog posts over a six month period! It’s certainly proving both popular and controversial. Thanks for all the comments – people really do care about facial hair!

  12. Hipsters inspired by Bears? What a load of nonsense. I’ve never seen a Bear in skinny jeans, tweed, fake glasses with a curly moustache and gothic tattoos. And you’ve never been to Shoreditch before? Provincial tourist, perhaps? Let me know when you are in town again and I’ll give you a free tour.

  13. I agree with some of the earlier comments: I don’t see there being a trend-setter quality to gay culture or to straight culture. We’re all people living out our fears, desires and identities. Everything is cyclical. Maybe gay men feel they can step out of the norm more easily?

    As a gay man, I don’t like the idea that this article promotes which is that gay culture is somehow ahead of the rest of the planet-not all gay men are even culture or fashion conscious. Some don’t care about appearances because their identity isn’t wrapped up in physical appearances.

    And THAT is the problem with gay society more than straight society: it’s still based on appearances sadly, whether you’re a muscle-mary, bear or anti-hipster hipster. You have to be a type. You can’t just be yourself and make your sexuality a part of who you are rather than everything about who you are.

    Heaven forbid we should grow old and have saggy skin too because our expectation of physical appearances would destroy us.

    Straight men will only truly become like bears (the original idea of what a bear is) when they no longer care about artificial body image, when they say “it’s not about my physical appearance but the personality I am.”

    P.S. A tattoo inked for the right reason is never a fashion statement. A tattoo inked to look cool and to fit into a stereotype might just be the wrong kind of statement to make.

  14. actually i think you will find this image came about quite naturally on the gay scene in the 90s . the 80s gay men got older and had bellys and beards and there were alot of them . groups were formed to accommodate these men as they no longer fit into the mainstream gay clubbing scene, indeed they had no interest in it. as for straight men imitating them, i would say that those older gay men just couldnt be bothered doing the whole younger gay thing and naturally started to look more straight. so i think you will find its the other way around , in my opinion of course. that said i lived it and have a famousish moustache hehehehhehe on britains got talent check it out – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDgbmTcDyGU

  15. Nick Wooster – THE man about Milan during fashion week – is the epicentre of many a men’s style trend including the current and soon to be extinct fit/fancy/rolex sporting/bearded/bear. Trust me men – follow Nick and you’ll always be a good 2 years ahead of the pack! http://fuckyeahnickwooster.tumblr.com/

    • Thanks for link – this guy is packing some style. I think him and Patrick Grant have my style choices pretty much covered! Thanks for commenting

  16. I’ve had either stubbly weak beard or full on animal face since I was 15, not because of any fashion or sexual orientation but because I’m a too lazy to shave red neck from oklahoma lol… However i find it nice to know that I am “cool” looking with my beard and tats on so many levels of popular culture!

  17. Fit, bearded hipsters do not a bear make. A ‘bear’ is typically a more histute, hairy gay man .. and most of those straights sporting facial hair these days are just following a trend to not shave, because we definitely don’t see them stopping their gym memberships, grabbing a pizza, and letting their gut hang out to look like bears. They’re still obsessed with their overall body image, and could not be considered anything close to being a ‘bear.

    And FYI, the hipsters in Shoreditch have been sporting beards for years, it isn’t anything really that new.

  18. HA ….Well THAT previous post is exactly what i get for being a smug ass….you see my laptop uploaded the draft rather than the spell checked and grammar revision…. so i deserve to be reviewed with skeptism …

  19. PJ, Pj, PJ, sweet dear boy. You CLEARLY need to do more research on you subcultural roots and origins of fashion. As a gay bear, a graduate of a fashion design school AND a self obsessed gay historian, I’ll be glad to fill in the blanks of your observation, which dealt less with research and more with antidotal observations. The Bear subculture didn’t rise out of the desire to appropriate masculine imagery from the military. The bear culture rose and adopted a stance on freedom from the body fascism of the gym culture and a desire to separate gay men who did not fit popular gay cultures vision of the Falcon Porn star archetype of the early to late 80′s (you MAY have been just weaned off the teat right about that time, judging by your photo)

    Beards and body hair were a direct contradiction to the imagery most gay men saw in gay porn. Bears developed out of the “blue collar” sensibilities of their particular locations idea of the masculine “average Joe or bloke”. Northeast, Midwest…farmers, flannels, denim, dirty boots, southern united states and west…cowboys and western wear, but all digging into the utilitarian nature of blue collar and redneck fashion and work wear to establish and create a new subculture far more “REAL” than the Levi’s and white tee shirts of the seventies with its Tom of Finland clones. Aside from the fashion there was also the INITIAL subcultures desire to NOT participate in body fascism. Men were big, chubby, beefy but lacked the “muscle bear” look popularized again by porns influence on taking the new and refreshing resurgence of the “everyman ” look and creating the Uber man by adding the connection between blue collar sensibilities and body conscious gym rats. (Not to say those men DIDNT exist before but they certainly were not part of the general push of the first wave of bear roots within the communities uprising).

    There ARE those who adopted military drag as part of their Uber masculine personal branding and identity but there was ALSO the leather community as well as ANY and ALL forms of blue collar sensibilities to generate ones personal archetype. As cliché as it sounds WE do love our “village people”, the cowboy, the redneck, the cop, the biker…ad nauseum.

    This current wave of bearded hipsters didn’t appropriate their look from the gay bear subculture, the roots of this have very little to do with bears other than the hipsters LOVE of beards and body which bears share with them. But to say its been usurped from bears is foolhardy. Hipsters ARE FAR more fashionably dictatorial then their bear counterparts. Obsessive grooming, super skinny jeans and a sense of “cultural elitism” are the antithesis of what the bear movement stood for in its origins. Don’t believe me? Stand behind a hipster pontificating about his love of Japanese salvage denim while ordering a pour over and the local coffee shop or allow him to “educate” you to the superiority of vinyl recordings while fashioning you a “craftsman cocktail” made from homemade bitters. Hipster culture wasn’t stolen from the bears… its an amalgamation of early military iconography, the erudite and highly esoteric nature of the British dandy AND the apparent love a healthy dose of facial hair…which gay bears adopted form STRAIGHT posturing … its the very reason WHY many gay men have adopted this look currently as it possessed the dictatorial nature of fashion and the precision of hyper grooming fastidiousness, the love of stolen uber male iconography through military appropriations and the extreme masculine addition of body hair and facial hair.

    But to say Hipsters and straight metrosexuals adopted this look form the gay subculture of the Bear community is a misappropriation of the facts. Aside from the love of body and facial hair…the bear community abhors, by its inception, the elitism and fanaticism that came with cliques and had no desire to transition their “style” choices into actual fashion trends.

    • Fairly comprehensive historical view of bear culture here – I clearly didn’t do enough research. Thanks for filling in the gaps in my education :0)

  20. In America, “bears” tend to be bearded and fat, specifically. Just having a beard is not enough.

  21. Let’s get something straight here: Bear culture isn’t an “impersonation” of anything that I ever saw.

    Bear culture is about inhabiting masculinity, and its stylings are about creating a supermasculinity that is hilariously camp and simultaneously inventive in terms of how it expresses “macho”. It’s a piece of theatre, and that’s why heterosexual dudes are so bad at inhabiting it.

    And really let’s be honest here and stop coddling hipsters. The problem here is a lack of personal style, not any specific style item (though really, the beards guys… grow up) – if you can carry it off then please do – but a room full of these fools just makes it embarassing for everyone.

    From kink to decent shoes, straight white dudes just wreck everything with the neediness and the insecurity but above all, the DESPERATE NEED to be taken seriously.

    And that’s all this is: Give any of these dudes a sense of humour and/or individuality and not only would they be happy enough to not matter – but they’d stop dressing in a fucking uniform cos they’d realise how damn stupid it looks.

    And just to confirm that I am not needlessly bashing Straight White Cisgender dudes here? I am one. I am a straight dude who’s hung out with gay and trans folk all my life – but it’s only recently that I begin to realise that we must have had an unspoken agreement:

    I don’t embarrass everyone by trying to copy their fabulous with a big frownyface angrypose, and they won’t call me an insecure little mary ;-)

  22. The authors last paragraph hints at what I suspect is happening in a societal sense with young men. Yes hetero fashions have followed homo fashions quite a bit. Maybe its is because men who are hetero are feeling increasingly hemmed in by matriarchal influences in life. No aspect of male culture has been left untouched be the feminist influence. Except that of the gay male (to a certain degree of course). Maybe in following gay males hetero males are trying to find a away of expressing a repressed male identity that has been almost forgotten, and certainly sidelined. I can agree the bit about bad tattoos can be a bit much, but really does anyone think they are going to be worried about what they look like when they are 60? Seriously, you’ll have very different problems to consider by then. Trust me.

  23. […] the last twenty-four hours have been rather interesting for me. My blog post – Beards and tattoos: Why are modern men trying to look like gay bears? – written way back in November has suddenly gone viral. This post has now received over […]

  24. First of all, bears don’t look like this. They’re quite a bit heavier. Secondly, this comes from the whole hippie revival of the last ten years, from Devendra Banhart, and from a general interest men’s fashion previous to the 20th century.

  25. I’m loving this revival. I’m a 46 year old gay man with a full beard and now all of a sudden I find myself being viewed as a Hipster! I personally love to see you men with beards and moustaches and with the combination of Tattoos and Tweeds I think it’s an awesome look! I think your blog is bang on. Can’t beat the look of a bearded sailor! If King George V was alive today he’d be the original Hipster as he had the magnificent Beard and the Tattoos. My icon anyday…oh as well as Ricki Hall too!

  26. Beards are ‘IN’ and broads are ‘OUT’! The power of women today has pushed men to the limit of their endurance … Their beards are proof of their gender, though not of their sexuality; but MEN they are, and vivre le difference!

  27. Some of us grow beard as we lack a chin and to hide facial scars. I’ve had a number of beards since I was 15 and I’ve never done it because someone else say it’s cool or hip. Hate being lumped into these groups. Interesting read anyway.

  28. As a 55 yr. old gay man in California who’s been out since 1976 I have to find this type of discussion really hilarious. I’ve got a full beard, had a big stache for years, and did both for myself not fashion. Certainly not Castro clone stuff, and I’m from that era. Who really gives a fuck anyway?
    A sort-of blue collar short dude in Cal., that’s me. London fashion for gay men? Give me a break.

  29. I agree with the tattoos on older skin. It really does start to look redonkucock after awhile. My dad is 75 . Let me tell ya. His tattoos are no longer flattering .. But hey he’s still smiling. So I guess bottom line is. If you like something go for it. And you may regret it later.. You may not… Not everyone finds the same things hot or attractive and no one person is going to be everyone’s type. We all end up in the same place eventually so who really cares I guess? But it’s good to still care? I guess .. I’m sure there are tons of people who think I’m hideous ! And I embrace that. I think I’m hideous when I look in the mirror every miserable day of this existence! Working paying taxes working more and for what? So I can live in a house, eat food and work out?! Yahooo . How exciting.. Wow..

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