A 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.
Ever 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.
While 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 Gone are the traditional sailor tattoos, which have been replaced by head-to-toe designs from the naff to the mesmerising.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.
How 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