Style & Fashion


How Britain fell for the ‘Milibeard’

The Daily Beast

August 20, 2015

His party may be tearing itself apart following a grievous General Election defeat on his watch, but former British Labour leader Ed Miliband, after criticism of leaving the sinking ship so cavalierly, is suddenly, briefly, everyone’s favorite politician. And it’s all because of some facial furze.

Miliband was caught in transit at Brisbane airport in Australia having a photograph taken, in full possession—well, not full possession; maybe a partial, salt-and-pepper possession is more accurate to say—of a beard. Or if we’re being accurate: a few weeks’ growth which makes him look kind of groovy.

The beard immediately became a hashtag—#Milibeard—and was much lusted over, and congratulated. (The Milibeard follows the just-as-lusty Milifandom, which sprouted into life during the election campaign.)

The Daily Mirror ran a poll that showed 100 percent support for the sudden outburst of bum-fluff (the British phrase for any facial hair). His beard—temporary or permanent—is more popular than any of Miliband’s policies, speeches, and—most notoriously—bacon sandwich eating.

But if this beard was born in the dregs of self-introspection and letting go of responsibility, if this really was a beard born in shame and dejection, it is now bristlingly triumphant.

“That is in no way a beard of shame,” said Rory Hazell, senior creative barber at men’s salon Murdock London. “We’ve all known beards of shame—the beard you grow when you’re ill, or not feeling good about yourself. This is a man on holiday, letting go a bit. It’s the beard of a man who’s dodged a bullet. That’s a liberation beard, not a shame beard.”

The shame beard, or a beard to be ashamed of at least, is not an uncommon phenomenon: Whatever their motivation for growing them, celebrities including Joaquin Phoenix and Brad Pitt have all grown facial hair that should never have left the house.

Whether for roles or not, Matthew McConaughey and Leonardo DiCaprio’s beards were much reviled.

Jimmy Fallon trimmed Jared Leto’s beard last year on The Tonight Show to much audience cheering.

Before taking on the reins of The Late Show Stephen Colbert had been nurturing a wonderful white beard while on sabbatical. Colbert said he had found his straggly facial hair “on the side of the road,” but now the spoilsports at CBS were making him shave it off.

His was the classic time-away-from-the-world beard, a perfect disguise, and utterly apposite for the cover of Homeless Sea Captain Monthly, a copy of which Colbert brandished.

At the confluence of hipsters and the lumbersexual trend lies the madness of beards, beards everywhere: after so many decades of suspicion of beards (you’ve let yourself go, man) and moustaches (you’re creepy, sir) suddenly the smooth shaven seem the weird ones.

As his beard trended on social media, Miliband stayed quiet: His last Tweet to the world on July 11 concerned Ashes cricket.

Urban Dictionary defines a ‘beard of shame’ thus: “The beard that a man will grow after his girlfriend has broken up with him.”

Or an electorate.

Urban Dictionary cites the term as being used in Lagwagon’s song, ‘Razor Burn’: “On the night she left me, facial hair grew miraculously, I dressed in black like Johnny Cash and grew this beard of shame.”

The Milibeard mystery is if this is merely a fairly typical holiday hairy outcrop (Miliband is vacationing in Australia), a ‘shame’ beard grown in the hogweeds of recovering from electoral defeat, or is Miliband simply giving in to the new political power of the beard on the Left as represented by Jeremy Corbyn?

Corbyn is presently the front-runner in the race to succeed Miliband as leader, on a far-left platform that most commentators and Blairite Labour fans criticize as barmy and bound to make the party unelectable, but which seems like catnip to the party’s rank and file.

Perhaps Miliband is simply giving in to both the beard and what it means in terms of party popularity: as Tom Bird, who tweeted the image out, wrote, “Could have picked up another 130 constituencies with that salt and pepper growth.”

The power of Corbyn’s beard has been deemed so significant that he was asked about it on BBC Radio 4’s World at One yesterday, having been described as a sex symbol.

At the end of a wide-ranging interrogation of his policies, and history of controversies (including calling Hamas “friends”), Corbyn was asked if he felt responsible for the hipster beard phenomenon.

“I can’t apologize for my beard. It’s too long lasting, and besides I’m very proud of my Beard of the Year awards in the Parliamentary Beard of the Year contests. So, if beards are on the growth [sic], sorry for the effects on the hairdressing industry.”

This comment is most loveable for being a dour person’s faltering attempt at humor—the most attractive humor of all.

Corbyn, who seemed to equate U.S. military actions and Isis atrocities in his latest interview, has a cropped, short white beard, to match his hair—which, like the Milibeard, already has fans drooling over its owner. Corbyn’s horniest constituency is on Mumsnet. My favorite line: “If you half fancied Dumbledore, Corbyn is probably in the same arena.”

The Milibeard immediately spawned memes, both of its wearer, and of other politicians with sudden facial hair growth, with David Cameron looking like a sinister villain in a Bond movie.

Hazell told The Daily Beast that he was a “massive fan” of the Milibeard. “He’s been stressed out, why not just kick back and relax?”

The beard, Hazell said, had “lost its connotation of the loser, that you don’t work, lazy, or letting yourself go.”

Two years ago, at Murdock’s salon in Shoreditch, East London, Hazell said, one in 20 bearded customers were businessmen working in the City; now that figure was more like one in eight.

“The British are relaxing,” Hazell said. “People are more willing to express themselves. You don’t have to be clean-shaven to work in the City. It’s not like the old days where your boss may have taken you aside after a few days’ growth and said, ‘Do you think it might be time for a shave?’”

However, there is a difference between the ragged, big, unkempt beard beloved of the hipster, and the clean beard favored by the thrusting young businessman.

At the salon, Hazell has seen young men aged 18 and 19 grow beards. Twenty-, thirty-, and fortysomethings are keen growers too. The trend tails off once you hit the 50-plus age group—although Corbyn, a natty-looking 66, magnificently defies this.

Beards are no longer seen as eccentric, said Hazell. Instead, men are growing them—long or stubbly—as defining personal or fashion statements. “These days, you often hear someone going, ‘Have you seen X’s beard?’, and they’re usually impressed.”

Britain’s Beard Liberation Front, run by veteran left-wing activist, prodigious letter-writer and beard-wearer Keith Flett, hailed the Milibeard in a very funny, resoundingly positive post, but cautioned that Miliband must now keep his beard.

“The Beard Liberation Front has backed Ed Miliband’s new beard as a welcome break with clean shaven revisionism.

“The BLF says Miliband is believed to have grown a holiday beard in France last August but shaved it on his return perhaps believing that beards are unelectable. Jeremy Corbyn maybe set to challenge that.

“The campaigners say that with Corbynmania it has become a summer of beards.

“However the BLF cautions that Miliband must now look to keep his beard, stay away from barbers and not shave it as Al Gore notoriously did.

“BLF organizer Keith Flett said the big issue now is if the Milibeard is sustainable. If so it could challenge for Parliamentary Beard of the Year in December.”

The question now, is will Miliband grow the Milibeard?

“He one hundred percent should, he looks great,” said Hazell. If he does, said Hazell, he should do so for eight weeks, visit a barber for ‘tweaking,’ and then grow it again for another eight weeks. Whether long or stubbly, one’s beard needs to be cut properly, said Hazell.

But while the Milibeard may have commanded the Internet’s affections, it will be some time before Britain will accept a bearded prime minister, thought Hazell. “The younger generations would go for it, the older might think that person couldn’t be trusted.”

“It would be a brave party that had a bearded leader,” he added. “Maybe that’s what Corbyn can be: a new, bearded leader for an even newer Labour.”