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Chin Music: Max Blagg Keeps it Clean

Bergdorf Goodman Essay

8 31 2011

Ever since I witnessed a grizzled mountain man shave off a month’s worth of beard with a foot-long Bowie knife on a distant episode of Wagon Train, I have preferred the clean hairless chin to the unpredictable vagaries and eccentric manifestations of the beard. D’Artagnan, Zorro and other 18th-century dandies looked dashing in their carefree flips and flowing moustaches, but they had outfits and accessories to match the hair—plumed hats, codpieces, knee britches in skintight velvet, rapiers and dirks. Unless you are doing business as a rock star, you are unlikely to be sporting that kind of finery. Handlebar moustaches and goatees should remain the province of a few seasoned types who know how to properly accessorize their outlandish facial hair—such as Bollywood leading men and Major League Baseball relief pitchers.

Voluntary facial hair on men is acceptable only after a certain age, when the throat becomes a neck and, later still, a wrinkled gizzard, a cascade of folds and indentations that ripples like the surface of a pond each time you speak. Only then might you think of letting your beard grow out, to disguise this unappetizing proof of approaching mortality. Although the so-called soul patch, that tentative sprouting on the chin resembling nothing so much as a failed attempt at the “Asian Shaman” look cultivated by certain kungfu aficionados, has finally disappeared, it has been replaced with voluminous Old West or Amish-style beards, flourishing again in numbers not seen since the swinging sixties, when Sergeant Pepper led young men astray. And while some men can grow luxuriant guru-style beards, others only manage a scattered crop of slender follicles that looks like it should be growing somewhere more private. A good suit can ameliorate the stylistic shock of a rug on the mug, but in conjunction with a lumberjack shirt, or other tweedy outdoor threads, the look is sadly inauthentic. You don’t really drive a tractor or fell trees for a living, so why pretend otherwise?

A beard is a beard indeed, hiding something, concealing the finer angles of a man’s phizzog. How can we judge the stiffness of an upper lip, the nobility of a jutting chin, when it is disguised with a thick mat of facial hair that is also an ideal habitat for pests? Lice, for example, love to set up louse house under the protection and cover of a beard. When war broke out in 1914, hygiene prevailed over Edwardian muttonchops in the trenches, initiating the return of the clean-shaven man. The British Armed Forces decreed a minimum of hair on head and face, nothing more than a short back and sides and a well-trimmed upper lip, while the Germans, unwilling to forgo the Kaiser Wilhelm–style curlicue moustache because of its tonic effect on Teutonic women, itched and scratched in their lousy foxholes. When America joined the fray, the Gillette Company scored a branding coup by handing out to every soldier the newly invented safety razor. If the brave lads survived, they got to keep their shaving kits and doubtless bought replacement blades for the rest of their lives.

As if to counteract the current boom in beards, a new wave of “vintage” barber shops is enforcing good grooming in New York and far beyond. In Greenwich Village alone I counted half a dozen of these manly establishments on a recent walkabout. Pungent with the reassuring odors of old spices, bay rum, and Barbicide, these are run by barbers, not hairdressers. Hand-tooled badger brushes, exquisite soaps and expensive unguents line the shelves. They provide old-fashioned service, hot towels for the face, and a massage without anxiety about how it might end.

The Blind Barber (339 East 10th Street, New York, NY, 10009, Tel: 212.228.2123), a gin joint and tonsorium in New York’s East Village, exemplifies this new wave of male grooming. The day I visited, a constant stream of young men came in and then left with trim cuts and smooth shaves, courtesy of Gogy, A.J., Nick and Mel. A roomy bar in the rear of the premises offers complimentary coffee or a shot of Basil Hayden small batch bourbon, while you await your turn.

I used to get my hair cut and shave on Doyers Street, a byway of many barbers in Chinatown, and the first touch of cold steel on my throat always caused a queer tingling in the arteries, as I contemplated the possibility of the barber “going Sweeney” on me. But a close shave with a straight razor, by a professional, is one of life’s pleasures, and this one always ended peacefully, with the sting of witch hazel on cheeks and chin smooth as a baby’s bottom. The words of Olive Oyl echoed through my head as I stepped out into the street, ready to confront whatever the day might bring: “I want a clean shaven man / A man who does what he can . . . ” BG

Click to read David Coggins' Defense of Beards

See the rebuttal by David Coggins

Join Max Blagg & David Coggins next Thursday as they continue the debate during Fashion’s Night Out 

MAX BLAGG is a writer living in New York. His next book, Lifting the Veil, interviews with dead artists and fashion icons, is in preparation.