To beard, or not to beard

18 March 2015

Spend five minutes in a South Korea subway station walking past countless other passengers during peak hour and you’ll see that a peculiarly high percentage of men are lacking a certain something.

That certain something is hair and more specifically, beards, moustaches, goatees and sideburns of all styles and description. In Korea, they’re all about as rare as a restaurant without kimchi.

Coming from Australia where there is a rapidly growing population of bushy-faced men, I can’t help but wonder where all the hair has gone. Perhaps it has been selectively bred out? A more plausible answer lies in the historical factors that contribute to a well-trimmed society.

In deeply Confucian Joseon Korea, a person was not allowed to harm any part of their body, including hair. Thus, as every photo and period drama of the time will show, Korean men were, and still are, capable of growing beards.

But after Japanese colonisation in the 1900s there was a large shift in the behaviour of men toward their whiskers. During the occupation, Japanese policemen wore a very distinct moustache favoured by the Emperor Meiji. There still remains—especially among the older population—a sense that moustaches and beards are evocative of the imperial era.

Some actors are also pushing a trend in movies, which locals call “dirty-sexy”. It’s in that “dirty” label where one can quite clearly see the general populous’ feelings towards beards.

The general rule seems to be, if you’re not famous, rich, or handsome enough to pull it off—don’t bother. Your clean shaven face, here, is your financial signifier and your job security. And sadly, due to the lengthy devotion a beard needs to grow, there won’t be any sudden overnight appearances of hairy crusaders to lead the charge in changing masculine beauty trends any time soon.

But by now you must be thinking, ‘there has to be someone you’ve seen out there with a beard’. You’re right. In the most unexpected of locales, there he was.

In the wealthiest part of Gangnam (that mecca of consumerism and style made famous by Psy), in the most extravagant of stores, a clerk for Louis Vuitton stood mindfully and professionally, beard and all. I asked myself: in a store where service has to be impeccable and the employees are scrupulously observed by managers for any chance to replace them with one of the hundreds more, why does this man have a beard? I can only speculate that he is evoking the style of European men, befitting the home country of the luxury French fashion-house.

So, like the flickering of hope held for a nearly extinct species to repopulate, perhaps one day Korean men will revert to their Joseon roots and drop their razors.  

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