In the U.K., a bearded man is poised to take control of the Labour Party, becoming the first bearded leader of a major British party since the First World War. And, given current polls, Canada may soon be sending a bearded prime minister to the clean-shaven ranks of the Group of Seven.
After nearly a century-long hiatus, it seems beards are returning to the faces of Western politicians.
“If Mulcair wins, it would indeed be a remarkable moment in the history of facial hair,” said Christopher Oldstone-Moore, a facial hair historian at Ohio’s Wright State University, in an email to the National Post.
Beards were practically ubiquitous at the dawn of Canadian governance. Nineteen of the 25 delegates photographed at the Charlottetown Conference sported some kind of facial hair. Of the four male monarchs who have been Canada’s head of state, two were bearded.
South of the border, the post-Civil War United States spent 28 consecutive years with presidents sporting some kind of beard, moustache or muttonchop sidewhiskers.
Then came the safety razor, Communism, the shaving demands of two world wars and hippies. Suddenly, the only whiskers left were on the faces of fringe radicals.
“Voters thought a furry politician was dodgy and had something to hide,” said Allan Peterkin, a Toronto doctor and author of One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair.
Bearded world leaders
From Genghis Khan to Henry VIII to Charlemagne, chin fur was expected of men in positions of power. But now, it’s largely in Africa and the Islamic world where beards are still seen as a symbol of leadership.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud
President Salva Kiir Mayardit
Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane
President Uhuru Kenyatta
President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh
Prime Minister Narendra Modi
President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah
Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said
President Hassan Rouhani
United Arab Emirates
Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves
President Dési Bouterse
President Jorge Carlos Fonseca
* Predominantly Islamic countries
He added, “I always joke – you’re either Santa or Satan – depending on who is interpreting your facial hair. No politico wants to take that chance with voters.”
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil shaved his professorial beard soon after becoming leader of the province’s Liberals. After Justin Trudeau became federal Liberal leader, party handlers tried hard to have everybody forget that time he wore a goatee to the House of Commons for a few months.
Of the world’s 195 countries, only about a dozen have bearded leaders – largely in Africa and the Islamic world, where beards are expected as a mark of piety.
Among G7 countries, leaders have not sported beards since the early 20th century. The exception was an eight-month period in the 1980s, when right-wing politician Giovanni Goria was prime minister of Italy.
For the most part, a beard in the West has been the sign of a “leftist politician, particularly in Europe,” said Oldstone-Moore.
That’s certainly true of Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left Labour leadership frontrunner, who has been widely quoted as saying his beard is a “form of dissent” against the centrist New Labour policies of Tony Blair.
Notably, Corbyn would be the first Labour leader to sport a beard since Keir Hardie, a committed socialist and fervent pacifist, whose last days were spent opposing the First World War.
A beard can also be found on Martin Schulz, the progressive leader of the European Parliament.
In a recent study, a team led by Oklahoma State University’s Rebekah Herrick set out to discover if the beard – so rare in U.S. politics – carried any special connotation.
They found no shared political ideology among the five per cent of Congressmen who had facial hair. The beard- and moustache-wearers didn’t seem to vote any differently from their clean-shaven colleagues.
However, they did find that voters perceived them differently. Beard-wearers were seen as more “masculine” and “less supportive of women’s rights.”
Of course, that’s only at first glance. Given that Tom Mulcair spent years in the public eye, Herrick said Canadian voters will be less inclined to lean on “stereotypes” when deciding whether to vote for him.
“I don’t think his beard will have an effect on the vote,” said Mireille Lalancette, a researcher in political communication at the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières.
If anything, “it shows an authenticity that he’s keeping it regardless of changing styles.”
Hair today, gone tomorrow
In the rich world, political beards have largely been taboo since the days of steam power. Below, G7 countries and their most recent leader to sport a beard.
Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell
Left office: 1896
President Paul Doumer
Affiliation: Radical Party
Left office 1932 (assassinated)
Prime Minister Giovanni Giuseppe Goria
Affiliation: Christian Democrat
Left office 1988
Chancellor Philipp Heinrich Scheidemann
Affiliation: Social Democrat
Left office: 1919
Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi
Affiliation: Rikken Seiyūkai (big government, socially conservative)
Left office :1932
Prime Minister Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil
Left office 1902
President Benjamin Harrison
Left office 1893