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W.G. Grace, the best cricket player of the Victorian age, in the late 1880s.
W.G. Grace, the best cricket player of the Victorian age, in the late 1880s.Herbert Rose Barraud

Attempting to complete his conquest of Asia, Alexander the Great was facing his biggest challenge yet — a vast Persian army that outnumbered his troops by at least five to one. His strategy? He ordered his men to shave their beards.

As legend has it, Alexander had a practical explanation for his peculiar edict: In the mano a mano warfare of the period, there was nothing handier to grasp than a beard.

In his new book on the roots of men’s facial hair, historian Christopher Oldstone-Moore notes that later chroniclers might have over-emphasized the legend. Alexander himself, after all, was clean-shaven; perhaps he was simply calling on his men to look more like him.

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Symbolically speaking, human beings have been tugging on beards for as long as we’ve had tools to shave them with. Oldstone-Moore’s book comes at a time of newly sprouted interest in the meaning of facial hair. In recent years influential young actors, athletes, and graphic designers have taken a creative approach to their stubble; some Red Sox fans believe their team’s “beard bonding” helped them win the 2013 World Series.

But it’s much too early to tell whether we’re in the midst of a genuine “beard movement,” like those that took place in the second, 16th, and 19th centuries, according to the author. In fact, choosing to wear a beard in modern America “can still get you drummed out of the military, fired from a job, disqualified in a boxing match, eliminated from political contention, or even labeled a terrorist,” he writes.

The social and political consequences of beardedness are at the heart of Oldstone-Moore’s curiosity-packed, if rather dry, scholarly study of his subject. The relative “purity” of either shaving or not shaving has been a recurring topic of historical debate, from the church’s smooth-faced requirements (in the first centuries after his death, Jesus was typically depicted as beardless) to the full-bearded orthodoxy of Hasidic Judaism.

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The flowering of the 1500s was apparently inspired by a beard-growing alliance between two of Europe’s most powerful young leaders of the time, England’s Henry VIII and France’s Francis I. Three hundred years later, facial hair was once again commonplace in France, as romantic young men wore theirs in emulation of the elaborate, T-shaped mustache-and-goatee combination of Napoleon III. It was, Oldstone-Moore points out, actually the failure of revolution, not its triumph, that made facial hair respectable then: By the 1850s, the self-appointed emperor “had become a safe, conservative solution to the political upheavals in 1848.”

While many prominent men in 19th-century America wore beards, few of those whiskers were as impressive, or contested, as those of Joseph Palmer. The pious Fitchburg man, a member of Bronson Alcott’s short-lived utopia at Fruitlands, was infamously attacked and detained by his clean-shaven neighbors in 1830. His tombstone reads, “PERSECUTED FOR WEARING THE BEARD.”

The book picks up some anecdotal steam in the modern age. Present-day athletic celebrities known for voluminous beards — like NBA All-Star James Harden, for instance — owe an unwitting debt to predecessors such as W.G. Grace, the best cricket player of the Victorian age, who, as Oldstone-Moore writes, wore a thick beard as proof of his “virility.”

But despite the countercultural trends of the Beats and hippies, the author argues that the 20th century was one of history’s most clean-shaven periods. Corporate culture, of course, was a major factor, but so were icons such as Lawrence of Arabia and Tarzan, the orphaned jungle boy who taught himself to shave “to eradicate this degrading emblem of apehood.”

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An academic, Oldstone-Moore takes care to include a few historic cases of bearded women and to explicate the choices of today’s “metrosexuals” and the hirsute gay men who call themselves “bears.” In some ways, his book is as much about the absence of facial hair as its presence.

The act of shaving has been consistently associated “with some kind of transcendence of the body,” he writes. Still, there’s no getting around it: In this latest addition to the field of gender theory, the body will not be denied.

OF BEARDS AND MEN: The Revealing History of Facial Hair

By Christopher Oldstone-Moore

University of Chicago, 338 pp., illustrated, $30


James Sullivan is the author of four books, including “Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon.” He can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.