Pix & Notes: Beards

I got all tangled up in the beards of my red herrings while writing my last book, which was exactly as messy and confusing as it sounds. You can’t just pick beards out of a hat, you know; not if you’re writing historical fiction. If you’re a woman, you can’t experiment with your own chin and then go look in the mirror either.

Men have restrictions on how much they want to alter their features for experimental purposes too, of course. Try asking a guy with a long-established beard to shave it off so you can watch it grow back and take notes! Better to get out there and do your homework.

Prehistoric beards

These are poorly documented. Cave painters didn’t do self-portraits. The Short History of Beards stone_knivesmakes this rather disingenuous claim: “Prehistoric men grew beards for warmth, intimidation and protection. Facial hair kept prehistoric men warm and it also protected their mouths from sand, dirt, the sun and many other different elements. A beard on a man’s face creates the look of a stronger looking jaw line; this exaggeration helped them appear more intimidating.”

Hm. Perhaps. I’m curious about those “many other different elements.” Lips, perhaps? It also may have had something do with the discomfort experienced after shaving with a stone knife. Obsidian rash can be so uncomfortable.

Ancient beards

You’d expect Egyptian royalty to be extreme in all matters of fashion and King Tut does not disappoint. Of course this is a false beard made of metal and tied on with ribbons, but it’s still very manly!
Assyrians were serious about their beards. They used curling irons and oils to achieve architectural effects.
Bust of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher (341–270 BC.) For a guy who advocated peace and happiness, he sure looks cranky.
Roman emperor Augustus, beardless and, unrelatedly, noseless. Sophisticated Romans who were not philosophers preferred a clean chin.

A Potpourri of Beards

A Chinese emperor with a mighty bristle! Might be Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Bound to be a stressful job. Those beads dangling from his hat-platform would drive me batty. Maybe that’s why he looks so cross.
Here’s an assortment of chin styles from 1315. Miniature from Rashid-al-Din Hamadani’s Jami al-Tawarikh, c. 1315, illustrating the story of Muhammad’s role in re-setting the Black Stone in 605.
Three images of Charles I, sporting a van dyck beard, by Anthony Van Dyck, presumably wearing a matching beard whilst painting, in 1635-36.


Elizabethan beards

My problem was that the beard was a clue to my murderer’s identity. I wanted a notable style, therefore; something fashionable. I started out thinking about a sharply pointed beard like Sir Walter Raleigh’s in the dishy miniature shown below, but I doubeted they were stylish yet in 1589. It’s mainly a 90’s style, or so I thought, at least until the Earl of Essex returned victorious from the Battle of Cadiz with a long, square-cut beard.

I had to observe the rules about beards and other elements of fashion at Gray’s Inn. According to Wilfred Prest in his indispensable The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts (1972, Longman), gentlemen in residence were expected to shave, at least on a semi-monthly basis. “That none of the said companies, under the degree of a knight, being in commons, do wear any beard above three weeks growing, upon pain of xl s. and so double for every week after monition.”

That’s a fine of 40 shillings, which seems incredibly steep. I must have mis-read and mis-typed that note. You only had to pay 3 shillings and 3 pence for wearing “breeches of any light color nor coifs of English lawn, velvet caps, scarfs, or wings on their study gowns,” double cuffs on your shirt, or feathers or ribbons in your caps. Of course, you also had to forfeit your finery and could be expelled for a second offense.

But these rules come from the 1570s. I also have a note saying that long hair and beards became increasingly fashionable in the 1590s. Maybe the governors of Gray’s Inn just finally gave up? To be on the safe side, I gave both Francis Bacon and his sidekick, Thomas Clarady, a nice brushy rill of two-week’s growth. You wouldn’t want the constant itch of a brand new beard, nor would you want to visit the barber every day, although I’ll bet there were several barbers in Holborn who specialized in the Inns of Court regulation style, whatever it was at the time. (And now I’m thinking about a barber shop scene…. why haven’t I done that?)

Bacon in 1617. He’s Lord Chancellor now; he can grow whatever he likes on his chin. And although he looks stiff and uncomfortable, I’m pretty sure that’s personality, not costume. Ruffs are not unpleasant to wear, even with a super-stylish pointed beard.
The Earl of Essex, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger ca. 1596, with his trend-setting long square beard.
Sir Walter Raleigh, miniature by Nicholas Hilliard ca. 1585. Hey, so those pointed beards were in style for my 1589 book! I know I looked at this portrait, but I clearly failed to note the date. That’s the kind of tangle I was in. And look — he has flowers in his hair. You have to be very secure in your masculinity to deck yourself out like this.
Unknown Man Clasping A Hand From A Cloud, Nicholas Hilliard, 1588 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. This guy looks a lot like Tom, but his beard is clearly more than 3 weeks’ long. Love the hat!

Inns of Court, part 3: How they dressed

Giovanni Battista Moroni. Wikimedia commons.

I can’t find any portraits of inner barristers — students at the Inns of Court — and precious few portraits of barristers. I find no portraits of lawyers in their work clothes; at least none that prominently feature the details of their robes. The kids in the Harry Potter movies wore wizard’s robes over their everyday jeans and sneakers. Replace the jeans with galligaskins and you’ll get the general idea.

The picture shows an Italian lawyer, very correctly dressed in somber black, with restrained — yet impeccable — ruffs and cuffs. He’s not wearing a gown over his doublet and hose, but note the velvet welts on his sleeves.

Regulation dress

One’s status at the Inns of Court was displayed by means of one’s robe or gown.

  • Benchers, governors of the Inns, wore knee-length gowns tufted with silk and velvet.
  • Barristers, aka outer barristers, or men who had passed the bar, wore long black grogram gowns with two velvet welts on the long hanging sleeves.
  • Students, aka inner barristers, wore sleeveless black gowns with a flap collar, topped by a round black cloth cap.


Student caps are not like academic mortar boards. They’re like this fine fellow (thanks to A bluestocking knits  for the link.) Ludger_tom_Ring_d__J__Selbstbildnis_wikiped

Grogram is a blend of silk and mohair. According to Knitpicks , “the silk adds a radiant core that shimmers and shines through the soft halo of the mohair.” Warm, too.

Rules made to be broken

Has any dress code ever, anywhere, been obeyed?

Legal gowns were to be worn at all times in the Inns and presumably in the Westminster courts. It was forbidden to wear them into the City, any further than Fleet bridge, Holborn bridge, or the Savoy. Why, I have no idea. Francis Bacon was often seen walking about the City in his barrister’s gown, so it can’t have been much enforced. They announce one’s status. Who would give that up?

Like sumptuary laws in general, the dress code at the Inns of Court seems to have needed constant reinforcement. I get the sense that the benchers kept having to add items to the list of forbidden garments and accessories, posting and reposting their rules on the screen in the hall. (When you enter a hall in this period, you first encounter a floor-to-ceiling screen of oak paneling. Such a screens passage  can be quite elaborate and long enough to form a corridor. This is where notices were pinned.)

Here’s a sampling of forbidden items of dress:

  • Breeches of any light color, coifs of English lawn, velvet caps, scarfs, or wings on study gowns. Great breeches made after the Dutch, Spanish, or German fashion; or cut [slashed] doublets.
  • Any light colors in hose or doublets, except scarlet and crimson.
  • White jerkins.
  • Buskins or velvet shoes.
  • Double cuffs on shirts.
  • Feathers or ribbons in caps.
  • Spanish cloak, sword and buckler, or rapier.
  • None under the degree of a knight do wear any beard above three weeks growing, upon pain of 1 s. and so double for every week after monition.


For some reason I thought lace would be on that list, but apparently not. The rules about beards seem peculiar too. They seem to be promoting a sexy stubble. Pointed short beards and long hair became increasingly stylish over the 1590’s.

The always stylish Sir Walter Raleigh
The always stylish Sir Walter Raleigh

Punishment was 3s. 4d. for the first offense, upon pain to forfeit, and expulsion for the second. I sincerely doubt anyone was ever really expelled for clothing violations. The most common punishment was undoubtedly a stern frown, an open palm, and the command, “Give me that feather, Mr. Clarady. And don’t let me catch you wearing such fripperies again!”


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