Here comes the curls

Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), to which this column owes its title, devotes a chapter to the subject of men's hair and beards. However, while Mackay locates the fashion for western men to wear their hair short in St Paul's declaration that "long hair was a shame unto man", his reticence when it comes to the mass follies of religion means that he only dichotomises his way through history, noting that this faction wore theirs long, while that one went for the No 1.

Mackay is unwilling to venture into the semiotics of hairstyle, although he concedes that during the English civil war "every species of vice and iniquity was thought by the Puritans to lurk in the long curly tresses of the monarchists, while the latter imagined that their opponents were as destitute of wit, wisdom, and of virtue, as they were of hair".

The association between plentiful hair and the farouche is easy to divine, as is its paradoxical tangling of effeminacy and machismo. In our own era, the Janus-faced view of hippies -- at once filthily feral and girlishly gentle -- would seem to have been the apogee; by the mid-1970s, one might have hoped, the tedious go-round between long and short hair would have been abolished, peace and prosperity having been instantiated in the valiant figure of Richard Branson, with his carefully oiled locks flowing over his well-laundered collar.

Tressed for success

But of course, no such thick and curly madness could be so easily swept from the chequerboard floor of history's barbershop; the linkage between short male hair and Christian virtue may have been snipped, but its tight weave with the contemporary religion of commerce remains impossible to unpick - truly, short hair remains the extension of growth by other means. For, if there's one thing that unites the patriarchies of our time, it's their insane addiction to uniform hairstyles: not too long, not too short, and above all - in the immortal words of the punk ensemble the Damned -- neat, neat, neat!

Short, neat hair will not get caught in the machinery of government any more than it will snag the cogs of industry or tangle the firing mechanisms of laser-guided ordinance. It is only the judiciary in their horsehair wigs who stand aloof from this one-length-fits-all, and mark my words, if they -- like the current Speaker of the House of Commons -- abandon their fake tresses, their independence will soon desert them, just as Samson's fortitude ebbed away.

That there is no longer an ecclesiastical sanction against long male hair only serves to emphasise what a collective delusion this uniformity has become. The vast majority of men may wear their hair short -- but they imagine themselves to be dashingly distinctive. I diagnose a form of Hairy Dysmorphic Disorder (or HDD), and remind myself each time I observe a crowd of suited males -- at a party conference or a Virgin shareholders' meeting -- that in their own eyes they are all extravagantly coiffed, with pompadours, Mohicans and dreadlocks.

Gets my goatee

As for beards and moustaches, well, while the chin-borne cumulus of the Victorian patriarchs may have blown away, they continue to be worn -- and not just by geography teachers. We owe the resurgence of the goatee to the Thatcher era, a period that also saw the abrasive introduction of so-called "designer stubble". But while one can have some sympathy for the latter - there is a certain rationality in elevating idleness to the level of grooming - the former is a woeful illustration of modern men's inability to make anything but a symbolic gesture towards true equality of the sexes.

I say symbolic, because with a dab of hair on the upper lip and a divot on the chin, these jazz-bearders are, of course, unconsciously copying the appearance of female genitals, and the more these loonies trim their goatees, the more they ape those women who sculpt their pubic hair. In nature, the evolution of a harmless animal to resemble a predator is called Batesian mimicry, so what's going on here? Are the goatee men seeking to convince women that they are females as well - albeit of a topsy-turvy kind; or are they trying to effect a curious kind of seduction?

Either way, it is quite unacceptable, and the jazz-bearders should ply the Gillette forthwith, then ask to be shriven by the flocculent Archbishop of Canterbury.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on