Canadian Prime Minister
has portrayed himself as a champion of women’s rights, the environment and refugees, with varying degrees of success.
He is now becoming the champion, perhaps unwittingly, of another cause: making politics safe for bearded men.
Mr. Trudeau first won power in 2015 and secured a second mandate in a vote last year, all while maintaining a clean-shaven look. After a 16-day holiday over Christmas and New Year’s in Costa Rica, the 48-year-old Canadian leader returned to work with a trimmed, salt-and-pepper beard.
“I thought this was a vacation beard that would be gone in a couple of weeks when the novelty wore off. But it has stuck around,” said
a former political aide in Ottawa and now a Montreal-based communications and image consultant.
Pundits have tried to find a deeper meaning in the new look. Perhaps, they said, the beard meant a reserved, reflective tone was in the offing from Mr. Trudeau, following a scandal-plagued year that damaged his personal popularity and reputation, and nearly cost him re-election.
Image consultants and historians with an interest in everything hirsute say they will watch Mr. Trudeau for clues that voters in North America are ready to accept candidates for the highest office who put their best shaggy face forward.
“My sense is that, in light of recent history and the larger global collapse of political norms, beards no longer pose a meaningful obstacle to politicians’ electoral hopes,” said
a professor at the University of Florida who has studied and written about facial hair—including a paper on
a bearded lady who toured the U.S. in the 1850s.
Mr. Trudeau hasn’t talked about his new look, and a spokeswoman declined to comment on a series of questions, among them whether the beard was tested on focus groups. He is running a minority government, so in theory he could hit the campaign trail wearing a beard at any time should he lose a vote in the legislature. Veteran Ottawa observers suggest election talk might ramp up in earnest starting in 2021.
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Beards have been largely missing from the faces of Western-world government leaders or heads of states for some time. A Canadian prime minister last donned a beard in the late 19th century. It’s been nearly that long in Britain, after Lord Salisbury left office in 1902.
In the U.S.,
famously sported a beard, although some historians contend what Lincoln actually wore should be called “whiskers,” since his beard was considered short for the time period and he had no mustache. The mustachioed
William Howard Taft,
just before World War I, was the last American president with facial hair while in office.
In other parts of the world, the beard has posed no barrier to political success in modern times. India and Brazil elected
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva,
respectively, to more than one term. In Spain, the bearded
ruled between 2011 and 2018. His beard helped mask facial scars from a serious car accident in the late 1970s.
In North America, the rarity of bearded leaders coincided with a trend away from facial hair in the early 20th century, fueled by the invention of the safety razor and a warning from doctors that beards were a haven for microbes. Previously, physicians believed beards helped protect the face from intense sun and wind, said
“A shaved face was part of the uniform, both clean and regular,” said Mr. Oldstone-Moore, a senior lecturer of history at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of a bible on beards titled, “Of Beards and Men.”
But beards are back in fashion, and Mr. Trudeau is known for his relative youth and style.
“The beard gives him a lot of gravitas,” said Laura Peck, a partner at Ottawa-based TransformLeaders.ca, which offers communications training for corporate executives and politicians. “It looks good on him.”
For politicians, risk aversion is also a factor. “Voters are cognitive misers looking for shortcuts to evaluate candidates,” researchers at Oklahoma State University wrote in a 2015 paper on facial hair and politics. “Appearance can affect voters’ perceptions of candidates’ beliefs and issue positions.” Their research, which incorporated surveys of students about their impressions of Congress members with and without facial hair, indicated politicians with either a mustache or a beard are seen as more masculine, as well as more conservative on feminist issues.
Mr. Oldstone-Moore argued in his book
upset win in the 1948 presidential election could be linked to
mustache, based on anecdotal evidence collected at the time. Dewey even joked to a group of boy scouts in 1950 about how the hair above his lip cost him votes. “No major candidate for the presidency has dared flaunt even a hint of facial hair since that time,” Mr. Oldstone-Moore wrote.
Mr. Trudeau dabbled in facial hair before becoming Liberal Party leader and subsequently prime minister. As late as 2011, he donned a variant of a Van Dyke beard, named after a Flemish painter and popularized by
Last year, Mr. Trudeau and his aides were at the center of a political scandal about alleged political interference in a criminal prosecution, and he was also forced to issue apologies during the election campaign after images emerged of him wearing blackface and brownface.
“I think the beard helps him to affirm both to himself and others his personal resilience,” Mr. Oldstone-Moore said. “He may be saying that he is here to stay, that he is tough and that he will not be cowed by his opponents.”
Mr. Capstick, the image consultant and an occasional beard wearer himself, said he is skeptical about attaching any underlying motive to Mr. Trudeau’s new-look face. He said Mr. Trudeau’s beard “makes him look older. If that was the intention, then it worked.”
Write to Paul Vieira at email@example.com
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