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Sideburns are nothing new.  They go in and out of fashion, and have for centuries.  In recent years, they seem to be enjoying an upswing in popularity, but we have records of them dating back at least to the fourth century BCE, in a mosaic that shows Alexander the Great sporting them.  Depictions of Alexander usually show him clean-shaven, since the Greek military of the time famously forbade facial hair.  (This was mostly aimed at beards, which men might grow very long, giving the enemy something on your face to pull in the heat of battle, potentially putting you at a disadvantage.)

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Is Alexander greater with sideburns? or without?

The ancient Greeks might have had a word for sideburns, or at least a way to describe them.  In America they were known as side-whiskers until the 1860s.  Beards were getting to be more fashionable than they had been in the early part of the century, and some men saw an opportunity to use facial hair for an expression of style.

One such man was a Union general in the Civil War.  He was Ambrose Burnside, and he knew how to rock side whiskers.  He grew them long and thick, just like Martin Van Buren did a couple decades earlier, but he linked them in the middle with a thick moustache.  His baldness is probably what made the effect all the more striking.  It was so striking, in fact, that the style was named after him.  People took his name, shifted the syllables, and Burnside became sideburn.

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The eponymous General Burnside

After the Civil War, Burnside went on to serve as governor of Rhode Island, and later senator, until his death in 1881, at age 57.  Still, the sideburn thrived.  The term caught on, and men continued to wear sideburns throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras.  They moved from a somewhat bold fashion statement to take on a more conservative, even stuffy association.  Young men started shaving their faces, and were more inclined to wear just a trim moustache, if any facial hair at all.  Beards didn’t completely disappear in America, of course, but their prominence did fade.

They faded for a while, at least.  By 1960, the conservative look had become the clean-shaven one, and wearing a beard was a little bit more bold.  The counterculture of the 1960s embraced facial hair, as well as longer hair on men’s heads, and it was often derided for it.  Facial hair, like wild, unkempt hair, was a sign of rebellion.  A popular joke in the 1960s went, “What do you call a hippie with a haircut?  The defendant.”  As the cultural tumult of the 1960s calmed down, so did the hairstyles, but sideburns were quite common throughout the 1970s.  They never really came back in fashion in full force, especially during the relatively hairless 1980s, but in recent years, they’re increasingly common.

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“Hipster” beard today vs. Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Hughes, circa 1916. The more things change...

The funny thing is that facial hair that would have been considered safe and conservative is often derided as having a hipster cachet today.  But wait another twenty years and today’s young, bearded men (whether they’re hipsters or not) will still be sporting their “hipster beards”, setting themselves apart from the rebellious youths of the 2030s, who will no doubt be making a radical fashion statement with a clean shave every morning!


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