Men on trend: The evolution of the bearded hunk, from Burt Reynolds to Ryan Gosling

Photography by Peter Stigter

He has clearly just rolled out of his log cabin to forage for berries and slap a tin coffee pot over a fire of loose twigs. His long hair and beard are wild, and he is dressed in things thermal and plaid, with barely laced, modified Kodiaks on his feet.

A maniac living off the grid? Hardly. This was the subject of a recent lush fashion spread in the Financial Times: a manly man “whose hardwearing frontier style is wildly on trend.” Total cost of the new Daniel Boone’s morning attire: $7,925, which includes his Gold Cybele necklace and Wright & Teague rings. Once, this beast-man would have been mistaken for a 1970s pot dealer, a sasquatch or our sexual antithesis. (I have heard so many women long for the smooth, hairless type that for years I assumed all women were looking for male/female hybrids.)

But now—as with another ’70s icon, Burt Reynolds lying bare-ass on a bearskin rug—the woodsman is a bona fide hunk, a highly masculine, testosterone-flaring, sexy wild thing who makes us look and feel so tiny and, well, pruned beside him.

The hairy, rough-and-tumble man is all over catwalks of late. Until recently, facial hair was all but banned on the runways. But a series of Yeti lookalikes stomped the Emporio Armani and Berluti spring catwalks; advertisements abound (with Dolce & Gabbana’s being the most fearlessly hirsute) featuring men who would look at home in an old-school police composite drawing; and Saint Laurent’s “Plaid, wool shirt,” which retails for $1,400 ($1,395 more than the thousands available in thrift and vintage stores), sold out virtually the moment it went online.

Celebrities are also significantly bearded: Facial hair dominated this year’s Grammy and Golden Globe awards shows. Yet, a few years ago, when Brad Pitt had a scruffy beard, the tabloids published weekly histrionic articles about it being linked to his unstable state of mind and a source of considerable revulsion to Angelina Jolie.

I remember being nauseated by the Pitt beard, particularly when he tied Disney-pirate beads into it. Like many beautiful men, he seemed determined to hide this troublesome asset. More distastefully, he was on point with the young men in my trendy neighbourhood, the frighteningly uniform hipsters who appeared en masse one day, like locusts, in moustaches and beards to complement their plaid shirts, skinny pants and cardigans.

This street look persists (often involving large, likely unnecessary glasses), but it is not full-on manly. In truth, it jams the idea of the fey geek together with nostalgia for a time when virtually all men had facial hair (we’ve all seen old shots of our dads in mutton-chop sideburns or chunky moustaches), resulting in a look that is too clearly fabricated, too tidily trend-appropriate to be sexy.

What is sexy is the neo-Bunyan being sold in the Times to men I assume are wearing buckskin vests to black-tie events, or whispering sweet nothings about Sterno and baked beans to debutantes in gossamer gowns. This woodsy guy is the real thing, one big moneyed step removed. And he represents a number of exciting things, both culturally and sexually. He is the future of grunge, for one. But where grunge fashion can be viewed as a post-punk symbol of contempt for money and logos and labels, its revision speaks to the grunge kid in the established man’s heart who still loves the feeling of living on the margins of the society he helps uphold.

Tom Selleck gone wild is also a very Canadian look: We as a country own the whole Sorels and flannel look. It is equal parts necessity (baby, it’s cold in here) and style—it has always looked good to appear prepared and possibly dangerous. Jokes about our collective politeness aside, we are a largely unknown badass badland to Americans, and, after years of filming and visiting and appearing here, the stylish and wealthy seem to have caught, like an exotic virus, our lowdown untamed look. Finally, after so many years of manscaping and man-manicures and manly pedis, men appear to be liberating themselves—the way women did in the 1960s, when they turfed such unnatural items as scented vaginal sprays and pointy, clown’s hat bras—and moving toward looking and feeling natural (natural as in our unchanged selves with some key modifications).

The man in the woods, you will note, is carefully tousled, lean and not afraid to wear significant jewellery. And we, the women who find him hot, who find any man with some heft and hair and strength hot, are moving away from the Apollonian vampire (cold, chiselled, sensible) toward the far more juicy Dionysian model: an untamed whirlwind of hedonism and ecstasy. Look at it this way: Zac Ephron is an Apollo; Dave Grohl is a Dionysus. In cinema, Bradley Cooper is an Apollo; Ryan Gosling is an (admittedly deceptive) Dionysus. And so on. It is the beginning of a new era!

Imagine how women felt when Jim Morrison appeared in black leather at the Whisky in Los Angeles, stoned and virtually snake-haired, mumbling and screaming about what plans he had for them. Imagine this after years of crew and shag cuts, tidy flares and sweaters and sweet melodies.

This may be happening again. The trouble is that the look is only truly effective if it’s legitimate, as in “I am legitimately too lazy and sex-sodden to shave” or “I am wearing these clothes ’cause I’m cold and I grabbed them from a pile at the side of my bed.”

When parlayed, cynically, as a way of having it all—looking like a bohunk by night or on the odd day off while venti-capping by day—the look is still appealing, but it lacks warmth and passion. When it’s actualized in the form of a man who dresses carelessly but with style, for the elements and to please his oppositely attractive girl? All hail the return of the wild man! May he have the lead, as Tom Jones so cheekily sang, and know how to swing it.