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The question:

I get that beards are in again, but how bushy should they be? Any trimming guidelines?

The answer:

Story continues below advertisement

There is, as you have no doubt seen, a strict uniform for men in the bohemian quarters of large North American cities. It consists of a plaid shirt, very narrow jeans, canvas tennis shoes, large black plastic glasses and a shaggy beard. These beards have steadily been growing larger and wilder – and not just because that's what beards tend to do. Growing mountain-man beards is the 21st-century equivalent of the impossibly narrow waists and high collars of the late-18th-century European dandies; it's a competition.

Up until recently, beards on fashion runways and in magazine spreads were present but subdued. They were all neatly trimmed, possibly flecked with some distinguished grey. The idea was that a conventional suit was incongruous with a lack of grooming. But this is changing. Several high-profile models and men with positions of power in the fashion industry now sport curly, uncombed masses. Take a look at recent profiles of the tattooed, plaid-shirted Byredo perfumer Ben Gorham. In one interview, he is asked, "If you weren't a perfumer, what would you be?" He replies, "A lumberjack," which encapsulates the aesthetic and its romantic underpinnings.

A few months ago, I went to a new restaurant in my formerly industrial, now artistic neighbourhood. A guy was playing folky guitar; we were eating organic burgers. A woman at another table was dressed in perfect 1940s pinup style, with a pencil skirt and glossy Bettie Page bangs. Another guy was dressed as a farmer, in Wellington boots, tweed pants, tweed cap and of course a full beard. It looked like a costume party – I wouldn't have been surprised if the next to show up were dressed as pirates or cat burglars.

So the question about big beards is, just how fashionable do you want to be? If you painstakingly follow the fashion for the shag, you may end up looking as if you are wearing a costume bought in the Halloween aisles at Wal-Mart, a costume labelled "Hipster." A trimmed beard – that is, no longer than a half-inch or so of fur – may be more conservative, but it is also less likely to be mistaken for a parody.

Novelist Russell Smith's memoir, Blindsided, is available as a Kobo e-book. Have a style question? E-mail style@globeandmail.com.

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