Like so many college sophomores around the world, recently reelected Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau returned from winter break this week with a brand-new beard. First debuted in a photo on the leader’s Instagram page Tuesday, the beard is the first facial hair Trudeau has sported in public during more than four years on the job.
The new beard is not wholly unprecedented for Trudeau. After he was first elected in 2015, one seasoned political analyst at Slate (me) took note of his uncommonly rich (for a politician) history of facial designs: A decade ago, he wore a soul patch(!) with a thin, split-down-the-middle mustache. Not long after, he grew an hourglass-shaped goatee and a bulkier slash of lip hair.
While neither of those looks were aesthetically advisable, they were both explicable, meeting the threshold for acceptable nonreligious public-servant facial hair. Both occurred during Trudeau’s time in the opposition party, a position befitting a scrappy, nonconformist visage. The soul patch came out during 2010, when Trudeau was his party’s emissary for youth. (Soul patches weren’t popular among youths in 2010, but can you blame him for trying something new?) The goatee was a “Movember” stunt, though Trudeau wore it for some time after the month ended; he has since apologized for making himself look “like my own evil twin.”
So what can explain the prime minister’s new beard? Why, and why now? The most obvious answer is search engine optimization. In September, Time magazine published a photo of Trudeau wearing brownface at a 2001“Arabian Nights” party. Trudeau apologized and admitted he’d also worn blackface for a performance of the Jamaican folk song “Day-O” in a high school talent show. Another video from the 1990s showed him wearing blackface and an Afro wig. Trudeau has said he can’t rule out the existence of even more images of himself in black- or brownface. (Umm?!) Google “Justin Trudeau face”—who among us has not?—and you’ll get served hundreds of versions of these stories. But now, with his face (beard) in the headlines, some of them might get buried.
There also appears to be a trend afoot. There have been at least two new noteworthy beards in American politics in the past two years. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, that’s about one per year, a pretty high rate for a country that has seen precious few whiskers in federal office since the early 20th century. Here, the trend appears to be localized, or at least originating, in Texas, with new beards appearing on Sen. Ted Cruz and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. But there is reason to believe they’re just the tip of a soon-to-surface iceberg.
Political fashion norms may seem stagnant, but they’re still subject to shifts in global fashion norms, and there are two shifts that are probably starting to hit politics after a decade-or-so delay. The first is a loosening of formal dress codes in business. The decreasing prominence of business-formal workwear has already started to affect American politics: Women in Congress protested a ban on sleeveless clothing in 2017. Barack Obama famously held a meeting without wearing his suit jacket on his first day in the White House and a sweater on his first weekend, a visible marker of his desire to seem more of-the-people than his predecessor. (George W. Bush’s first chief of staff called the Obama dress code disrespectful.) These days, Andrew Yang is out here on the presidential debate stage without so much as a tie. It’s only a matter of time before Western heads of state revert to looks that require even less primping and upkeep: a no-iron polo shirt and Stain Defender Dockers, say, or the facial hair of a Civil War general.
Trudeau’s new beard, along with Cruz’s and O’Rourke’s, may also indicate a delayed response to the beard boom of the early- and mid-2000s. Around the middle of the 2010s, some trendsters were declaring the beard resurgence over, calling big beards conformist and overdone. But beards of all sizes are still quite popular today, and it’s probably way past time for the trend to trickle its way up to the G-7.
My beard experts (men) at Slate tell me that Trudeau is doing a decent job with his. He’s not letting it grow in all willy-nilly; he’s trimming and shaping it, accounting for growth gaps in the upper cheek area without resorting to a chinstrap look. The salt-and-pepper coloring lends him a dignified air, a welcome counterbalance for the relatively young world leader (he’s 48) and, perhaps, a sign of humility for a man known in large part for his gorgeous head of hair. In short, it’s the beard of a self-aware, conscientious, battle-tested public official. Too bad it’s on a face that did blackface!