Every mutton chop beard starts with a good set of sideburns. Most people think of sideburns as the thin strip of facial hair extending from the scalp to the upper chin, tight in front of the ear. But sideburns are, indeed, much more than that. The name itself is derived from Civil War General Ambrose Burnside, whose extravagantly exaggerated lateral facial hair extended in a bushy mass down to his chin, connected by a large mustache.
Mutton chops is the term currently used to describe such prominent facial hair. In the eighteenth century, most Western European men were clean shaven, but mutton chops gradually caught on, especially among the military. This is not to say that they hadn’t been around long before this time.
In fact, Alexander the Great himself is depicted as wearing the style in a mosaic at ancient Pompeii. But mutton chops truly came into their own in post-Napoleonic Europe. From there they spread as far as Japan, becoming the first wave of European fashion to hit the far east. They then spread to the New World, especially South America, where they were almost a requirement of the revolutionary set.
This may date back to the fact that a similar beard style, called “balcarrotas” were worn in Spanish colonial times by native men, and were banned by the colonial government of New Spain in 1692, causing riots among the population. The style lost popularity at the onset of World War I, as a clean shaven face was required to maintain a secure seal on the gas masks used in trench warfare.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt experimented with the style in 1936, but quickly abandoned it when his wife couldn’t stop laughing. Mutton chops, or exaggerated sideburns made a comeback in the 1950’s with Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”, and Elvis lent them even more panache with his sexy facial trim. Throughout the years, mutton chops have run the gamut, from being the epitome of Victorian respectability and ultra-conservatism, to the symbol of rebelliousness, when, in fact, they are, today, probably no more than a fashion statement.
The mutton chops style of beard starts with exaggerated sideburns, extending down the chin line. They may be closely trimmed, or wild and bushy. Some men prefer to connect then with a mustache, while others leave then simply hanging on the side of the face. They can be sculpted into a variety of shapes and sizes, from the neatly trimmed line of a chin strap, to the unfurled curls of a cuddly, but virile, teddy bear. Think of Wolverine, or Mr. T. Mutton chops can be a bold statement of virility, or a cultivated and cultured artistic statement. They are as individual as the man wearing them.