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Saturday, 12 November 2011


Some great moustaches

“Since I don't smoke, I decided to grow a moustache - it is better for the health.
However, I always carried a jewel-studded cigarette case in which, instead of tobacco, were carefully placed several moustaches, Adolphe Menjou style. I offered them politely to my friends: "Moustache? Moustache? Moustache?"
Nobody dared to touch them. This was my test regarding the sacred aspect of moustaches.”
Salvador Dali

Actually, there are several mysteries regarding the moustache. One is its erratic place in our history. Today’s moustache would be a joke if it were actually funny. On most men it’s not much more than a puddle of fuzz across the upper lip, biologically something between a nicotine stain and a pipe cleaner, especially when in it’s most fashionable form, attached to a neatly trimmed goatee. Not a hundred years ago however, a moustache could be a thing of great and audacious beauty. A man tended to his the way he would a garden, lovingly clipping, pruning and shaping it. He devoted time to it. After all, it was his identity.

For the Edwardian gentleman serious about cultivating his facial hair, the investment wasn’t just in time but money. Alongside the various clippers and razors he needed curlers, which needed to be heated to a precise temperature that would allow the ends to be shaped without burning the whiskers. Wax was essential, as was a snood, a netted mask that retained the moustache’s shape during sleep. Moustache cups and soup bowls had a bar across the lip that protected the whiskers from liquids and if he had the money he could think about a silver moustache spoon that had a guard to stop soup clinging to his face, saving others the indignity of having to avert their eyes during conversation. When travelling, a comb and a dab of grease would suffice for his hair but he’d probably need a small bag for all the accoutrements necessary to keep his moustache in working order.

Research (Wikipedia) suggests the earliest documented free standing moustaches – i.e. not backed up by a beard – belonged to the Pazyryk of the Altay Mountains, which is no surprise.  The Pazyryk were ancestors of Turkic tribes and had strong cultural affinities with the Scythians who inhabited regions west to the Ukraine. The finest, at least the most ostentatious moustaches have always been associated with Turkey and the Balkans, heirs to both ancient races. Still, the moustache has a patchy history.  Maybe some Gaulish chieftains of the late Roman early Middle Ages wore them but since our visual records are all later impressions that could be conjecture. For most of Western Europe’s history the free standing moustache was out of favour. Charles I, England’s least manly king, sported a dashing and fashionable Van Dyke but after the 17th century the moustache all but vanished, until the mid-19th when it suddenly returned with a flourish.

Why exactly is one of those historical problems for which any theory proposed has scant evidence to support it. Personally, I think it had something to do with industrialization fragmenting long entrenched social orders. By the mid-19th century entirely new social classes of factory owners, engineers and other self made men had emerged. It was the beginning of the great shift to the cities. If scholars and peasants alike still preferred the antique looking full beard and Protestant firebrands the preposterously ugly chin strap, a 19th century man who wanted to show he belonged to the modern world wore a moustache, particularly something as visually arresting yet impractical as the handlebar. Wearing one let the viewer know two things; you took care of your appearance because you had self-respect.

Whatever a beard may be, a moustache is a badge. The style a man chose – the English, the handlebar, the imperial, the walrus, the pencil, the toothbrush – was his way of letting people know his station in life, When he walked into the saloon one only had to glance at his moustache to know his class, occupation, political views, sense of humour, whether he was a thinker or a fighter, a family man or a rake. It saved time and made conversation a lot easier. You wouldn’t go up to a man wearing a walrus and ask what he thought of last night’s opera performance but you could try that if he was wearing a handlebar. A man with a toothbrush on his upper lip might not have a vivid imagination but if you wanted some common sense on business he was the one to go to.

Several moustaches have fallen out of favour. Thanks to Hitler the toothbrush is finished for the time being. The handlebar and the English with their waxed tips look more pretentious than colourful these days. In the late ‘60s the walrus made a comeback, especially among Californian country rockers. It evolved into the horseshoe but survives in small pockets where the full extent of modern technology has yet to make a real impression. Some are decidedly ethnocultural. The pencil is Latin and looks inconsequential on a blonde man, in the same way that an imperial can look entirely natural on a Croatian waiter yet pompous on an English comedian. At one time a European man looked to his royal family for advice regarding facial hair. These days it’s only the minor royals, by and large an unsavoury bunch of drug addicts and tax dodgers, who sprout the stuff and no one cares to follow their examples. Ironically, given the moustache’s long identification with overt and very heterosexual masculinity, it is the gay community who have rescued some of its finest forms from ignominy.

The rebirth of the moustache coincided with the invention of photography and it followed that a man who had spent months cultivating the growth on his upper lip would not be shy about hiding it from the camera. There are thousands of splendid examples out there. Here are just a few.


1 comment:

  1. A fascinating history of the moustache. It makes me glad I never grew one and it's too late now!


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