I took a photography class this summer. Sitting to my right in the lab was a thirty-something businessman, wedding ring on and briefcase by his side, gelled hair, and a…Salvador Dali mustache? What would prompt a so obviously normal-to-the-point-of-boring person to meticulously grow and then groom such an accessory? I stared at it for a semester but did not muster the courage to ask him why.
Since then, I’ve separately noticed two local restauranteurs’ seemingly neck-and-neck mustache growing competition and, with said recognition, a remembrance of their former place of business and its framed poster of stached-to-the-max Tom Selleck circa 1980. So what gives? Why am I noticing something I’ll never have the opportunity to obtain (theater makeup or testosterone injections notwithstanding)?
It seems I’m not the only one connecting to the facial hair phenomenon. A quick online search brought me to the World Beard and Moustache Championships, a biennial competition in which men with beards and mustaches ”display lengthy, highly-styled facial hair” and where one can learn “everything you need to know about international facial hair competition!” It seems this group (and others like it) is about more than folical jollies–as contestants travel the world and can win thousands of dollars for out-staching the competition.
As it turns out, displaying one’s hair growing prowess is nothing new. Remember all those old, black and white photos of military men with varying degrees of facial hair from your history classes? Turns out the style of one’s stache was a direct correlation to his rank. The younger men and lower ranks had smaller, thinner mustaches, which they were permitted to grow thicker and fuller as their careers developed. Both Civil War Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant had fully developed beards by 1865, a sure sign of their masculinity and strength–much more influential and intimidating than, say, rifles.
The cultural connotations go beyond the rigidity of the military, as mustaches have cultural connotations too. In the early twentieth century, comedian Charlie Chaplin created the iconic character, The Tramp, whose signature look included the toothbrush mustache. This stache is shaved on both sides, with whiskers remaining only directly under the lip, and was fashionable in the working-class men of the era in response to the more extravagant Kaiser mustaches of the wealthy.
What say you? You haven’t heard of the toothbrush? Okay. Let’s dig deeper. You may have heard of Adolf Hitler? Yeah, so has the rest of the world, heard and, unfortunately for Chaplin, seen Hitler’s stache. While Hitler’s attempt at world domination ultimately failed, his association with the toothbrush mustache forever made it the red-headed stepchild of facial hair. In fact, as recently as last year, comedian Richard Herring explored the cultural impacts of Hitler’s facial hair and its effect on Chaplin, popular culture, and politics in general in Hitler Moustache.
He says [along with this brand of mustache], “somehow, along with the name Adolf and the swastika, which was originally a Hindu symbol of peace, we’re not even allowed to have these things.” And he’s using comedy to attempt to diffuse what he considers Hitler’s ownership of these things. Seventy years later, no one wears the stache, so Herring has grown one out and walked the streets looking for reaction.
Artist Frida Kahlo used her mustache in her self-portraits, a unique and daring representation; essentially uglying herself up on the outside to show us how she felt on the inside. While she did have a stache, it was hardly as prominent as she made it seem in her work (same goes for her unibrow), but her over-emphasizing of facial hair as a tool to represent her power as a female stuck in a male-dominated industry with a more-prominent husband (Diego Rivera) is my personal favorite use of the mustache in popular culture.
Salvidor Dali loved his facial hair so much, he wrote a book exclusively on the subject. Dali’s Moustache is a collaboration between the eccentric, brilliant artist, his stache, and his friend, portrait photographer Philippe Halsman. It features 36 unique versions of his mustache, twisted and styled into visual storylines which are then buoyed along by an “interview” with Dali regarding the mustache.
Who knew there was so much history? At Glorious Mustache, one can learn all sorts of weird, yet true, stache facts. For example, “Scientific research, commissioned by the Guinness Brewing Company, found that the average mustachioed Guinness drinker traps a pint and a half of the creamy nectar every year.” Perhaps this is a reason for the mustache’s lack of popularity among Fraternity Brothers?
If I ever have another class with Mr. Mustachio’d Businessman, I won’t be silently wondering why he meticulously twists the ends of his stache into wiry spirals set in place with some form of wax product. I’ll take him out for a beer to discuss the how’s and why’s–and offer him a straw.