Years from now, a sentient invasive species may look back on the peculiarities of human culture, which involved things like “vlogging” and “vape culture,” and also, most importantly of all, “attaching loads of cultural significance to the facial hair fringes that decorate our upper lips.”
There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the mighty mustache, and we’re not just talking about any hidden crumbs it may be harboring. A mustache is also capable of absorbing 20 percent of its own weight in liquid. Less revoltingly, the average mustached gentleman touches his ‘stache 760 times a day, and mustaches can also be independently illustrious. Burt Reynolds’ mustache has more than 3,000 Facebook fans.
The History Of Hirsutism
Mankind’s complicated relationship with facial hair goes back roughly 100,000 years to the Ice Age, when early humans began “shaving” to prevent frostbite caused by icy beards. Since then, beards and mustaches have come and gone out of favor and fashion, and they often have a meaningful story to tell.
For instance, American men generally favored the clean-shaven look in the early 1800s, but facial hair slowly became the norm again around the time of the Civil War as racial tensions grew. Many barbers at the time were black men who were capable of becoming independently wealthy and powerful. A lot of men also weren’t comfortable shaving themselves because of the high risk of tetanus from an improperly sterilized razor.
Over in England, facial hair trends followed a similar arc. The mustache was considered the providence of “fringe” characters like artists and revolutionaries during the start of the Victorian era, but it became popular in the 1860s again, possibly because it was part of a larger “rebranding” of the British military as they geared up for war with Russia and aimed to project a more “manly” image. Through the early 1900s, no soldier was allowed to shave his upper lip.
In a rapid departure from the heavily mustached generals of the Civil War, the period following World War II brought clean-cut grooming back in style. There is also the infamous fall-from-grace of the toothbrush mustache, which had less sinister connotations during Charlie Chaplin’s heyday but was stigmatized by Hitler, who supposedly adopted the style because his handlebar mustache prevented him from properly sealing his gas mask.
The mustache flourished again in the United States during the 1970s, and it became a “badge of brotherhood” for firefighters in the ’80s.
Elsewhere in the world, iconic mustache styles placed certain regions on the mustache map: the English-style, noted for its slender, exceedingly horizontal proportions; the Hungarian, noted for its bushy, statesmanlike tendency to announce itself; the Dalí, which was possibly only ever successfully pulled off by a particular Spanish painter.
The mustache became a global institution after two Australians founded the Movember movement in 2003. What started as a joke aimed at reviving the ’70s-style mustache has unfurled into a bourgeoning men’s health movement that aims to reduce premature male deaths by 25 percent by 2030. This covers everything ranging from overall life expectancy to prostate and testicular cancer to disproportionately high suicide rates, and the organization has funded 1,200 men’s health projects to date.
Without further ado, here’s a closer look at four iconic mustache styles (and some tips on crossing the language barrier to that lip barrier).
Behind The Mustache: Four Famous Fringes
This eccentric style rides the infamous coattails of the man who popularized it, but Salvador Dalí had influences, too. His mustache was apparently an homage to Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, and he once said on a gameshow that his mustache is “the most serious part of my personality. It’s a very simple Hungarian mustache. Mr. Marcel Proust used the same kind of pomade for this mustache.”
However, you’d be hard-pressed to find another champion of this exclamation-point style who published a book dedicated entirely to his mustache.
Dalí’s mustache is an inseparable appendage of Dalí, and it promises to continue enjoying longevity long after his death. Just this past summer, his body was exhumed, and it was confirmed that his mustache is still perfectly preserved in the “10 past 10” position.
The handlebar has a rich history that dates back centuries beyond the first ironic hipster appropriation of the ‘stache. It enjoyed a prominent stature during the Edwardian and Victorian eras, when men would ask barbers to use a stiffening agent to create the desired upward swoop. Many athletes during the ’70s also rocked a handlebar, like Rollie Fingers.
One of the most famous proponents of the handlebar was President William Howard Taft, the last president to sport a mustache (or really, any facial hair at all).
Not to be confused with the decidedly more genteel handlebar, the horseshoe moustache (otherwise known as the biker ‘stache) is more closely associated with cowboys, truckers and Hulk Hogan.
The horseshoe is evocative of hardline masculinity, and part of this has to do with the fact that seasoned generals and commanders in the military would typically sport thicker facial hair, as the thickness of one’s mustache was indicative of military rank and experience.
The horseshoe was also popularized by Leatherman of the Village People and James Hetfield of Metallica.
The minimalist mustache style had its heyday during the 1930s and ’40s, and you can almost picture the Clark Gable cadence that accompanies this narrow lip demarcation in our cultural imagination.
Other classic Hollywood stars were known for their pencil ‘staches, including Errol Flynn and William Powell.
Director John Waters is a more recent pencil proponent. “David Letterman would always try to touch it,” he once said. “It would freak him out. ‘Is it real?'” he would ask.
Mustache Compliments Around The World
It would be short-sighted to end this journey into mustache lore without offering up some practical guidance.
The next time you’re traveling in a foreign land and you wish to bond over the shared cultural experience of mustache admiration, have one of these translations handy.
German: Schöner Schnurrbart!
French: Belle moustache !
Italian: Che bei baffi!
Spanish: ¡Bonito bigote!
Portuguese: Que bigode legal!
Swedish: Snygg mustasch!
Danish: Flot overskæg!
Norwegian: Tøff bart!
Dutch: Coole snor!
Russian: Какие красивые усы! (Kakiye krasivyye ousy!)
Turkish: Güzel bıyık!
Polish: Fajne wąsy!
Indonesian: Kumismu bagus deh!