Gay History: When Did We Turn on the Moustache?

Or: When did the moustache stop turning us on?

Quick thought experiment: Close your eyes and, in the hairiest part of your mind, try to picture the most iconic beards from history.


Odds are, you’ll have been imagining an assortment of upstanding, wise gentlemen — the likes of Charles Darwin, Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, Dumbledore.

Now try the same sort of whiskers visualization with mustaches.

What do you get?

Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, every time.

For some reason, mustaches make us reach straight for the villains. But what about all the famous ’stache-toters who have had a positive influence on the world: Einstein? Gandhi? Martin Luther King? John Oates from Hall & Oates?

There’s clearly some sort of facial prejudice going on here, because while full beards have been warmly accepted by fashion and society at large for a decade or more now, mustaches on their own have been sneered at as second-class frizz for far, far longer than most of us have been able to grow one.

According to Lucinda Hawksley, art historian and author of Moustaches, Whiskers and Beards —  who happens to be a great-great-great-granddaughter of the fantastically whiskered Charles Dickens —  the fact that the mustache was “hijacked by the dictators” actually had a huge historical impact on above-the-mouth fashions. Whereas in the 1930s, the elegant lip-strips of silver-screen stars like Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman had bestowed glamor, prestige and enormous popularity upon the mustache, says Hawksley, its associations with both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia made the thought of wearing one feel decidedly less dashing in the decades following World War II.

Still, for all that the Führer’s trademark toothbrush mustache and Uncle Joe’s walrus style in particular suffered by association, the ’stache remained a viable option in other guises for men interested in projecting an image of rugged machismo. This reached an apex of billowing perfection in the early 1980s with Tom Selleck as Magnum P.I. But for Hawksley, this was also the decade in which the mustache categorically lost its luster across the board. After that, she says, Selleck “still managed to have a moustache and carry it off, but for pretty much everybody else, it was completely outdated.”

Hawksley believes there were two main reasons for this. The first was the advent of designer stubble: “That became the big thing,” she says. “So, suddenly, instead of having a mustache and no beard you’d have a small amount of both.” The second is a recurring theme she sees in evidence “throughout the history of men’s facial hair: It’s that the younger generation wants to do the opposite of what their fathers had done. In the late-Victorian period, for example, by the 1890s, you’ve got young men saying, ‘I’m not having a beard — my dad and my grandfather had beards, and they’re just completely old-fashioned.’ And that’s exactly what happened in the 1980s: ‘Oh my God, a mustache! That’s such a 1970s look!’”

At around that time, though, something else was undermining the status of the mustache as the height of heterosexual manliness. In his book One Thousand Beards, Allan Peterkin (who has been a mustache consultant for Jimmy Fallon) points to Selleck’s 1980s thicket as one of the last great American specimens, too. But he argues that Magnum also represented a mainstream, TV-friendly offshoot of a popular gay look of the era: “The so-called ‘clone,’ with his obligatory mustache, bomber jacket, beefed-up shoulders and muscular butt under tight jeans.”

This Freddie Mercury-esque “clone” look had evolved in turn, writes Peterkin, from the subculture of “leathermen” in the gay clubs of the 1970s, whose “sadomasochistic practises and role-playing flourished and became a new homoerotic norm. The look was hypermasculine,” he continues. “Think Tom of Finland iconography — and both mustaches and sideburns topped (and bottomed) it off.”

Peterkin also highlights the Village People, whose stage routines for hits such as “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” featured both a leatherman and a mustachioed cowboy, helping to make Middle America aware of the mustache’s prominent status in gay culture.

Perhaps equally devastating for the ’stache’s popularity in straight society was the running joke in the first four Police Academy movies — from 1984 to 1987 — in which hapless male characters find themselves trapped in a fictional gay club, the neon-lit Blue Oyster Bar, where they’re forced to dance with fuzzy-lipped leathermen. It was an increasingly unfunny gag, which simultaneously managed to entrench a daft homophobic stereotype and torpedo the mustache as a macho status symbol for straight men.

What really made mustaches utterly unwearable, though, wasn’t so much their association with gay and S&M subcultures but that — as epitomized by those Blue Oyster skits — they became the subject of ridicule. Hawksley points out that when “it stopped having that macho look about it, the man with the mustache became a bit of a joke. It was the bank manager, the annoying teacher…”

If the mustache’s appeal was entirely wrapped up with its machismo, how did it acquire its super-manly image in the first place? For Hawksley, the answer lies in its surprisingly important place in military history. Facial hair initially became a trend thanks to British soldiers fighting the Crimean Warin the mid-1850s. Says Hawksley: “It was the first time they’d ever been able to grow a beard in the army, simply because they hadn’t been able to shave — the shaving water would freeze; they didn’t have enough shaving soap… And so when they came back, it was the sign of a hero because the Crimean War was so widely publicized.”

Elaborate face topiary acquired a similar heroic status during the American Civil War in the following decade, with the U.S. Army having relaxed its outright ban on mustaches (except for soldiers serving in the cavalry regiments) in 1857. In military traditions on both sides of the Atlantic, full beards quickly gave way to mustaches as the mark of a whiskered warrior. Incredibly, while beards were banned from 1860 onwards, the British Army actually required all soldiers to grow mustaches until World War I; after that, they became associated with the higher ranks, especially in the Royal Air Force.

Even today, while U.S. Army regulations outlaw beards, mustaches are permitted as long as they “will not present a chopped off or bushy appearance, and no portion of the mustache will cover the upper lip line, extend sideways beyond a vertical line drawn upward from the corners of the mouth… or extend above a parallel line at the lowest portion of the nose.”

The Ultimate Mustache Grooming Guide

Mustache grooming made easy.

Mustache grooming can be tedious, since you’re working within the cramped space between your nose and top lip. There’s also an overwhelming number of mustache styles to choose from, which can make the very act of mustache grooming a bit convoluted.

But really, there’s one mustache style that can teach you the ins and outs of mustache grooming better than all the rest: The Chevron, famously worn by the likes of Tom Selleck and Freddy Mercury. Below, you’ll find a mustache grooming guide built around this mustache style, which will leave you with everything you need to know about how to shave a mustache.

Step #1: Trim your entire mustache using a pair of electric clippers set to the longest setting (or whatever your desired length is) — that way, your mustache hairs will be a single, uniform length.

Step #2: The edges of the mustache should extend just half an inch beyond the corners of your mouth — use a razor to shave any hairs growing further towards your cheeks.

Step #3: Finally, brush the mustache hairs upward using a small mustache comb and trim any stray hairs hanging over your upper lip using a pair of grooming scissors.

That’s it: The basis of mustache grooming. Achieving other mustache styles is simply a matter of leaving a little more hair there and a little less hair here. Take the classic handlebar mustache, for instance:

Step #1: Part your mustache hairs down the middle, then comb each side down and out.

Step #2: Use a small pair of grooming scissors to lightly trim any stray hairs — start towards the middle, cutting less and less hair length as you make your way to the edges of the mustache

Step #3: Apply a wax or a pomade to hold the hairs in place  once applied evenly throughout the mustache, twist the hairs together with your fingers, then curl the still-twisted hairs up and in.

Step #4: Lastly, and most importantly, eye the curls for evenness in the mirror. Make adjustments if necessary.

If the handlebar mustache is a little too hipster for you, the horseshoe mustache is another mustache style that can only be achieved if you have a basic understanding of mustache grooming:

Step #1: Use a pair of electric clippers to trim the entire mustache to your desired length (the #8 or #10 guard are good choices for this mustache style).

Step #2: Put the tip of your finger on the corner of your mouth, making a straight line down to your jaw, and use it as a guide for trimming the bars of hair with your electric clippers — just be careful not to cut your finger.

Step #3: Once the bars on each side of the mustache are even, eye them for your desired length. Make adjustments if necessary.

If you’re interested in other mustache styles — like the slick pencil mustache or the bushy walrus mustache — check out this advice on how to cultivate and care for various mustache styles. Alternatively, if you’re less interested in mustache grooming and more interested in starting anew, read up on the best way to shave that tricky patch of face smooth.

Now get out there, and keep your top lip warm (or bare that subtle skin) in style, bucko.



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