There was a time when the mustache was an emblem of rugged masculinity, required equipment for karate-chopping street punks in a back alley or outrunning the county sheriff with a tractor-trailer full of contraband booze. Mustache comeback.
But the prime-time appeal of that thin patch of hair went off the air in 1988 along with the last episode of “Magnum, P.I.” Now, fraternities force new members to grow mustaches as a form of humiliation. The most famous mustache in the world these days probably belongs to Saddam Hussein. Grow one, and you’ll be treated to the frightened stares and stinging ridicule of friends and co-workers.
Some middle-aged men still sport the ‘stache with the nonchalance of Errol Flynn mowing down rogue pirates with his sabre. But as a facial accessory among 18- to 35-year-old men, the mustache by itself is about as common as lipstick.
“When you come down to it, it just doesn’t look hip, modern, fashionable or good – and I think that’s a recipe for staying away from any facial hair style,” says Eric Malka, author of a book on shaving. Malka rarely sees mustachioed men of any age in his The Art of Shaving salons in New York, Miami and Las Vegas.
Two recent exercises in organized mustache-growing have served only to highlight how far out of favor it remains.
Mustaches for Kids – a six-year-old group of charities in about a dozen cities – trades on the social stigma of mustache-growing to raise money for children’s social services. Mustache-growers collect money for their sacrifice from sponsors.
And when a filmmaker recruited a couple dozen acquaintances last year for a documentary about reviving the grooming style, most of them found it difficult to keep the mustache for a month. A handful succumbed to the anti-mustache sentiment and shaved it off before the four weeks were up.
“I had to get down on my knees and beg for people to keep their mustaches at some points,” says documentarian Jay Della Valle, who premiered his “Glorius Mustache Challenge” last month in New York.
So how did the once-elegant mouth-mane become so reviled?
To find out, I phoned experts and talked whiskers with strangers on New York streets. But I soon realized that I, a fully bearded man, still had little to say about the plight of the mustachioed man. I felt it my duty to find out firsthand what makes the mustache such an unbearable burden to the faces of contemporary men.
I stood over the wash basin in my apartment, my mind flooded with snippets of Magnum P.I. episodes. As I lifted a razor to my lathered face, I imagined Tom Skerrit’s mustachioed Viper poignantly confiding in Maverick that his father had been a damn fine fighter pilot.
Like fashion trends, grooming styles come and go in cycles. By that logic, the mustache – unpopular for about 20 years – would seem primed for a comeback.
Experts say the mustache has been dying a slow death since its 1950s heyday on the faces of men like Flynn and Clark Gable. In the 1960s, its popularity was eroded by the full beard of the hippie; it was later supplanted by the 1970s sideburn; and it had all but disappeared by the 1990s when the goatee ascended to the top of the facial hair food chain. These days, just about any facial hairstyle will do – as long as it’s not the lone mustache.
Image experts offer various reasons as to why the mustache is still being denied its turn on the fashion merry-go-round. The most compelling of which is this: Hollywood has done its share to assassinate the character of the mustachioed man, allowing the strip of hair over the lip to become closely associated with the guy tying the damsel to the train track.
“We equate mustaches more with villains than heroes,” says Gordon Patzer, an expert on physical attractiveness and dean of the Walter E. Heller College of Business Administration at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
In rare cases when it’s the protagonist sporting the ‘stache, results are often damning. Recent examples have included “Anchorman,” in which Will Ferrell’s facial hair added to the ridiculousness of his character; and “The Aviator,” in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s mustache hogged the screen as he squinted and rubbed his hands until they bled. Meanwhile, no leading men this side of Jack Black are wearing a mustache offscreen.
Image consultant Judith Rasband says the mustache has been squeezed out of the spectrum of men’s style by competing trends. Currently, the most popular look for men is clean-shaven and youthful. Patzer points out that the mustache detracts from the full lips and clean white teeth that are modern symbols of beauty.
If men reject the clean-shaven look, they’re more likely to go for perpetual stubble or even a full beard. The mustache is too sculpted for those seeking the rugged look, Rasband says, and too distinctive and mature-looking for those wanting a more youthful style.
Once my beard had been shorn, I made sure no one would miss seeing my mustache by brushing in brown Just For Men hair dye. I was calm, lucid, but most of all frightened. Sure, my mustache had been there ever since I grew a full beard. But removing the rest of the whiskers felt a little bit like changing out of khakis and into a speedo in the middle of the workday.
As soon as I walked into the office, a fellow reporter’s eyes bugged out and he shouted, “Is this a joke? Do you need attention that badly?” Later, the editor who had assigned me this story remarked, “I can’t take you seriously with that mustache.”
The most common reaction among my acquaintances was a completely startled, mostly blank expression – the look of someone on the verge of choking on a chunk of carrot.
To gain a broader sense of what people – including strangers – thought of the mustache, I turned to a form of cutting edge, computer-aided empirical research – www.hotornot.com. There, I posted pictures of myself with and without the mustache, allowing random Web surfers as well as friends of mine and about a dozen co-workers to vote on which look they liked better. The clean-shaven me won out handily, with 95 people rating it a 6.1, on average; while 83 people gave the mustachioed me a 4.4 on average.
A buddy of mine who saw the pictures put it succinctly: “Dude – you look like a douchebag with the mustache … no offense.”
The reaction was similar when I headed to a bar on a recent night.
“It was great in it’s heyday, but it’s just not fashionable any more. Let it die,” says Michelle Volpe, 32, of New York. “Whenever you see a man with a mustache, it’s either a policeman or a pervert, and you’ve got to stay away.”
Moustache trimming tips
While it’s debatable whether I’m the latter, I’m certainly not the former, so the ‘stache had to go. Within a week, I had trimmed the whiskers down to the length of the short stubble that was sprouting over the rest of my face. Surprisingly, I didn’t immediately feel better. Instead, a somber feeling overtook me – similar to how I felt while watching Maverick chuck the dogtags of his mustachioed partner Goose into the Indian Ocean.
Surely somewhere, on someone’s home entertainment system, the wistful strains of Harold Faltermeyer’s “Top Gun Anthem” were playing.
Newly clean-shaven, asap writer Jonathan Drew is taking his recovery from the mustache one day at a time.